(An International Journal of Poetry)
Volume-1 June-2011 Number-1
PET TREES & DANCING BAY PONIES
by Joseph Powell
Dept. of English
Central Washington University
As a college student, I remember a pivotal moment in a class taught by a novelist and critic. He asked this question: “Where do you go for truth--religion, science, philosophy, novels, psychology?” Of course, truth is contextual, personal, multi-layered, elusive, but it’s an intriguing question, especially as a speculative topic in a literature class. I was a psychology major at the time with the uneasy suspicion that psychology’s answers were too easily packaged. My response to the truth question for the last thirty years has been poetry (though it’s clear to me now that literature operates on its own system of elisions, of tried and tired metaphors as reductive as a syndrome). I feel that poetry has revealed more about the exigencies of life and death, of hope and dread, of love and hate, of men and women, of race and reconciliation, and the poignant articulation of what it means to inhabit and embrace a world we’ve damaged. Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote that poetry “can render men more amiable, more generous and wise, and lift them out of the dull vapors of the little world of self” (28), and for me, this has been true. By writing poetry, I have been invited to see beyond those dull vapors and the confines of the self. Wallace Stevens shows us that perception is necessarily personal, and the apprehension of otherness is the beginning of empathy, of global awareness, of humanity. For years poetry has been my way to understand the human condition, especially its dark underside. Poetry has been a vital tool in shaping my relationships, my delights and sorrows.
Others have expressed their allegiances to this art form in similar and emphatic ways. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote in his Biographia Literaria when discussing Shakespeare’s “depth” and “energy of thought” that “Poetry is the blossom and the fragrance of all human knowledge, human thoughts, human passions, emotions, and language” (19). Matthew Arnold is more guarded about the broad influence of poetry, but his estimation of its power is similar: “If it is said that Goethe professes to have in this way deeply influenced but a few persons, and those persons poets, one may answer that he could have taken no better way to secure, in the end, the ear of the world, for poetry is simply the most beautiful, impressive, and widely effective mode of saying things, and hence its importance” (161). Of course, most high praise for poetry comes from poets who have felt its effects profoundly. However, for most people in America, the word “poetry” can’t even be said without an imaginary or literal eye-roll, the suspicion that somebody is wearing pink underwear and might want you to touch it. The prejudices against poetry have a variety of causes and effects often pronounced by people who ought to be more amiably disposed to its charms and uses.
Unfortunately, poetry and sentimentality seem to be intertwined like those two snakes suggesting a pharmacy. It is difficult to disassociate one from the other because fiction writers and comics and other glib social commentators rather enjoy the embrace. In nineteenth century America, there was a demand for sentimental poetry which made its way into popular magazines and could be snipped out and put into a frame and hung on a kitchen or an outhouse wall, into poetry anthologies, into inspirational books, into the emotional lexicon of the age. In his weirdly eclectic collection of favorite passages from a multitude of books, Ralph Woods includes in his A Treasury of the Familiar a large sampling of extremely bad poetry which had tickled his fancy. He also includes fine poems by Keats, Blake, Coleridge, and Gray, but generally the choices are blushingly sentimental. The two poems chosen from Emily Dickinson’s work are mediocre and project platitudes her startling mind was not prone to. Woods makes them worse by giving them his own sentimental titles. The first is #919 in her Complete Poems:
If I can stop one Heart from breaking
I shall not live in vain
If I can ease one Life the Aching
Or cool one Pain
Or help one fainting Robin
Unto his Nest again
I shall not live in Vain. (433)
He uses the 1924 version of this poem published in Martha Dickinson Bianchi’s The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Bianchi eliminated the capitals and added punctuation, but Woods went even further in his editing. He titles it “Helping The Handicapped,” which fatuously narrows the poem, and he changed “unto” to “into” and the “his” to “its.” The poem has a fainting robin problem, is overly general, and presents a kind of stereotype that Dickinson’s poems generally avoid or at least grapple with more completely. In her introduction to the book, Bianchi saw the “fainting robin” as a “synonym for the universe” (viii) which makes the robin reference a little more likeable but still quite a stretch, but seeing the robin as the handicapped is beyond absurd, besides misrepresenting Dickinson’s work and being patronizing to the handicapped. The second poem he calls “Chartless” which cozily endorses a God and heaven that many of her other poems do not. This lack of taste in a reader and editor who thought of himself as extremely well read, who wanted to preserve his intellectual garden which he had tended over his lifetime, was probably common at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. And it is not uncommon today; for the book is still available and has gone into three printings.
