Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Heir Conditioning - Part II

Adam Kirsch
     Adam Kirsch, writing in "The New Republic", brings us a slightly different view of Jeremy Paxman's comments after judging the Forward Prize.  As with Martin Newell's remarks, addressed in Part I of this series, Kirsch started off well but became unglued halfway through:

    "The real problem with Paxman’s comments lies in their incoherence:  He is complaining about two different things as if they were the same thing. On the one hand, he urges poets to open up, to write for the general public, to be more accessible; on the other hand, he wants poetry to be better, to be more interesting and captivating."

     Speaking for myself, I had no problem understanding Paxman's comments or the distinctions he was making between two separate subjects.  Off to a slow start, Kirsch accelerates the derailment:

Jeremy Paxman
    "Both are understandable demands, but it’s important to recognize that they contradict one another."

     No, they don't.

    "The best poetry is not always accessible, and..."

     Actually, yes, it pretty much is, if we exclude humorous (e.g. parodies such as "Jabberwocky", nursery rhymes) and, in some cases, religious verses (the gods don't need to make sense;  humans do).  Name 50 canonical poems that have stood the test of time (let's say, written more than a century ago) without being comprehensible to contemporary audiences.  No?  Okay, how about 5?  3?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #85
     "...the most accessible poetry is usually not good."

     True, but compare it to amphigouri's 0% rate of success. 

     "Emily Dickinson didn’t write for a large public, and..."

      Almost true.  She certainly tried to the seven times she was published (which may be more than many of us reading this).  In the end she didn't publish for a large (or small) public but nothing in her verse suggests that it isn't far more audience-friendly than today's obscurants.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #77
     "...T.S. Eliot didn’t care at all about being clear, yet if you want to read good poetry, you turn to Dickinson and Eliot."

      ...and Shakespeare, Byron, the Brownings, Frost and every other poet in our canon, none of whom had accessibility issues in their day.  As for Eliot, were his monologues any more or less comprehensible than we'd expect from stressed out, neurotic characters?  We do understand the difference between voice and style, right?

     "Edgar Guest or Rod McKuen, on the other hand, were bestsellers, but who reads them now?"

      No one, because they were awful.  Does Mr. Kirsch really mean to suggest that Edgar Guest and Rod McKuen would still be popular if only they were less coherent?    

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #37
     "Reading a lot of contemporary poetry at once, the way a judge for a poetry prize does, is inevitably going to be a depressing experience, for the simple reason that most new poetry--like most new work in any art--is mediocre."

      Godawful, actually.

      "The past comes to us pre-selected: only what Matthew Arnold called "the best that has been thought and said" makes it into the Norton anthology, while a hundred thousand poems are obliterated for each one that survives. If you had to read every book of poetry published in, say, 1723, you would get equally sick of all those rhymed couplets."

      ...whereas hordes of 21st century readers never tire of prose with linebreaks, I suppose.¹

      "To say that more good poetry should be written is like saying there should be more genius in the world: a fine demand, but hard to put into effect."

      This is wobbly, at best.  Yes, it is hard to put into effect, but so is anything that requires broad education.  We should not confuse the unteachable (i.e. "genius") with things that demand study, like prosody and, come to think of it, language itself.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #50
     "Nor is it easy to make the case that poetry is more unpopular today than it has been in most of history."

      It's almost as difficult as proving that this planet has oxygen.

      How did I know he'd get around to Convenient Poetics revisionism eventually?  Maybe I've been doing this too long.

     "There have been periods when poetry was genuinely popular--a significant number of people in nineteenth-century England bought Tennyson’s books--but such ages are the exception."

      False, especially if judged from a 21st century perspective.  Poetry's popularity has, indeed, fluctuated throughout the ages but it has always been infinitely more popular than it is today.  Does anyone actually believe that there was a time in this or any other culture when the vast majority could not recite a single line of poetry written during the previous half century? 

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #106
      "In absolute terms, far more people are professionally involved with poetry today--as writers or MFA students or English majors--than in the golden age of Wyatt and Surrey, when manuscripts were passed hand to hand among a small circle of courtiers."

      ...in a century that ended with Shakespeare keeping two theatres open with poetry (a thing performed), as grade schoolers learned more about poetry than most of today's PhD's know.  Mr. Kirsch now detours into an odd comparison between feudal underproduction and today's overproduction.

     "Indeed, the problem today might be that poetry has too many stakeholders--that it has lost the agility and ruthlessness that it possessed when it truly was a coterie art. A coterie at least has the advantage of definite taste and genuine intimacy.  When Ezra Pound helped to make modernism, it was because he convinced 20 other poets to follow his lead."

      ...who went on to convince thousands of others.  The difference is that, like Eliot and others of that era, Ezra Pound knew the difference between iambs and trochees.  Not so the thousands.  As one pundit said, in writing "Prufrock", T.S. Eliot didn't just outstrip the ability of modern poets to write verse;  he outstripped their ability to read it.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #74
      Note that Mr. Kirsch reserves no role for the audience in aesthetic judgements or movements.
     "Maybe the watchword of the future, then, should not be more accessibility and more popularity--the average book of poetry is, in fact, paralyzingly accessible, wearing its heart and its language on its sleeve--but rather, back to the coterie. Let the best poets find each other, read each other, and promote each other, as the best poets have always done. Let them ignore both the demands of the public and the demands of the poetry world, and write as they feel compelled to write. That is the only way to produce work that, in a hundred years, the Paxmans of the future will consider classic, and use to shame the poor poets of their time."

      We can only hope this adolescent nonsense was written tongue-in-cheek.


¹ - Seriously, why the switch from quality to form here?

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