WHAT WILL IT TAKE TO MAKE POETRY POPULAR AGAIN?

For T.S. Eliot,”art and life are absolutely severed from each other” —Yvor Winters

All poets want to be read, and the experience of the poet is like the experience of others—so why don’t poets use poetry to attract readers?

There are poets—like the Dickman twins—who actively strive to be popular; but these poets do so by sharing poignant experiences of their own lives in their poems, which is not the same thing as making poems which are popular as poems This is the challenge.

Does poetry have a distinct advantage over prose?  It does, as Yvor Winters (1900-1968) lays out somewhat scientifically:

Before attempting to elucidate or to criticize a poetry so difficult and evasive as that of the best moderns, it would appear wise to summarize…those qualities for which one looks in a poem. We may say that a poem in the first place should offer us new perceptions…it should add to what we have already seen. This is the elementary function for the reader.  The corresponding function for the poet is a sharpening and training of his sensibilities; the very exigencies of the medium as he employs it in the act of perception should force him to the discovery of values which he never would have found without the convening of all the conditions of that particular act, conditions one or more of which will be the necessity of solving some particular difficulty such as the location of a rhyme or the perfection of a cadence without disturbance to the remainder of the poem.  The poet who suffers from such difficulties instead of profiting by them is only in a rather rough sense a poet at all.

If, however, the difficulties of versification are a stimulant merely to the poet, the reader may argue that he finds them a hindrance to himself and that he prefers some writer of prose who appears to offer him as much with less trouble to all concerned.  The answer to such a reader is that the appearance of equal richness in the writer of prose is necessarily deceptive.

For language is a kind of abstraction, even at its most concrete; such a word as “cat,” for instance, is generic and not particular. Such a word becomes particular only in so far as it gets into some kind of experiential complex, which qualifies it and limits it, which gives it, in short, a local habitation as well as a name. Such a complex is the poetic line or other unit, which, in turn, should be functioning part of the larger complex, or poem.  This is, I imagine, what Mallarme’ should have had in mind when he demanded that the poetic line be a new word, not found in any dictionary, and partaking of the nature of incantation (that is, having the power to materialize, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, being, a new experience).

The poem, to be perfect, should likewise be a new word in the same sense, a word of which the line, as we have defined it, is merely a syllable. Such a word is, of course, composed of much more than the sum of its words (as one normally uses the term) and its syntax.  It is composed of an almost fluid complex, if the adjective and the noun are not too nearly contradictory, of relationships between words (in the normal sense of the term), a relationship involving rational content, cadences, rhymes, juxtapositions, literary and other connotations, inversions, and so on, almost indefinitely.  These relationships, it should be obvious, extend the poet’s vocabulary incalculably. The partake of the fluidity and unpredictability of experience and so provide a means of treating experience with precision and freedom. If the poet does not wish, as actually, he seldom does, to reproduce a given experience with approximate exactitude, he can employ the experience as a basis for a new experience that will be just as real, in the sense of being particular, and perhaps more valuable.

Now verse is more valuable than prose in this process for the simple reasons that its rhythms are faster and more highly organized than are those of prose, and so lend themselves to a greater complexity and compression of relationship, and that the intensity of this convention renders possible a greater intensity of other desirable conventions, such as poetic language and devices of rhetoric. The writer of prose must substitute bulk for this kind of intensity; he must define his experience ordinarily by giving all of its past history, the narrative logic leading up to it, whereas the experiential relations given in a good lyric poem, though particular in themselves, are applicable without alteration to a good many past histories. In this sense, the lyric is general as well as particular; in fact, this quality of transferable or generalized experience might be regarded as the defining quality of lyrical poetry.

Winters makes the case as most professors of poetry would, in the manner of Aristotle: a lyric poem is “faster,” has a more concentrated “intensity,” and requires less “bulk” than prose narrative.  Most readers think prose is “less trouble” than poetry, but according to Winters, these readers are mistaken—lyric poems serve up more excitement per ounce.  This logic does seem to be inescapable, even as the poet sadly witnesses the greater selling power of fiction over poetry.

But let’s examine Winters’ “logic” a little more closely.

