Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Curse of Verse

Since the skies they are ashen and sober and the leaves they are crisped and sere (and it is night in the lonesome October of my most immemorial year), it is time to break out Edgar Allen Poe. If you don’t mind, though, I’ll pass on visiting the dank tarn of Auber, in the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir. I’m, of course, stealing from Ululume. I don’t revisit Eddie much these days, but Halloween time simply cries out for him. So, once per year anyway, I blow the dust off my 1967 edition of his essential stories and poems, open it up, and let the raven jump out to croak his favorite word.

In doing so once again, a tangential thought occurs. I can’t help wondering what has happened to make poetry so much less significant in the culture than it once was. Oh, there is a vast quantity of it being written. (For the record, my sister, not I, was the poet of the family.) Plenty of young writers know their anapests from their dactyls and have something to say. Their trouble is finding anyone to listen. Literature departments of universities still take (some) new verse seriously, but, outside of this isolated niche, contemporary poetry has little currency. Once upon a time, poets were rock stars. Tennyson, Eliot, Kipling, Coleridge, Browning, Whitman, and their like were famous in their own lifetimes not just in Academe but in the marketplace. Common folk knew who they were. W.B. Yeats was so lionized by the Irish in the 1920s that they made him a Senator despite that little pagan quirk. (How much luck would an announced pagan have running for the Senate in the 21st century USA?) The mystical philosophy of Aleister Crowley, Yeats’ competitor for control of The Order of the Golden Dawn, would not have received a tenth of the attention it did had he not been a recognized poet.

By the end of the 20th century all this had changed. The last time contemporary poetry has had a broad cultural (actually, countercultural) impact was the oft-parodied Beat era. Who was the last U.S. Poet Laureate selected by the Library of Congress whose name a majority of Americans would recognize? I’d venture it was Robert Frost, and that was half a century ago.

The current Poet Laureate, by the way, is Philip Levine. I think I’m being generous with the guess that maybe 5% of the adult American population is in any way aware of him, despite the fact that he is an 83-year-old master of the craft whose published collections have been critically acclaimed for decades.

On the (rare) occasions when I raise this subject in company, I’m sometimes told that modern poets have become songwriters – that the current poetic rock stars are, well, rock stars. I don’t buy it. The 19th century and early 20th century had popular music, too. While the best of it is very good indeed, it’s not quite the same thing. If it were, the lyrics should stand alone as literature, but by and large they don’t. Nor should they. They are intended for a related, but nonetheless different, purpose – though I’ll admit to blurring at the boundaries (some of Bob Dylan, for instance). Song lyrics with musical accompaniment target emotions in a much more immediate and primal way than literary poetry. In an early Tonight Show episode, Steve Allen brought this home in funny fashion by reading Be-Bop-a-Lula as poetry: .

What has changed in the modern era? I suspect it is that we have ways of expressing ourselves today that simply weren’t available a century or two ago, the movies for instance, and that these fill some of the same role poetry once did – after all, Scorsese, Kubrick, Tarantino, the Coen brothers, and so on are recognized by the public in the same way leading poets once were. Perhaps they do the job better, too, hard though that is for anyone of bookish bent to admit. Well, the old-fashioned versifiers still exist for those who prefer them, so there is little to bemoan in this – unless you happen to be someone trying to make a living from your poetry sales.

Actually, I have a few Halloween flicks lined up for my DVD player, but, just for now, I’ll rejoin Ed among those Bottomless vales and boundless floods, And chasms, and caves, and Titan woods, With forms that no man can discover For the tears that drip all over.

Philip Levine

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