POETRY AS AN ART: NEW YEAR REFLECTIONS ON AN OLD THEME by Michael Smith
(PI News, January/February 2002)
In looking over what has been happening in poetry, both here and abroad, during 2001, I am first of all struck by the sheer amount of it that has been published. Just to list a small number of the publications that appeared during the year in Ireland and Britain alone would probably fill up this page and perhaps even more than the whole of the Newsletter. To make a selection of what I consider to be the most important of these (even if I were competent to do so) would be foolhardy in the extreme. Instead, what I am proposing to do in the few hundred words at my disposal here is to give some reflections on where I think poetry is going or not going, basing these reflections on what I have read of books of poetry published last year.
The first thing that strikes me is that most of what I have read falls into what may be termed the poetry of the lyric-, that is to say, a poetry of personal expression, confessional outpourings of the heart, nostalgic family reminiscences, evocations of nature, social comment, etc., issuing from a first person that is not a presumed persona, but someone to be understood as the personal identity of the poet. By and large this is a poetry innocent of what Beckett years ago described as 'rupture of the lines of communication'. It is painting innocent of the invention of the camera. It is as if such a thing as collage has never existed. It understands language as if there had been no revision, not to say demolition of the Romantic understanding of language. At its worst, it is boring pastiche of what was well done in the past. At its best, it provides a reading pleasure and a useful contact with tradition. It is what many people still believe to be the only kind of poetry identifiable as such. It is generally what is considered 'mainstream poetry'. In so far as modern poetry has any large number of readers, these are mostly readers of mainstream poetry.
Other kinds of poetry come under the heading of 'experimental poetry'. This, at its best, represents an effort to enable poetry to articulate new areas of experience, to explore new areas of consciousness. It is what Pound means by 'making it new'. It is determined to avoid repeating the past. At its worst, however, as a mindless word-game, it represents futility and defeat in dealing with language as a means of communication (albeit language should not be considered exclusively as 'communication'). Readers of this kind of poetry are few in number, probably most of them poets themselves. It is a readership that often seems to me inbred, incestuous, and generally pretends indifference to popularity, which it equates with the hackneyed, the superficial, the sentimental, the teachable and easily analysable stuff beloved of schoolteachers. This kind of poetry rarely gets into mainstream anthologies and has to settle for specialist anthologies with a small readership. Big publishing houses avoid this kind of poetry like the plague.
Whereas the modern visual arts years ago achieved their revolution, or evolution, into modernity (although it was a difficult struggle), gradually winning over a relatively mass public that could appreciate such works without turning its back on the past, modern poetry has not achieved a similar success at least here and generally in Britain. It has found itself with a relatively tiny readership and a mass public that is, in so far as it is aware of its existence, either indifferent to it or positively hostile. In my judgement, this is a most unsatisfactory situation for poetry to find itself in. The question now is what, if anything, can be done to change this situation. And in trying to answer this question it is best if I limit myself to the Irish scene although I think my answer has wider application.
First of all I think we should rid ourselves of the notion that by being Irish we somehow have been especially endowed to write poetry, that we are naturally a poetic people. This pernicious notion, kept alive by many vested interests, literary and commercial, has prevented the development of a critical attitude towards the writing of poetry. There is a common view of poetry in Ireland as a kind of unconscious or 'inspired' reflex that results in a product identifiable as a poem. It is mainly identifiable by subject matter (nature, the family, etc.) and by an accompanying fuzzy nostalgic rumination. Naive assumptions are made about language, without any serious thought being given to the nature of language, not to speak of language as it may be employed in the writing of poetry. For example, it is commonly assumed by poets in Ireland that it is possible by a few stylistic tricks and repetitive subject matter to express one's personality, to communicate that personality in a distinctive personal voice, a notion that flies in the face of what for a long time we have known about language and its collective communal genesis and nature.
This notion of poetry is responsible for the army of people here in Ireland who write 'poems' and who try desperately to have them published. It is as if every Sunday painter considered himself or herself a potential Picasso. The proliferation of creative writing-classes in poetry has propped up this idea, leading many people to believe that the writing of poetry can be taught in the way that carpentry or flower-arrangement can be. It is true, of course, that any fairly literate person with an interest can be taught to write a sonnet; but that is a very different matter from what the author of The Seafarer was about. As Pound wrote in reference to the verses of that poem, 'They were made for no man's entertainment, but because a man believing in silence found himself unable to withhold himself from speaking.' Of far greater importance to the state of poetry is the teaching of the appreciation of poetry. Good readers, not aspiring poets, are the complement of good poetry. And there is nothing wrong with this. So, instead of creative writing-classes, what is needed is creative reading-classes. Poets themselves, of course, have a contribution to make here. But not only poets. Creative, non-poet readers are just as important. Learning to play the piano, for the vast majority of people, is not necessarily a preparation for becoming a professional concert pianist but it will certainly help in the appreciation of good music. Poetry as therapy is another matter. And that should be considered in the area of clinical psychology, not aesthetics.
A few more words from Pound: 'As for "Everyman his own poet",
the more every man knows about poetry the better. I believe in everyone
writing poetry who wants to; most do. I believe in every man knowing enough
of music to play "God bless our home" on the harmonium, but I
do not believe in every man giving concerts and printing his sins.'
Finally, here is an interesting statement from the great contemporary Spanish writer, Juan Goytisolo: 'A writer who is unaware of the movements in poetics and linguistics seems to me an anachronism in today's world. The writer cannot abandon himself simply to inspiration, and feign innocence vis a vis language, because language is never innocent.'
Goytisolo also had this warning for young writers: 'If young writers were to
ask me for advice, the first one that I would give them is that they renounce
living from their writings, that they search for parallel activities that might
earn them a living. In large measure it is these economic reasons which are
responsible for that monstrously irresponsible and repetitious mass of writing
which floods the publishing market, converting writers into hens, some of whom
lay eggs at an amazing speed. The writer, too, ought to have the right to keep
quiet and not to produce.'
If all this is elitism, it is no more than the elitism of a serious vocation. It implies an attitude towards poetry that offers a worthwhile future for that great art.
Michael Smith, author of the last Newsletter’s Opinions, is a poet; editor of the magazine The Lace Curtain; and founder of New Writers’ Press.