WHAT IS POETIC VALUE?

The poet Bill Knott made 24th place on Scarriet’s latest Hot 100 List, read by poets everywhere.

Bill Knott quickly came on Scarriet making comments disparaging the worth of his own poetry; Mr. Knott claimed to be the only poet on Scarriet’s Hot 100 who was not a “legitimate” poet, since Knott makes all his poems available on-line for no charge, he has no recent book publications, and he’s not up for any prizes or awards.

Knott has published books and has been picked up by anthologies, so perhaps he was being histrionic and self-pitying.

But another commenter—a reader calling themselves Van Giggles—immediately rebuked Knott, the poet, on Scarriet, sincerely it seemed, for his very practice of giving away his poems for free, claiming the practice was lowering Knott’s reputation, continuing a “market stereotype” that poems are essentially worthless, and thus robbing poets everywhere of their labor.

Bill Knott has a brilliant and original mind, and if I were his friend, I would pick his brain all the time, looking for insights from him personally, much more than I would read his poems.

His poems are knotty, complex, obscure, just as his mind is, and his mind makes good poems up to a point, the obscurity sometimes mystifying to advantage, but often not.

The well-worn saying that poetry is “news that stays news” is not correct, because poetry is not news.  Journalism is transparent; it presents facts of immediate interest, i.e., news.  The poem is not a poem as much as it is news; the poem is intentionally opaque, dense, clotted, sensual and watery, arousing keen feelings and hinting at truths that live apart from “news.”

This is not to say that “news” does not play a major role in forming poetic reputation: it does.

This might be a good moment to point out that reputation is the coin of poetic worth, not money; for if there is money involved, money always trails after reputation, and reputation is the end-in-itself, that “sweet fame” which is the siren to every poet.

When reform-minded New England writers, such as Waldo Emerson, beat a path to the door of the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth, they did so because Wordsworth was “news.”  Wordsworth’s reputation was built on tender and sensitive adoration of the rural poor (combined with a deep appreciation of nature) and Wordsworth’s reputation, informed by Wordsworth’s skill as a versifier, belonged to something much greater than Wordsworth: it was nothing less than a great moment in history when the idea of material progress was radically questioned; it was news, very big news, (Wordsworth may have been the first environmentalist) and it’s why Wordsworth is one of the rare poets who inspired lengthy pilgrimages.

But again, “news” hinders poetry and is nearly always better communicated in other mediums: the newspaper, the essay, etc.   Since “news” is always popular, it will often mingle with poetry and give the poetry renown for that reason, but “news” which happens to reside in poems is parasitic.   The “news” that piggy-backs on a poem (one thinks of Yeats’ “Easter, 1916,” for instance) fools us into thinking the “poem” is enhanced by “news;” but this is but a trick of perception.   The poem has weight because it refers to an important historic event in the past—but this weight belongs to the parasitic “news” and not the poem.  “A terrible beauty is born” could be a hackneyed phrase; but it’s impossible for us to say, for aesthetic judgement is suspended—as we fall into a groveling respect for the historical event.

Another poet who managed to attain the kind of newsworthy reputation which impelled a great deal of visitation was Ezra Pound, when he was confined to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the criminally insane—after he was captured in Italy for treason at the end of WW II.  If Wordsworth was a mecca because he was newsworthy in a vast, deeply emerging, moral kind of way, Pound was attractive because he represented newsworthiness in itself; Pound participated even less in the poetic and much more in the news:—as someone in the news himself and as a Modernist poet bent on turning poetry into news.

Does history age, like a person?  We feel it does.  We will never see a Wordsworth’s sort of fame again, or a Pound’s.  These were unique,  “newsy” times.  Until a flood wipes out the memory of Wordsworth in the English speaking world, a poet will not enjoy the kind of fame he did for being part of something so vast, important and new.

The truly poetic aspires to one thing and one thing, only: to cultivate an admiration for the truly beautiful and the truly good.  Plato understood this, and this is why he explicitly allowed poems of praise in his Republic.  Shelley, Romantic poet and follower of Plato (Shelley translated Plato’s Symposium) understood this principle too, when he said (in his “Defense of Poetry”) that love is the secret of morals, for when you truly love someone, you identify with them, and this identification with another is the virtue that unites imagination, poetry, morality and love.  The greatest poems of Shelley (he did write some newsy poems, attacking George III, etc) do not partake of “news;” works like “Ode to the West Wind,” “Adonais,” and “Prometheus Unbound,” are masterpieces of purely moral, imaginative beauty.

Van Giggles, in more commentary on Scarriet, said he had no interest in Shelley, and dismissed him as “just another wealthy person” who didn’t have to work.

We have a feeling that Van Giggles, who doesn’t read Shelley, is probably a fan of the Fragment/Gizmo School of Poetry spawned by Ezra Pound and his friend, William Carlos Williams. The “pound-of-flesh” sensibility that demands money for poems has that Modernist taint which surely informs Van Giggles poetic taste.

Poets like Shelley do not fit into the monetary scheme of our friend, Van Giggles, who continues to insist (on Scarriet) that poets should never give away their work for free.

Here’s the scenario.  Shelley, independently wealthy, instead of drinking himself to death, or idling away his life in madness, writes (heroically) one of the greatest poems in the English language.  But he does not sell it.  There is nothing “newsy” about it.  Friends read Shelley, praise him, and gradually, over generations, Shelley becomes a famous poet.

What can Van Giggles say?  In his crassly monetary argument, Van Giggles would have Shakespeare demand payment for the Sonnets that he passed around to his friends—which would not only be silly and vain, but rude.

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