The sentimental public image of poetry includes both poems and poets. The demographics of poetry changed after the advent of Romanticism where peasant poets were celebrated as natural geniuses who tapped an inner resource without much learning, and some highly educated poets hankered for the uncomplicated emotional directness of peasant poets, sentimentalizing their wise simplicity. In one sense, this was a good thing. It opened up poetry to everyone, encouraged many people to find meaning by writing and reading poetry. Yet there is a difference between those who use poetry to find or construct meaning and those who use it merely to illustrate the trite blessings of conventionality, of the status quo, of religious dogma. In a letter to Louis Untermeyer, Robert Frost described the act of composing a meaningful poem: “A poem is never a put-up job so to speak. It begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. It is never a thought to begin with. It is at its best when it is a tantalizing vagueness. It finds its thought and succeeds, or doesn’t find it and comes to nothing. It finds its thought or makes its thought. I suppose it finds it lying around with others not so much to its purpose in a more or less full mind.” (22). The process he describes here is generally not how sentimental poets compose; their language is merely a fulfillment of what they already know and feel. There is no discovery, no thought hunting for its meaning; they generally are not driven by doubt, by contradiction, by a need to understand their own complexities. Any writer worth reading examines the conflict between received reality and the way the writer has experienced it. Helen Vendler wrote that writers can “betray themselves as artists, and their art itself… by papering over the actual with the agreeable or the socially enjoined” (283), and novelists are just as prone to this betrayal as poets are. Or perhaps poets are even less prone to it because there isn’t a commercial incentive to write the sentimental and stereotypical for readers who enjoy having their own prejudices confirmed. Poetry books rarely make much money for the poet or the publisher unless they are written by famous people, and these books are generally sentimental like the poems of Suzanne Somers or Jewel. Poets who write with an inspirational or religious agenda may be able to find a publisher and an audience, but only within a narrow group looking for that kind of validation of their own sensibilities.
Historically, the poet’s job was more elevated that it is today. Plato has Socrates say in the Ion that “poets are only the interpreters of the gods by whom they are severally possessed” (33); when they compose poems they are divinely inspired and lose their reason. Similarly, in The Republic, he finds poetry a little dangerous because it “feeds and waters the passions instead of drying them up” (51). He also says that poetry is a “higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular” (60). He excludes poets from his ideal republic because they keep us in touch with the baser parts of our psyches which reason can’t quite conquer; poetry is thus a threat to a free and virtuous ideal society. It is quite clear in The Republic that Plato’s grudge against the popularity of poetry in Greek society is an attempt to make a little more room for philosophy and philosophers. In our culture, both poets and philosophers have been banished to butler for the rich and famous and are kept in slim padded rooms.
Although Albert Cook tells us in his edited version of Shelley’s “A Defense of Poetry” that this “defense” was a mode of argument practiced in the schools and given as assignments to schoolboys, it is clear both from Philip Sidney’s “Defense” and the tone of Shelley’s that both poets are concerned about the cultural lack of respect that poets and poetry gets. At the beginning of his “Defense,” Sidney complains that the “highest estimation of learning [poetry] is fallen to be the laughingstock of children” (5), and later in the essay, he says that “poetry. . .is among us thrown down to so ridiculous an estimation” (8); he then goes on to show how important poetry was to all incipient cultures, that it was the way each culture preserved its rituals and history, whether oral or written. He feels that poetry was “the first light-giver to ignorance and first nurse whose milk by little and little enabled them to feed afterwards of tougher knowledge” (4), and its present state of disregard and abuse is rather ungrateful. In Sidney’s day, there were religious critics who picked up Plato’s argument about poetry corrupting its audience and turning people away from the Ideal or God. Sidney felt compelled to respond, but assumptions about the virtuous aims of poetry have remained fairly consistent from the Greeks to present. In his letter about The Divine Comedy, Dante wrote to his patron that the role of poetry is “to remove those living in this life from the state of misery and lead them to the state of felicity” (82). That is a tall order, but the use of poetry as a teaching tool, as a vehicle for our edification and happiness, has a long history.
