I THINK I’M GOING OUT OF MY HEAD

I currently have two songs stuck in my head at once: We Didn’t Start The Fire by Billy Joel and Have You Seen Her? by the Chi-Lites.

“We didn’t start the fire, it was always burning since the world’s been turning” goes immediately into “why oh why, did she have to leave and go away?”  Over and over again.  Someone please help me.

These two songs are joined at the hip in my brain.  I can’t dislodge them.  Even listening to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier last night did nothing to help.

The Joel song, which I dislike, entered my brain first.  I was driving my son to school and from the car radio I heard the first strains of the song (which I hate) and announced, “Oh my God, this is We Didn’t Start the Fire…I hate this song…”  and with impish glee the boy, who has been diagnosed with ADHD but strangely misses nothing around him, quickly said, “No, no, don’t turn it…”  By the time I found myself explaining to him some of the history references in the song, it was too late: Song You Hate Stuck In Your Head had happened.

I don’t know where the Chi-Lites song came from.  I can’t remember the last time I heard it.  A day after the Billy Joel song became a fixture in my auditory cortex the falsetto phrase from Have You Seen Her?, “why oh why, did she have to leave and go away?” inserted itself right after “we didn’t start the fire, it was always burning since the world’s been turning” and so has it remained in my frontal lobe loop: “We didn’t start the fire, it was always burning since the world’s been turning…why oh why, did she have to leave and go away?”

Imagine my pain and torture.  Not only are two songs in my head, one of which I hate, the other—which I only like a little, but is nothing like the first, and which grows bizarrely from the one I dislike—but I am beset with figuring out why the second song attached itself to the first.   Was it some failed attempt to escape the Joel song by another?  Are the two songs related in some intricately musical manner that escapes me?  Are the lyrics of the second song trying to say something to the first?  Did I once, on some day long since forgotten, hear both songs in sequence?

There is something post-modern about this kind of suffering, but it perhaps also represents a challenge to all composers and poets: the writer’s block which afflicts us is not a blank page—the blank page would be a welcome state of things—the affliction comes in the form of a page already full of experiences, a brain full of words, words, words and tunes, tunes, tunes, a fecundity overwhelming all originality.

Or, is the clutter a gift, the very stuff of creativity?  Looking through others’ trash is a boon to the imagination, is it not?

But how in the world can trash stuck in your head allow anything worthy to emerge?

How often do we meet very skilled and talented people who can play and recall and recite all sorts of information, but find it utterly impossible to create something new themselves?

Is there a faculty, a capacity, a knack, to resist data, to not remember things, and is this faculty or knack a crucial component of creativity?

Is there a faculty or a knack some of us possess to escape the pit of catchy music, the pendulum of knowing and clever pedantry?

Is knowledge the escape from knowledge?

Is imagination the escape from the imagined?

Is seeing the escape from the seen?

IS THERE PROGRESS IN POETRY?

Well, how do we measure this progress?  

Few believe in absolute progress.  Material progress exists, even in our scientific age, only for some, and moral progress, or increase in global happiness, is impossible to calculate.

Since poetry belongs to moral, but not material progress, it seems safe to say that progress in poetry cannot be affirmed at all.

There has been much talk, however, of modern poetry’s progress in terms of both its expressiveness and its detached scientific ability—to investigate the wider world and language itself.  Story and sermon fitted to rhyme has given way, it is said, to a deeper and more nuanced universe.

It is not the place here to dispute these ubiquitous claims, but it should be pointed out that even if these claims are not openly called “progress,” the rhetoric certainly participates in this idea; but if the progress of poetry is not real, what of this rhetoric?

Something has to give. 

Has poetry improved, or not?

Is there any scientific evidence that poetry qua poetry is responsible for scientific progress?  No.  Let’s not kid ourselves.  Beyond a certain beauty and harmony we get from a composer like Bach or a poet like Keats, the virtue of poetry operates immediately, with no mediation of any kind.

Let’s look briefly at the other arts.  In purely objective terms, has sculpture, music, painting, or the drama, as artistic, expressive modes, improved?  Anyone familiar with the riches of ancient, middle ages, renaissance, baroque or romantic art can answer ‘no’ without hesitation.  Any person answering ‘yes’ is prejudiced towards his own time.

However, can certain kinds of expressiveness improve?  Here, without pause, the answer is ‘yes.’  Progress in specific areas of art is possible.

There are perhaps pinnacles.  Music has not progressed in any qualitative manner since Bach, sculpture since the first century Rome, or possibly Michelangelo.   Painting?  New styles have emerged, but can painting be said to have improved since the renaissance?  No.  Has Shakespeare in the drama been eclipsed?  No.

When art does improve, the chief reason is technological improvements in the means of producing the art, with underlying cultural changes also a factor.

The thing about poetry, however, is that there is no technology to improve. 

We may as well admit that of all the arts, poetry is the least likely to improve,  it is the art form which has improved the least, and that a very strong argument could be made that in over two thousand years, it has not progressed at all.

THE DAY THE MUSIC DIED

Joan Shelley Rubin, author of Songs of Ourselves: The Uses of Poetry in America, said the 1920s belonged as much to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as it did to Thomas Stearns Eliot—and this is true.

The anti-Victorian, Imagism revolution of Bloomsbury, which gradually changed poetry from an art of song to an art of image through the ‘trickle-down’ effort of its elites, gained the overwhelming momentum of  great numbers when its ‘trickle-down’ effort became  normalized and taught in the academy–both in English departments and Creative Writing Workshops–during the second half of the 20th century.

Are there any prominent musicians who bother to set contemporary poetry to music?

The image in poetry became associated with art, while the music of poetry became associated with vulgarity.

