The Vacuity of Modern Poetry

I have noted in the past that I strongly identified with the protagonist of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography. For those who have not read it, there’s a scene relatively early in the novel when Orlando offers some of his poetry (he was still a man at this point) to the famous poet Nicholas Greene in order to get his opinion on it. Unfortunately for Orlando, it turns out that Mr. Greene is obsessed with the gloire of past ages, and dismisses all contemporary (Elizabethan-age) poetry as being garbage. Orlando ends up being humiliated by the encounter.

Similarly, I once offered my work up for evaluation by a relatively well-regarded poet who was then serving as the writer-in-residence at my city’s main public library. This, I realized approximately five minutes into our meeting, was a serious mistake upon my part. The writer-in-residence however was in many ways the opposite of Mr. Greene; rather than devaluing contemporary works in support of the past, he was committed to devaluing the past in the name of the present.

“Rhyming is for hip-hop artists,” he uncategorically told me; “it’s basically dead in poetry.” He also took issue with the way that my poetry was formatted, what with being written in neat little lines that were centred on the page: “It looks too ‘Hallmark.'” I’m pretty certain he never actually used the word ‘bourgeois*,’ but I quickly got the impression that he believed that I was but a cog in the soulless machine of orthodoxy, and it was only by writing freeverse and scattering my words drunkenly around the page that I could ever hope to set my soul free. He gave me a short list of his suggestions; unfortunately, there was no filthy mire handy in which I could dump them, but I remember taking great glee out of tearing the sheets into ever smaller pieces of confetti and letting them blow away on the wind.**

Looking back on it, I find it ridiculous that I should have ever felt the need to seek approval from such a pathetic little man. For really, that’s what he was; he was so obsessed with effecting the appearance of being a free spirit (“oh, look at me, I have only one ear pierced and I don’t use capital letters! Aren’t I a rebel!”) that he became a slave, ultimately, to fashion; a strange sort of reactionary, counter-cultural fashion, but fashion nonetheless. Now, understand, I’m not saying that the poetry that I submitted to him was good; in fact, I can barely stand to read it these days. But my point is that it wasn’t bad because I was using formulae, it was bad because I wasn’t using formulae well. If it is your job to evaluate something, then for godssakes, evaluate it on the merits of what it is, not on what you think it ought to be. And how can I take a man seriously who thinks that this***:

the land down under
home of wombat and bandicoot
home of boomerang and plonk
home of walkabout and billabong and swag
of didgeridoo-wooowooowoooooo
home of the outback
home and dumping ground
for criminals bankrupts poor and other british undesirables
world’s smallest continent
biggest island
home of indigenous australians
fifty thousand years before the european invasion
before dutch and british janszoon dampier cook
before old world disease measles smallpox influenza
home of the wandering tribes
either never had a home
or always at home
go home moses
home of emu platypus
and tie me kangaroo down
home of the cassowary
birder’s paradise
home of peter carey and janette turner hospital
used to be home
and the band played waltzing matilda
these black words from the burning bush
home of the homeless
about as far as i can get from home

is, by definition, superior to this****:

There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colours gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.

And moving thro’ a mirror clear
That hangs before her all the year,
Shadows of the world appear.
There she sees the highway near
Winding down to Camelot:
There the river eddy whirls,
And there the surly village-churls,
And the red cloaks of market girls,
Pass onward from Shalott.

Sometimes a troop of damsels glad,
An abbot on an ambling pad,
Sometimes a curly shepherd-lad,
Or long-hair’d page in crimson clad,
Goes by to tower’d Camelot:
And sometimes thro’ the mirror blue
The knights come riding two and two:
She hath no loyal knight and true,
The Lady of Shalott.

But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror’s magic sights,
For often thro’ the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights,
And music, went to Camelot:
Or when the moon was overhead,
Came two young lovers lately wed;
‘I am half sick of shadows,’ said
The Lady of Shalott.

Now, of course, I’m just taking two examples. My point though is that, obviously, you can’t simply dismiss all poems that are written in a particular form, just because they are written in that form.

For a long time, I assumed that this was simply a matter of fashion; that there had been some sort of successful revolution in the field of poetry during the early 20th century and the revolutionaries had established their own ideals as the new orthodoxy. A recent blog post, however, has put this in an entirely new light for me:

Finally, and no one talks about this except Scarriet, the whole Creative Writing Industry was started by a handful of men—the movement has a history, and it happens that the men who started the Creative Writing Industry had a certain bias for ‘new’ poetry, and this, of course, is the trump card of the creative writing industry: You don’t write very well, but we’re going to teach you how to write like a contemporary, approved by your peers. The default ‘sameness’ of the creative writing industry is that you are not allowed to write like Shelley or Keats or Byron. Write any way you like! But if we sniff the faintest smell of ‘old’ on you, you’re gone.

Modern poetry and Creative Writing are now synomymous.  The idea is not to grow poets, but to grow paying poetry students—who are beholden to canonizing their instructors, with the possibility of being canonized, in turn.  This is precisely what the modern poets, beginning with Pound and Eliot and their lawyer, John Quinn, and continuing with their academic friends, the New Critics, did, and therefore the very idea of the “modern” in poetry is linked with the business model of Creative Writing.

So I begin to understand now that far from being merely fashion, ‘modern poetry’ has become an industry. And so, any deviation from the industrial standards must be dismissed without hesitation. This, frankly, is why so few people bother to read poetry anymore; because these industrial standards of free verse have made it boring.

_____________________________________

*He was too post-modern to say something like that anyway.

**I hope I can be forgiven for littering under these circumstances,

***From John Weier’s recent collection “Pilgrim in a Bird World”

****Alfred Lord Tennyson, “The Lady of Shalott.”

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About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
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4 Responses to The Vacuity of Modern Poetry

  1. thomasbrady says:

    Nice post!!

    Thomas Brady–Scarriet

  2. tânisi!

    I’ve managed to lose touch with a lot of people in the move from WordPress to a self-hosted site, so I’m individually following up with bloggers who were following me:D I’ve set it up so WordPress bloggers can ‘follow’ me in the same way you used to at the new site: http://apihtawikosisan.com/. There’s no need to keep this comment, it was just easier to contact you via the blog. If somehow I’ve overlooked that you’ve already made the switch, you have my apologies.

    kinanâskomitin, and I hope to see you soon!

  3. Lindsay says:

    Yes, you’re totally right that there’s a bias towards a certain kind of poetry — non-rhyming, non-metrical, free-associative lyric verse (did you ever try to spring a narrative poem on someone? Now there’s a thing nobody does anymore!) — in literary circles.

    I haven’t dealt as much with that, because my ambitions as a poet were fairly short-lived (though, like you, I did tend to prefer rhymed, structured verses), but I can tell you there’s a companion bias in fiction-writing classes. There, the thing they want to encourage you to write is the kind of short story Michael Chabon has described as a “contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story”, and the thing they try as hard as they can to quash in you is the desire to write fantasy, science fiction, supernatural horror or anything else “genre” .

    It’s the same sort of thing: homogenizing the field in the name of revitalizing it.

    • To be honest, the seemingly uniform blandness of literary fiction (at least as it is defined by the “creative-writing” crowd) is the main reason that I have never bothered to study English at the university level. Of course you can correct me if I’m wrong, but it just seems like they are trying to find ever more innovative ways to say nothing at all. Porridge can be a decent meal on occasion, and it can be served any number of ways, but at the end of the day, it’s still just porridge.

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