Pretty harsh criticism for poetry . . . especially coming from a poem itself! And the author, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who has committed (besides her scorn) sixty years of life to the making of poetry. Curious. . .
Contemporary verse seems to merit such extreme mixed feelings. Never before have there been so many poets actively pursuing the Muse (and the editors of magazines). Never have there been such a diversity and intensity of poetic voices and styles; the bookstores and magazine stands are overstocked with new titles, new discoveries . . . unbrowsed.
We poets have a bitter realization to deal with: no one is listening.
Well, perhaps "no one" is an exaggeration. But the portion of society that enthusiastically receives the work of literary artists is only slightly larger than that which studies recent research on solar-powered pinking shears . . . and a thousand times smaller than the devotees of the leastm popular Gothic/Romance novelist. And (I am forced to admit) with good reason: poets appear to be speaking to no one but themselves. The technique, the subject matter, and the style of thought in much of the work published today, is aimed solely at other practitioners of the trade. Why shouldm anyone else listen?
In the Victorian era, poetry had wandered off into the bright chambers of the aristocracy and the rarefied heights of the precious and the mystical. Walt Whitman, brash American writer, began a momentum in the late 19th-century to return poetry to the people, to reunite it with song and the common tongue, to direct its concerns toward the occupations and passions of this shared world. In 1980, poetry again finds itself drifting to the extremes: sequestered in the faculty towers of universities and stealing through the narrow labyrinths of urban existences. The poets sing back and forth to those who share their limb in society. In both camps, there is tacit acceptance of the principle that anyone living any otherm sort of life is too far lost to bother reaching.
Poetry has traditionally consisted of experiences so beautiful, so sad, so powerful or so subtle that a writer could not help but attempt some expression of its magic. The challenge is to listen simultaneously for the heart of the experience andm its reflection in language. The double astonishment in this process is that one's personal grasp of the moment does not limit its communality. On the contrary, the focus of attention on the moment seems to contain as well the bridge to a universal sense of wonder. Stated or not, there is an intuitive urge to cross from one man's or one woman's heart to the heart of all humanity.
During the 20th-century, our society has been jolted by so many cultural explosions, awesome discoveries and fears that the "heart of humanity" idea is painfully removed, too idealistic to risk considering. The self, the personal experience, is all we can hope to possess. Similarly, poetry's main concern has become poetry; the poet is preoccupied with his own private perspective. All "heart" and "passion" and "wonder" have been discounted in the poetic stock; a poet without "a name" will find it nearly impossible to publish such "gushy, over emotional" explorations. "Technique" is the reigning deity -- the razor-agile, chrome-plated quality that distinguishes poetry from any other words a human might ever speak. It's as if -- fearing that real spirit in art is no longer explicable -- the quantifiable commodity of craftm is then enshrined in Western literature as the only criterion for excellence. What we've produced from this attitude is a younger generation of writers as highly skilled in the device of language as one could imagine -- but as sardonic and dispassionate toward the human condition as Dante's worst fears could predict.
But while we poets dissected the verbal universe, the mass of readers simply wandered off by themselves. "That's fine," a self-defensive voice replies; "they never would have understood my genius anyway." But underlying this argument is the assumption that time will justify this exclusive domain. We have legions of young artists turning their backs on their own people and working instead for history.
Of course the blame is not the private possession of the poets. Professors couldn't very well teach students to feel, could they? So they settled for teaching them to calculate verbally. And the critics, too cautious to evaluate the revelations in art, glorified the standards of exactness instead. The readers -- frightened by a literature that was increasingly incomprehensible -- chose to spend their money on more entertaining pastimes.
The poet's dilemma: how to make people care about poetry again? I would never advocate the straitjacketed alternative of "social realism" -- work that is cast in the society's best likeness. The art of consensus will only reflect what is seen; it will never take the unimaginable by surprise.
What I find most powerful in the greatest writers of our time is the vision that transforms (with thunder or a whisper) the way we confront our daily experience. Now, more than ever, it seems necessary for the artists' work to contain the elements of life that make them go on caring in the first place. The questions come quickly to mind: What dreams, fears, desires, doubts, and fascinations form the basis for your work? Listening for the delicate verge of a poem's first line, what do you discover about your breath, eyes, mind? What in your explorations gives you reason to live -- let alone record your living? If that excitement is captured (no, never quite; let me say conjuredm ) among your words, could the poems be less than miraculous? And would it really surprise you to find that those wonders existed within the fabric of every-day life as well?
Yes, I'm fully aware that the naivete of these questions already brands my romantic bias -- they could revoke my current Poetic License for all this. Still, I can't help but find the highest concerns of aesthetics presented in a child's tears, a trellis of morning glories, the old woman's slow steps on the stair. And the exacting demands of craft are as well expressed by the couple dancing as by the rhyming couplet, by the carefully planed board as by the perfectly placed adverb. Suspend the judgment and defense of personal style -- at least for a breathing period. Give yourself back to life. And the art of your giving (resonant within your images and lines) will give back to your readers the poems that surround them every moment of the day.