In the age of reason before romanticism, Shakespeare described the poet’s activity in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as
poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And, as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name. (5.1.7-12)
Here, the poet is a kind of inventive prophet who looks comprehensively at the world and synthesizes what he sees until he creates something, a shape out of nothing, and gives it local context. The modern reader would read “fine” coupled with “frenzy” as an oxymoron which suggests an acquired and refined taste that controls the wildness inherent in possibilities. However, in the 16th century, “poetic frenzy” was a common Neo-Platonic term among poetry critics; in the introduction to Sidney’s “Defense,” Lewis Soens notes that this “frenzy” is “the poet’s ability to perceive supernatural and ideal truth” (xx); it also has a religious connotation and “seems indistinguishable from the inspiration which created the Psalms” (xxii). It is a synonym for “inspiration,” but the sense of frenzy as temporary madness was also current in the 16th century. For Shakespeare, the poet tries to align the ineluctable need for religion with the baser facts of our existence; he tries to reconcile the irreconcilable; he submits to the tension and yet must yoke the opposites together to create a “form,” to give it a “location” and a “name.” The resultant poem is a marriage of alien forces requiring a superior will and imagination. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “. . . the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retrain the ability to function” (69). Shakespeare clearly assumes that it’s the poet’s job to do this.
In the midst of the Romantic Movement, Shelley was enthusiastic about the role of poetry in the world: “It is impossible to read the compositions of the most celebrated writers of the present day without being startled with the electric life which burns within their words. They measure the circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all penetrating spirit, and they are themselves perhaps the most sincerely astonished at its manifestations; for it is less their spirit than the spirit of the age. Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present. . . . Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” (46). This is a grandiose claim, and the works of superbly talented poets today which are full of “the electric life which burns within their words” cast little light to mainstream culture; they are more unacknowledged than ever, and the “legislation” they sponsor would hardly light a match.
Yet it is partly because of the Romantic revolution that poets become idle dreamers, purple recorders of nature, self-absorbed fools who oversimplify and have a dull disdain for the history of ideas, not to mention work itself. In The Blithedale Romance, Nathaniel Hawthorne writes that “the fishes went gleaming about, now turning up the sheen of a golden side, and now vanishing into the shadows of the water, like the fanciful thoughts that coquet with a poet in his dream” (164); here poets are idlers beside a pond bewitched by metaphorical fish as they slide in and out of view, not knowing which to choose because they are all so lovely and golden. Hawthorne is doing the real work while the poets are dangling grass stems from their teeth as they dream in the sun, (or the saloon in this case), afraid of real fish in real ponds. His use of “coquet” is particularly revealing. It literally means a “flirtatious man,” and its connotations suggest “to trifle, dally.” Its French root is derived from “coq” suggesting a cock, and the Latin word “coco” meaning to cackle. Poets are dreamers and triflers, dalliers who like to make a lot of noise with a sexual agenda.
This image has persisted among prose writers into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries with various degrees of snide generalization and rather nasty caricature. In New Stories from the South, The Year’s Best, 2003, Mark Winegardner published a story called “Keegan’s Load” that satirizes two poets: one is a “fraud,” the other is “real,” yet they are both rather ridiculous. The story is a satire of academe, so one would expect most people in the story to be frauds in some way. However, the poets are presented in the most grossly stereotypical and lopsided terms. Of course, poets can be objects of ridicule like other people involved in a somewhat odd vocation or occupation, but it is exceedingly rare to find even casual references to poets in anything but derogatory terms. Furthermore, in these persistently Romantic times, there is a need to separate the poet from the poem, to place the value on the product and to de-emphasize the biographical oddities or social quirks of some poets. I know this sounds New Critical, and knowing something about biography and historical context is useful and sometimes necessary, but often this extra effort is used to excuse bad writing.
Winegardner’s prejudice about academic poets is most obvious in the characteristics that these two poets share. The “real” poet is quickly sketched at the beginning of the story as “our poet took banjo lessons, divorced her husband, and finished her book of poems about taking banjo lessons and divorcing her husband” (287). She lives in a “retro-kitsch duplex” and when she comes up for tenure has more “published work at that point than anyone in department history. (‘Poems are short,’ the chair was rumored to have said. ‘Anyone can publish poems’” (296). The fraud poet is described as being “against the war but was drafted and went” and had “come back and spent time in an ashram, a kibbutz, a seminary, and a zendo” (290). He had taught high school on an Indian reservation and in New Orleans. Five pages later, it is revealed that the fraud writes a novel about “a man who’d gone to Korea, become a sniper, and come home ‘with his body intact but his soul broken prismatically.’ He’d spent time in an ashram, a kibbutz, a seminary, and a zendo, and had wound up as a high school history teacher in a city resembling New Orleans” (295).