If readers, as Winters points out, appreciate experiences rendered concisely, this might be why prose narrative is more popular than lyric poetry; in a typical novel, there is far more opportunity for the writer to do this; in fact, much of a novel is nothing more than a series of experiences rendered concisely, with more details tossed in when needed—but with the lyric poem, since the experience of a lyric poem is the lyric poem itself (which Winters, by way of Mallarme, is so eager to point out) concision as an observable virtue is mostly absent from a reader’s experience of a lyric poem.  Paradoxically, the novel allows greater room for the reader to experience all the virtues which exist—but only theoretically—in the concise and complex nature of the lyric poem!

In The Philosophy of Composition, Poe takes an even more direct and practical approach to the poem as a potentially popular article.

Before showing, step by step, how he wrote “The Raven,” he  remarks that, “every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its denouement before any thing be attempted with the pen,” and continues, famously:

There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story. Either history affords a thesis—or one is suggested by an incident of the day—or, at best, the author sets himself to work in the combination of striking events…I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect.

Winters has met his match, for the keen elaboration of an Aristotle and his that, has been trumped by the promethean, counter-intuitive Poe with his Platonic thus.

Poe quickly dismisses the world at large:

Let us dismiss, as irrelevant to the poem, per se, the circumstance—or say the necessity–which, in the first place, gave rise to the intention of composing a poem that should suit at once the popular and the critical taste.  We commence, then, with this intention.

Poe, in a radical move, considers “a poem that should suit at once the popular and the critical taste” as a purely abstract idea.   I maintain that it is this very consideration which will enable poets to become popular.  Appealing only to the critical taste, or only to the popular taste will not do.

Poe’s essay turns not on this idea: “Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem,” (which for some, proves Poe too narrow in his approach) but on this one: “When, indeed, men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect.”

Winters offers the normal take on Poe’s position, in his brilliant foreward to Primitivism and Decadence, in which Winters classifies literature under three headings: the didactic, the hedonistic, and the romantic:

The second form of hedonistic theory tends to dissociate the artistic experience sharply from all other experience. T.S. Eliot, for example, tells us that the human experience about which the poem appears to be written has been transmuted in the aesthetic process into something new which is different in kind from all other experience. The poem is not then, as it superficially appears, a statement about a human experience, but is a thing in itself. The beginnings of this notion are to be found in Poe and are developed further by the French Symbolists, notably by Mallarme. The aim of the poem so conceived is again pleasure, pleasure conceived as intensity of emotion; but the emotion is of an absolutely special sort. Some such notion of the artistic experience is the essential concept of Santayana’s aesthetics; in fact, it is essential to almost any treatment of “aesthetics” as a branch of philosophy, and one will find it everywhere in the work of the academic aestheticism of the past half-century. The natrue of the “aesthetic” experience as conceived in these terms has never been clearly defined; we commonly meet here a kind of pseudo-mysticism. The chief advantage of this kind of hedonism over the Paterian variety is that one can adhere to it without adhering to a doctrine of ethical hedonism, for art and life are absolutely severed from each other. Eliot, for example, considers himself a Christian. The chief disadvantage is that it renders intelligible discussion of art impossible, and it relegates art to the position of an esoteric indulgence, possibly though not certainly harmless, but hardly of sufficient importance to merit a high position among other human activities. Art, however, has always been accorded a high position, and a true theory of art should be able to account for this fact.

It’s a pity Winters is no longer read, for who has ever put it so well, or is able to lay things out so clearly?  The duller critics have long since buried the fact that not only the French, but Eliot himself, in all his aesthetic glory, comes directly from Poe—even Eliot himself attempted to distance himself from his predecssor by abusing Poe in From Poe to Valery. (1949)  Eliot’s attack was mean-spirited and superficial, and it came right after Eliot won the Nobel and he surely felt for a moment he was lord of all he surveyed, and needed to separate himself from a man who was neither sufficiently English, nor sufficeintly Christian, nor sufficently modern.

