Surely the greatest obstacle facing the poet is the sad duality of sub-cultures of impotent sophisticates creeping beneath the loud behemoths of brain-dead entertainment.
This duality exists only because we all feel it to be true, and by “we,” I refer to the sub-cultures of impotent sophisticates who would be the only ones reading this now—but even you who read this, guiltily spend much of your time with ‘brain-dead entertainment;’ so the duality to which I refer is knowable in its entirety at once, not only by you, but by everyone who wakes in the dark with hopes and fears, after the loud behemoth of brain-dead entertainment has faded—and mouse, owl or the muttering of some human wretch left on the street, is all that is left to impress the quiet ear.
We feel this duality to be true, but it is really not. The entertainment industry is not “brain-dead” and the sub-cultures of poetry are not “sophisticated.” This is how we have been taught to perceive it.
But let’s take a hard look and examine the differences.
If morals are lacking in the entertainment industry, we can say the same of the sub-culture of sophisticates: Rimbaud and Ezra Pound are not known for their morals. One does not become an avant-garde artist because one has a pure heart.
But wait—if we leave morals out as a factor, doesn’t the whole truism of this duality: ‘stupid popular’ v. ‘smart sub-culture’ fall apart? For only in the realm of morals can one human activity be placed above another with any sort of sophisticated judgment.
The popular modes of entertainment are effective, not “stupid.”
The sub-culture of the avant-garde is isolated, not “smart.”
Art that has a wide appeal can be censored by sophisticates only if there is a moral issue; otherwise we are thrown back onto questions of individual taste. If wide appeal is said to lack intelligence, the mavens of the popular can always reply that it is not intelligent to be intelligent when one does not have to be intelligent, that is, if mere taste will do. And once we get into questions of taste, the avant-garde has nothing to say, for it is taste, more than anything which they have always abhorred.
And this doesn’t even take into account that it may take more sophistication or ‘smarts,’ to triumph in the popular arena. Even if the product itself may consist of smirks, naughty jokes, glitter, and oafish beats, the competition is greater, the public is fickle and demanding, and ancillary issues of lifestyle, production issues, and so forth require a certain amount of sophistication to succeed. How is a found poem or a stream-of-consciousness poem by an avant-garde poet more sophisticated than a popular song, anyway?—especially when the popular song is making an impact in the real world, and not merely in the mind of a avant theorist?
Another term of excuse the avant-garde sub-cultures use for not being popular is their lack “sentimentality,” but this, too, is a red herring, for popular modes of entertainment and literature—especially in our day—are far more likely to be crudely unsentimental (violent, sexually blatant, etc) than otherwise.
We are not now making the old argument that high and low culture are really the same, for this non-distinction is as blind as the present duality is wrong.
Another trope worth mentioning in which the avant-garde sub-culture attempts to distinguish itself from popular modes: liberalism. But again, the avant-garde is not necessarily more liberal than popular culture. The most obvious point is that popularity is naturally more democratic. And secondly, elitist sub-cultures of avant-garde artists have never, in practice, been more liberal than popular culture. The avant-garde poet Ron Silliman’s stubborn use of the label Quietism to bash all modes of popular poetry has never made any sense, until now. The code, here unlocked, is simple: Silliman’s ‘quietism” really refers to the “silent majority,” a political media term from the late 60s which referred to the conservative electorate in the U.S. Silliman, and most who occupy sub-cultural positions of the artistic avant-garde, wish to think of themselves as a progressive, underground, people’s army. But isolated elitism isn’t democratic, and the 20th avant-garde is not even close to being democratic, and, in fact, is mostly right-wing.
The reality is the very reverse of the perception, then. Popular modes of art are more sophisticated, more democratic, and less sentimental than the avant-garde.
Billy Collins is more sophisticated, more democratic, and less sentimental than Ezra Pound.
But where does Dame History come in?
Dame History steps in because the question of popular v. sophisticated is really true in only one sense: priority. The sophisticated—who are really sophisticated—know history, and thus know originality, which is the heart of true creativity and imagination.
But two things have conspired to murder Dame History: Modernism, which taught several generations of students that the modern era began in 1910 (it did not—it began with Shakespeare, or, at the very latest, in the 18th century) and the Creative Writing Era, the practical brain-child of Modernism, which replaced emphasis on historical study with “creative” writing.
We have found the Muse—and she is Dame History.