Monday, December 1, 2014

Ordinary Poetry

Over at Andrew Sullivan’s Blog, ‘The Dish’, he recently posted an excerpt from an article by Adam Kirsch that appeared in the New York Times.  I don’t have a subscription to the NYT, so I can’t access Kirsch’s full article; so I’m just going to respond to Sullivan’s excerpt which you can find here:

This is a topic that poets, and some cultural commentators, make fairly frequently.  It is the observation that the place that poetry occupies in our world has changed, that poetry and poets used to occupy a central place both in popular culture and in high culture but that at this time and in our contemporary culture poetry is now marginalized.  As Kirsch notes, poets today, if they are not delusional, realize that what they write will not be widely read and will have almost no impact on the social sphere. 

The last poet I know of who was prominent in popular culture was Edna Saint Vincent Millay.  She had a huge following, considerable sales, and was an object of press adoration and attention.  But she was the last poet to occupy such a position.  And, as far as I know, Millay did not use her position to advocate for political causes. 

My own feelings about this are complex.  First, I think modern poets have a tendency to aggrandize their vocation.  This sense of self-importance is a kind of nostalgia for a past where the poet and poetry were elevated to an almost apotheosized status.  Works like Homer’s ‘Illiad’, or the Confucian ‘Book of Songs/Odes’ had huge and lasting cultural impact.  And in some countries, like Japan, there are actual temples devoted to some poets.  It is easy to see why modern poets would want to retain some of this aura of exalted status.  At times I share this desire for the special place that poetry used to occupy at the center of cultures.

However, I think it is, overall, a good thing that poets now occupy a place at the margins.  First, it offers the opportunity to cultivate humility.  I love poetry; I write it, read it, study it, and do what I can to keep up with trends (a nearly impossible task, by the way).  But I recognize that my love of poetry does not differ from the love that a gardener has for gardening, or the love of a baker for baking, or the love of a quilter for quilting, a knitter for knitting, or the love of baseball, soccer, tennis or chess for those who are devoted to those activities.

I have mentioned before on this blog, but I think it is worth repeating, and it is relevant to Kirsch’s observations, that my own view about poetry is that poetry is the craft of shaping words.  Pottery is the craft of shaping clay.  Composing music is the craft of shaping sound.  Gardening is the craft of shaping plants.  Carpentry is the craft of shaping wood.  Quilting is the craft of shaping cloth.  And so forth.

I don’t think poets are particularly insightful nor do they have some kind of special access to a broader understanding than ordinary people do.  Look at it this way: if gardeners asserted that they had special understanding and that this understanding applied to political and social spheres, I doubt people would go along with this.  A particular gardener, like the agriculturalist Wendell Berry, might have insightful things to say; but as a class, just because someone is a gardener, or cultivator of plants, does not in itself generate insights that are broad in scope.  This is true for pottery, carpentry, and quilting as well.  The thing is, you rarely hear of carpenters or quilters making a claim that their craft gives them a claim on how society should be ordered, or what political and social reforms should be undertaken.  Carpenters and quilters have opinions about these topics, and they might be insightful opinions worth considering; but if they are of worth there is no obvious connection between having these opinions and the specifics of their craft.  In contrast, poets tend to think of themselves as peculiarly insightful, especially visionary, and deeply aware beyond that of ordinary people.  I don’t think that is psychologically healthy for poets; it leads to an overestimation of one’s significance.  It tends to lead the poet to think that their thoughts about social issues are more insightful than those of the carpenter down the street, or the quilter next door, or the baker at the local bread shop.  My own experience is that my own political and social commitments (and like everyone, I have them) are about as well thought out as anyone else’s thoughts on these topics.  Poetry does not give me a means for being more profound in these arenas.

The sense of self-importance that poets often have of themselves and of their craft, to my way of thinking, as I mentioned above, can be unhealthy.  There are extreme and famous examples of this.  The most notorious example I know of is Ezra Pound whose preoccupation with his own significance took him to very dark places.  It is a tragic story; one that most poets are aware of.  But even though poets in general are aware of it, they don’t seem to draw the obvious lesson from this legacy.  And that lesson is that poets are not peculiarly gifted when it comes to insights beyond their vocation of poetry itself (and they might not be insightful about even that).  I realize that this is a tough lesson.  It is simply human to want to think of ourselves as above average and special.  And our culture asserts the significance of our uniqueness in countless ways (New Age teachers are especially adept at this).  I believe the antidote to this is to comprehend poetry as a craft that is like other crafts.

As a craft, poetry can lead to exalted experiences; both for the poet and for the reader of poetry.  But that is also true of carpentry, baking, quilting, and gardening.  The beauty of a well crafted poem, to my mind, resembles the beauty of a well crafted cup by a dedicated potter, or the beauty of a well baked scone offered at the local bakery, or the beauty of a quilt done at the latest quilting bee, or the beauty of a song I just heard someone sing.  To my way of thinking, beauty is a door to the transcendental; it takes us out of ourselves and, in a way, out of this world.  This can happen.  And when it does happen it is a profound and transforming experience.  But poets do not have a monopoly on this; it is, in my opinion, part of the meaning of all the crafts that people engage in.  It is an experience, and a result, that poets share with the baker, the quilter, and the candlestick maker.

Personally, I am content with placing poetry at the level of a craft.  I like thinking of shaping words as the same as shaping clay or shaping sound or shaping wood.  Looking at poetry in this way connects me with the rest of humanity whereas thinking of poetry as peculiarly exalted severs these connections, turning my craft of shaping words into some kind of oracular avocation.  I am not an oracle.  Like everyone else, I am doing the best I can in difficult circumstances.  And when I compose poetry as a craft, I find myself connected with the very human ordinariness of the baker, the gardener, the carpenter, and the quilter.  I find that a good place to be.



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