Winters, in this same little essay, adds three general notions of human nature, detirminism, relativism, and absolutism, and, with a certain amount of heady nuance, matches them with the aesthetic categories:

The Romantic is almost inescapably a relativist, for if all men follow their impulses there will be a wide disparity of judgments and of actions and the fact enforces a recognition. The Emersonian formula is the perfect one: that is right for me which is after my constitution; that is right for you which is after yours; the common divinity will guide each of us in the way which is best for him. The hedonist is usually a relativist and should logically be one, but there is often an illicit and veiled recognition of absolutism in his attempts to classify the various pleasures as more or less valuable, not for himself alone but in general. The defender of the didactic view of literature has been traditionally an absolutist, but he is not invariably so: didacticism is a method, and when one sees literature only as didacticism one sees it as a method, and the method may be used, as Emerson used it, to disseminate relativistic doctrine.

Winters has happily shown, better than Harold Bloom, why Emerson and Poe really are the two opposites of American literature: if Emerson used a didactic method to disseminate relativistic doctrine, Poe used a hedonistic method to disseminate an absolutist one.

What tends to happen, of course, with all these classifications, is that they bleed into each other: the idea, for instance, that Poe, or Eliot severed art from reality isn’t really true—Poe’s aesthetic narrowness is fashioned by his view of reality, whereas the modernist’s love affair with “the thing” is fashioned by their view of language; it finally comes down to Poe’s hidden effect of reality versus the modernist’s overt and uninhibited use of language.

But classification is a good place to begin.  I recently argued with Curtis Faville on the question of rhyme, and I could easily point out to him that rhyme falls under the category of  juxtaposition, which includes metaphor. 

But in spite of this simple act of classifying that shows itself to be so powerful, such that it immediately wins the day for me over Faville, it is important that we should always use this type of reasoning with caution.  Beauty, has Poe points out, is not a quality, but an effect.   To be satisfied with merely placing qualities into categories can lead to all kinds of error.  Winters’ actual powers of composition and his actual taste in poetry was abominable, despite the fact that Winters could classify better than anyone.

Let this be a lesson to us.

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5 Comments

  1. Bill said,

    August 3, 2011 at 10:30 pm

    Delightful essay. I Iook forward to further dialog between you and Winters.

    Additional reasons poetry is unpopular, even if Winters is right about what it is, are, first, that tired, stressed people don’t want to have to pay the close attention required to take in the subtleties of poetic language. Cf. the relative popularity of slots and table games in casinos. The repeated, cumulative realistic incidents that compose prose fiction do not require close attention to achieve the desired anaesthetic effect. Second, the effort to compare the universals of poetry to the particulars of the reader’s experience is not welcome.

    • Bill said,

      August 3, 2011 at 10:43 pm

      So poets should look around and see if there is anything people want that they can provide. For starters: people like to read about things that interest them. Thus there are potential niche markets around every popular topic, you name it. Poets should not expect the market to be subsidized by indoctrination of some segment of the population to believe that poetry is a necessary adornment of civilized life, however dull.

    • thomasbrady said,

      August 4, 2011 at 5:41 pm

      Bill,

      Yes. I always hear it said that “stressed people can’t pay close attention to take in the subtleties of poetic langauge” and I’m not buying it, for it strikes me as merely an excuse cooked up by a dull poet. Shakespeare is difficult, yet popular with modern Americans— works of difficult prose fiction are greedily consumed, taking up hours and hours of time, millions of people use their free time to do difficult, challenging, activiites, whether it’s doing crossword puzzles or climbing mountains…the poet has simply not constructed something which is interesting…if something is merely ‘difficult’ or ‘subtle,’ but has no pay-off, why should anyone bother? The evidence is overwhelming: it’s not ‘people who are stressed’ or ‘people who have no interest in challenges or subtlety’ who are at fault. How long are we going to keep allowing the excuse of a dull poet to drive this conversation?

      To truly aid the poet, we need to be more honest about the whole situation.

      Tom

  2. Bill said,

    August 4, 2011 at 10:52 pm

    I see your point — but is mountain-climbing any more popular than poetry? My next entry addresses your argument. Poets should write about what people like to read about. Writing about yourself is not a good start.

  3. November 23, 2011 at 11:03 am

    Links to a poem by Henry Reed,
    Called “Chard Whitlow” —
    A fine parody of T.S. Eliot
    (At least I think so).

    http://www.solearabiantree.net/namingofparts/chardwhitlow.html


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