Monday, June 23, 2008

The Public Irrelevance of Modern Poetry

I extend again my apologies for another extended absence. I’m into my second week of a new job as an editor. The past month has been fairly whirlwind what with getting canned, getting a new job, going to weddings, etc., etc.

Having said that, I’ve absorbed a lot of what I was reading last month. It’s a good start but not wholly O.T. What sticks in my craw, however, is a passage I’d read before (from Wally Benjy):

“The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition. This tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable. An ancient statue of Venus, for example, stood in a different traditional context with the Greeks, who made it an object of veneration, than with the clerics of the Middle Ages, who viewed it as an ominous idol. Both of them, however, were equally confronted with its uniqueness, that is, its aura. Originally the contextual integration of art in tradition found its expression in the cult. We know that the earliest art works originated in the service of a ritual – first the magical, then the religious kind. It is significant that the existence of the work of art with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual function. In other words, the unique value of the “authentic” work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value. This ritualistic basis, however remote, is still recognizable as secularized ritual even in the most profane forms of the cult of beauty. The secular cult of beauty, developed during the Renaissance and prevailing for three centuries, clearly showed that ritualistic basis in its decline and the first deep crisis which befell it. With the advent of the first truly revolutionary means of reproduction, photography, simultaneously with the rise of socialism, art sensed the approaching crisis which has become evident a century later. At the time, art reacted with the doctrine of l’art pour l’art, that is, with a theology of art. This gave rise to what might be called a negative theology in the form of the idea of “pure” art, which not only denied any social function of art but also any categorizing by subject matter.”

There you go. To paraphrase Mr. Benjamin (sans Marxist syntax [and please remember that I’m speaking of primarily American/Australian/British/Canadian {AABC} poetry – a lot of other English traditions are doing quite well {not to mention poetry in other languages}]): modern poetry has abandoned the social function of poetry. Modern poetry has done this by abandoning classification in both content and form.

That is, as modern poetry (private poetry) has developed in complexity, obfuscation, and tatonnment it has become impossible to classify (indeed, how often have you asked yourself “is this even poetry?”). As humans are dependent upon our ability to put things in order, this de-classification of poetry alienates it from the mass of humanity.

(To be peremptory), it doesn’t matter if poets feel their work should or does have “social function.” The fact that it obscures itself by the very nature of its nondescriptness makes any content or purpose irrelevant in the public sphere.

That’s controversial enough for now. More soon.


Matthew J Peterson said...

Maybe poets then should categorize their work, sort of tell the reader what it is for before they begin, just like how if you're at a funeral, you know it is a sad event. If you're at a thriller, you know you need to be scared. With much poetry, I suppose the reader is absolutely lost. Maybe poets could suggest reactions to readers of their work instead of letting them figure out the eccentricities of the author like a puzzle. Finding the meaning of life from what appears like gibberish is a difficult and uninspiring task.

Thanks for your post that I stumbled upon! It helps me somehow.

G. M. Palmer said...

Matthew --

The problem is not that the readers ought to know beforehand -- but they should have the hang of it at least by the first few lines of the poem. So often, however, they do feel "absolutely lost" by the time they get through whatever opening the poem may have.

While categorizing the poem "this is a poem about sadness. . . and trees" is a pretty silly idea, poets should keep in mind that poetry's main purpose is to communicate -- either the idea of a thing (a lyric poem) or a story (a narrative poem). So much of Modern AABC poetry is either "this is how I feel" or "this my is experiment; language" -- both of which are utter uselessness.

Those two types of poems are to Poetry as sketches are to Painting. Interesting (and possibly useful) for beginners but pointless for anyone trying to further, promote, and distribute the art.