Why has the public turned its back on poetry? That’s easy to answer.
We no longer know whether poetry is fiction or non-fiction.
Bird-watching involves watching birds. Novels are elaborate stories. Songs are emotional outbursts from the heart. Biographies are real. Science books are factual. Poetry is…?
Poetry is unable to identify itself for a mass audience—that’s the problem in a nutshell.
The public’s lack of interest was made apparent to us again this week, as many bright, educated friends of ours told us they had never heard of Seamus Heaney.
The Modernists and experimentalists, by “opening up” the genre to anything and everything, have essentially made it disappear.
The wise understand that it’s impossible to be everything.
Everyone seems to understand this.
Except poets today.
Of course there’s a perverse handful (there always is) who love “poetry” precisely because of its ill-defined nature.
A certain ugly, noxious, personality thrives on the ill-defined—for obvious reasons.
There is a half-formed intellectual nature which associates all that is profound with a detailed vagueness; unable to perfect mental or material completion, they persist in championing the unformed as a poorly disguised way to validate their own shortcomings.
The final irony, of course, is how were the Modernist gnats, whom the public ignores, able to kill all poetry for the public? How was traditional, mainstream poetry killed by the ill-defined, if the ill-defined is nothing?
The answer, to put it simply, is that the Modernist gnats did not kill mainstream poetry, for Edna St. Vincent Millay was selling while Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams were not, well into the 20th century. In mid-20th century America, Frost was popular, Shakespeare everywhere, liberal arts colleges taught Keats and Shelley, high schools, Poe, Dickinson, and Milton, and songwriting was witty and intelligent.
But everyone knows that fine arts need to be cultivated; good taste doesn’t fall out of the sky. Secondly, anyone who lives in America knows what a powerful tool advertising is, and thirdly, poetry has no material value; its value lives in the minds and souls and sensibilities of those who read it and teach it and share it.
Simple neglect, then, has killed the public’s love of poetry; we err by giving Pound, Williams, and the Modernist gnats too much credit; logically, that which the public ignores cannot influence the public.
If we, as observers and critics of poetry, notice a decline in poetic interest, and attribute it to “Modern” poetry, we persist in a vast error, granting a power and an influence to that which has no power, and no influence, even as we rightly condemn “Modern” poetry as poor, faulty, and even pernicious. “The Red Wheel Barrow” had nothing to do with the loss of interest in “Paradise Lost.” The latter died from simple neglect; from simple lack of cultivation.
The fact of someone’s fiction is a fact. The museum is a fact, a reality, which holds art that is neither fact, nor reality. Art does not exist unless it is cultivated, presented, taught, and framed in fact. A university is a fact that curates and teaches poems. The publisher is the fact that dreams the fiction; the fiction will not dream otherwise. The fact of “The Red Wheel Barrow” has everything and nothing to do with the fact of “Paradise Lost.” “The Red Wheel Barrow” and “Paradise Lost” are both poems that may be converted into fact, and if so, one “poem” invariably belongs to “the present,” the other to “the past,” and this fact will ensure that poetry “in the present” no longer exists. “The Red Wheel Barrow” cannot kill poetry. A textbook can. Abstract painting cannot kill painting. A museum can.
A wheel barrow and a splatter of paint are facts, not fiction. Modern art streams away from fiction into fact—the fact of text book and museum its only home.
Facts depend on other facts; artistic unity is unheard of in the world of facts and science. Poe called his “Eureka” a poem only because he strove to make, by way of the universe, unity factual; unity of expression was the ultimate poetic fact for Poe.
The minute a Keats introduces fact into a poem, he is lost. To work up a fiction into a unity is the role of the poet, for Keats. The reader who selects Keats is selecting fiction—fiction doing what it does best, assuming that unity is not only possible, but vital. In his “long poems, Byron played (comically) with digression; inevitably violating unity, he laughed at himself, the convention of poetic unity a standard none could safely ignore.
Poetry was once fiction. And because it was fiction, artistic unity was paramount.
These two—poetry as strictly fictional and poetry as an expression of artistic unity—is chiefly what has fallen into neglect as Modernism invaded the vacuum, a big nothing filling a black hole: the great public yawn in poetry’s busy face.
The temptation of the fact has triumphed; witness America’s recent obsession with “trivia.”
Facts are important when it comes to roofs and sewer pipes, and obviously in non-fiction, but who thought it was a good thing for poetry?
Listening to the poet John Yau recently, we were struck by the purely autobiographical nature of the poetry; Yau told us about his mother and his father, etc It was charming—as factual conversations sometimes are. Facts are seductive.
The poet Marilyn Chin’s best known poem, “How I Got That Name,” informs us that she was named for Marilyn Monroe. This is factually interesting. Of course it is. We embrace with our literary bones the seductive fact.
Loose facts are seductive. But they never cohere into a poetic unity.
The Writing Workshop mantra, “Write what you know,” does not refer to what a writer “knows” philosophically or imaginatively, but simply what a writer knows factually about their own life. But the whole point of poetry and imaginative literature is not to express what is already subjectively known (and enhanced, perhaps, by clever research) but to learn what we can know in the imaginative writing act itself.
Interesting information, dressed up as literature, is not the same thing as what Keats, who never told us about his ma and pa in a poem, built with his imagination.