Victoria Station in Salem, MA, where the Slam Poetry evening of the Festival took place.
We could not resist the Saturday morning panel entitled “Amy Lowell and Robert Frost Started It,” and so we went.
“It” turned out to be the New England Poetry Club—formerly the Harvard Poetry Society.
The first panelist to speak was a lady director of that venerable club, who read “Patterns” by Amy Lowell, the poet’s most anthologized piece, with its anti-war ending. It’s a rather long poem, was not read particularly well, and most of us know this poem, anyway. But it was read. It is a good poem, and we enjoyed it. The lady director also felt compelled to read Pound’s awful “Metro” poem—which works neither as haiku, nor as whatever lame substitute it’s attempting to be. Accepting Pound’s wretched poem as some kind of significant marker begins the slippery slope in western poetry to inferiority masked as progress. Every time someone praises that piece, a skylark dies, another Keats is killed, a star somewhere goes out.
The New England Poetry Club lady dispersed a few facts: the president of Harvard was Amy Lowell’s brother, and thus the Harvard Poetry Society was born—as an Imagist club, since Imagism appealed to Amy Lowell, (as did Orientalism to all the idle rich in those days.) Lowell’s quarrel with Pound was skipped over, as was the contemporary haiku/orientalism rage which fed Imagism.
Fred Marchant, the second speaker, picked up on the anti-war theme and treated us to Conrad Aiken’s “Trenches: 1915,” an uncollected poem—too long—detailing the lengthy horrors of trench warfare. Aiken’s father shot his mother and then shot himself when Aiken was a boy, right outside the poor lad’s bedroom, and this tragedy was used as a centerpiece in Marchant’s presentation of Aiken’s poem—which, it turned out, was imagined, because Aiken never fought in WW I. Marchant rambled on about how Aiken knew T.S. Eliot; the Selective Service Act of 1917; yellow journalism—his presentation never came into focus. Aiken, with Frost and Lowell, had been a co-founder of the Club.
Next up on the panel was the jolly, side-burned, X. J. Kennedy, who is best known for light verse, and he was a breath of fresh air, dispensing with all attempts to present The New England Poetry Club in some solemn anti-war light. F.D. Reeve, (the father of the superman actor) who was Robert Frost’s translator on the latter’s trip to Moscow, was unfortunately unable to attend “They Started It” and Kennedy began by bemoaning this fact. Then he joked that on the 100th anniversary of both the Titanic sinking and Fenway Park, that the Red Sox (who had been losing) and the Titanic were “both at the bottom.” Kennedy reached for another anniversary: he had the New England Poetry Club officially at 97 years, but he figured it was about 100 years ago that the Club’s genesis began.
Kennedy’s focus was on Frost, who was “not a joiner,” but managed to be elected Vice-president of the Club in 1917 and President in 1919, without attending a meeting. Frost, Kennedy, said, was “anti-clique,” and had little patience for Pound and his cliques; Frost preferred to “get outside the clique and appeal to the ordinary reader.” A concept rather foreign to the pretentiousness of obscurantist modernist poetry. Pound’s so-called Imagism was just an obvious rip-off of another culture’s then popular-in-the-west-movement: haiku and orientalism, generally. Frost didn’t have to be part of some manufactured movement to make a name for himself.
X.J. Kennedy, just by his voice and demeanor, was clearly the literary lion in the room; one could tell he was no lackey imposter, no myopic scholar, that poetry burned in his soul—if by nothing else, one could tell by the perfect timing he used in his jokey anecdotes: apparently at a Frost reading, an angry woman, wanting Frost to be a true legislator of humanity, asked Frost whether he really cared about rhyme and spondees and trochees and the various techniques of verse. Frost looked at the woman for a moment and then said, gruffly: “I revel in it!”
X. J. Kennedy was his own thesis—whatever he uttered was interesting, whether it was exclaiming about a great rhyme in a poem (“suffice” at the end of Frost’s “Fire and Ice”), listing the “witty poets of New England: Dickinson, Updike, John Holmes…” or quoting the poet and Harvard fundraiser, David McCord, “By and by,/God caught his eye” (“The Waiter”). Kennedy joked that “The Waiter” was considered at times to be by ‘anonymous,’ the greatest tribute to a living poet.
When X.J. Kennedy tells anecdotes of some poet ‘not selling,’ it’s funny, not a tragedy. The true spirit of poetry lights up this gentleman.
The irony of this presentation, finally, as it relates to the New England Poetry Club, was the simple attempt to play the anti-war card by the first two presenters: the original Harvard Poetry Society sprang from Imagism; Pound and T.E. Hulme and Richard Aldington and Ford Madox Ford’s Imagism clique in England was anything but anti-war. Of course, these matters were well beyond the scope of the one-hour panel. Modernism is not examined anymore—it’s become a white-washed backdrop. We were just hoping for a little more insight from one of the few panels at the Poetry Festival which advertised some intellectual weight—and not just mindless cheerleading.
That night, at a local restaurant and bar, we caught the Slam Poetry presentation, and aside from the fact that poor acoustics made it impossible to hear some poets, we came away with the following observations;
1. As our 10 year old daughter remarked, “It sounds like comedy, not poetry.”
2. Slam poetry means every type of expression of bad taste and imaginative vulgarity is permissable: every metaphoric combination of nature, society, nerdiness, sex, and bodily function oozes forth from the egotistical show-off at the microphone, every rant and gripe, every filthy, adolescent boast, pours forth.
3. The occasional example of wit and elegance is drowned out by the general tastelessness of the Slam. The soul of poetry hasn’t got a chance.
As if American culture were not vulgar enough.
The irony here is that poetry, divine poetry, exists to elevate the soul above vulgarity and bad taste; Slam Poetry is not only not poetry, it’s anti-poetry. Slam Poetry hurts poetry; Slam Poetry is poetry whored out.
The Sunday afternoon Headline Reading featured Frank Bidart reading his long poem, “Ellen West,” which just happened to be his 2012 Scarriet March Madness Tournament entry. “Ellen West” is based on a case study of a woman with an eating disorder who kills herself. Bidart belongs to the academic scene, not the Slam, but it seems Slam taste rules academia more than many would like to admit. What happens to the practice of an art when the line between vulgar interest and art no longer exists?
Also on Sunday, in the atrium of the Peabody Essex museum, we caught a presentation called ”Bad Poetry Contest,” which was bad for many reasons, the chief being that so much bad poetry is called good these days that no one knows what “bad poetry” is anymore. The author who hosted this travesty spent a great deal of time reading from his own published book—of his own bad poetry; a bad poet to begin with, he is marketing his own rejects—which seems to us very telling.