Two brief examples, from last century, will suffice:

First: these lines from J.V. Cunningham, the anti-modernist poet, who is largely forgotten:

How time reverses
The proud in heart!
I now make verses
Who aimed at art.

Second:  Bloomsbury author Aldous Huxley’s infamous slam against Poe’s verse as “vulgar.”  The prim Englishman’s distaste for musical Poe was quoted approvingly in Brooks & Penn Warren’s well-placed textbook, Understanding Poetry (first edition, 1938) which also solidified the reputations of Imagist classics, ‘At A Station In the Metro’ (Pound) and ‘The Red Wheel Barrow’ (Williams) in its unalloyed praise for these two works.

Could poetry change radically today?  And, if it did, would the public even notice?    The answer to both quesitons is, ‘no,’ and the reason the first answer is ‘no,’ is because the second answer is ‘no.’

How did poetry change so radically in the early part of the 20th century?

First, it did have a public, but not a particularly large or enthusiastic one, and secondly, poetry was understood by the public to have a certain definite identity: it looked like work by Longfellow and Tennyson.

An art whose practioners are disunited, who have no common expertise, will not be seen as an art at all.  Poetry had a common expertise: the ability to compose memorable music with mere words, like Longfellow and Tennsyon.

“Verse is not easy,” Cunningham wrote.    But the skill of verse is no longer a part of poetry; poetry no longer has a specific “skill.”

The Imagists never got beyond a very minor, little magazine existence, but they believed what they were offering would be very popular, like a portable camera; now you can just point and shoot!  Anyone can appreciate images–and put them into simple poems–like haiku.  Poetry for democracy!  Poetry that was selfless and natural!  It will be a phenomenon!  But the public didn’t buy it–they still wanted their Tennyson and their Longfellow with their gadgets and their telephones and their cars.  Imagism, like Futurism, Cubism and 12-Tone Music, failed to inspire anyone except the core of elites who were pushing them.  Imagism was a flop.

Or, was it?

People ‘on the street’ today define poetry as vaguely expressive, and the public’s perception of something, we have learned, should not be underestimated.  ‘Vaguely’ is the chief term here.  No longer does the public think of poetry as Longfellow.  They think of it as vaguely expressive.

100 years ago the American public had a more sharply defined view of poetry.  It was like what those fellows, Mr. Alfred Lord Tennyson and Mr. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, wrote.  That was what poetry was.

The zen joke of ‘The Red Wheel Barrow’ and ‘The women come and go/talking of Michelangelo’ resonated once, but these jokes are no longer funny.  But Longfellow is gone, too.

Image truly belongs to other arts: painting, photography, and film;  further, these arts do not need to look to poetry at all as they wrestle with the image.

Song belongs to songwriters, and songwriters, the good ones, are poets, but they are known to the world as songwriters; poetry’s identity carries on in the sister art of songwriting, and unlike the filmmakers, photographers and painters, songwriters do consult poetry, not contemporary poetry, but old poetry, the art, for inspiration.

Since poetry has given up song for image as its current identity, poetry manifests no contemporary attachment with any other art.  No glory belongs to poetry, or is even reflected back on poetry.  Poetry is in the dark.

Poetry, with no public identity, is stuck: it has nowhere to go.

History affords countless examples of  technical changes which have improved music’s expressive qualities as a whole even as music, the art, remains, in its simplicity, recongizable to everyone.   When the piano replaced the harpsichord, all composers took notice, not just some.

The modernist revolution changed poetry so that everyone took notice,  but unfortunately in a way that made poetry no longer recognizable to everyone.  Nor is it easy to say if expressive qualities have increased–certainly not in the public’s perception.  As far as prose and how it perhaps opens things up, the problem poetry has, is that in prose, one would naturally think poetry could express itself with greater variety, but fiction owns prose, and poetry is expected to do something different than fiction; poetry as art has been developed in different ways than prose.   Yes, poetry should be as good as good prose, and all that, but how does poetry keep from disappearing into it?  And so poetry–sans the music that separates it from prose, as the art which the public knows as poetry–has been at sea for 100 years.

T.S. Eliot, an honorary Bloomsbury member, and the most respected critic of the 20th century, recommended minor poetry 300 years old as superior to major poetry composed  250, 200, 150, 100, and 50 years before his day.  This, in some ways, was counter to the whole modernist revolution.  John Donne?  Andrew Marvell?  Henry King, Bishop of Chichester?  What was Eliot thinking?  Eliot was thinking this: If my friends and I are to effect this modernist revolution of ours, we must not seem like mere brick-throwers; we need erudition, scholarship, appreciation of certain aspects of the past, and if we are to become professors and editors of modernist verse, it will be well to be able to make the past our clay, for revolutions must feed off the past; no revolution lives in the present day; Eliot knew he and Pound were not Bach, the master, at the keyboard, re-inventing music itself; he knew they were merely sullying a grand tradition with a little sleight-of-hand: Goodbye, Milton, Shelley, Poe, Shakespeare, Keats.  Hello, Kyd, King, Corbiere.  Eliot knew that when a revolution happens, the past will not disappear; a certain respect for the past must not only be feigned, but enthusiastically pursued, for every manifesto needs food; actual ‘new’ material (Waste Lands, cantos, wheel barrow haiku,) will run out in a week, so the past has to be transformed.  Every revolution needs a professor; Mary Ann and Ginger alone will not do.

The image is free-standing and pre-verbal; it is not necessary for image to fit, or be coherent–it simply is. Why should such a thing be the essence of poetry?  Ask that Bloomsbury elite.  After a snort and a sigh and a sip of their very expensive wine, they will tell you.

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