Winegardner obviously thinks that poets are generally imprisoned by their own autobiographies, that they aren’t creative enough to make something up and give it a local habitation, but this is a foolish criticism. The best fiction usually contains large chunks of the writer’s own autobiographical hide grafted onto a fictional character or a variety of characteristics from people he knows stitched into his characters. It is true that some predominately lyrical poets can seem too self-involved, but to claim both poets suffer from the same writerly affliction of solipsism is entirely too easy and stereotypical.
The fraud poet’s novel was titled Samurai with Breasts which was “not explained anywhere in the text” (295). There is a tendency among postmodern poets and persistent surrealists to applaud elliptical juxtapositions and non-sequiturs, to eschew narrative and logic of any stripe. Random language and wild leaps of imagery are not the sole province of poetry, as close readers or listeners of songs by the Beetles and Bob Dylan would attest. However, there are plenty of poets who still prefer to make sense, who see their work as naming their local habitations, who struggle with aligning the spiritual world with the mundane.
Winegardner’s poets can only write about themselves in the most stubbornly literal way; their thinly veiled autobiography is self-indulgent and tasteless. His academic poets are charlatans who are self-absorbed, have no sense of audience, no sense of cultural propriety, are opportunists, and, like children, love the sounds of their own voices. He reserves his most savage attack for the “fraud” poet who couldn’t be more inane, and of the hundreds of academic poets I’ve known, he resembles none of them.
Winegardner’s fraud poet “trembles” at commencement while reciting his occasional poem about “a Charlotte shopping mall developer to whom we were giving an honorary degree” (287); his occasional poems were a “blend of the earnestly literal with enough mystical babble to kill an adult horse” (301); his “Poetry Reading Voice [was] stilted, self-conscious, in awe of its own profundity” (288); his books came out from a vanity press and the last one from the press of a former student who printed it in his parent’s basement (290); many of his students “seemed honestly to mistake Keegan’s incoherence for depth” (290); Keegan tries to get the fiction writer to recommend his novel to her agent, finally gets his student to publish his book, then tries to nominate himself for the Nobel prize; he reads poem after poem at his third wife’s funeral, saying some poems were written for her but were recognized as coming from books that predated her, and he had copies of the poems that he read at the funeral available after the service. A writer responds to Keegan’s novel by saying “I just blurted out the truth: that he needed to revise the whole thing, with an eye toward what a stranger might find interesting” (297). We get the feeling that this is Winegardner’s main point and advice to all poets. However, the qualities of the fraud poet in Winegardner’s story are only slightly inflated characteristics of those found in the American public consciousness.
A fairly recent novel on the best seller list was Lief Enger’s Peace Like A River which had a few compelling characters but generally pushed a romantic version of the West and was occasionally infatuated with its own sentimentality. The young girl in the novel loves to write rhymed verse and later becomes famous for it with several best-selling volumes (when was the last time any “verse” was on the best selling list, rhymed or free?). Enger characterizes the girl’s early years in the following passage: “Swede opened her mouth and couldn’t find a word in it. While loving all things Western, I doubt the facts of horse and saddle had ever occurred to her as real; they were simply poetry, though of the very best kind. Hammerhead roan and dancing bay pony and, now I mention it, Texas stock saddle--to Swede such phrases just loped along, champing and snorting and kicking up clover. And rightly so. Take away such locutions and who’s Sunny Sundown? Just a guy out walking” (39). The dangling modifier in the second sentence (his sister loves things Western) is a kind of Freudian slip which helps to explain the definition of, and role of, poetry here: it empurples existence, romanticizes and makes our daydreams exotic, it yeasts reality which of course we have too much of. This image is more of Hawthorne’s gleaming fish with golden sides. The novel would have been improved had Enger kept his gaze more closely fixed on the “guy out walking” rather than speeding away on hammerhead roans and mincing about with dancing ponies.
“Poetry” in the common lexicon is synonymous with exaggerated extremes: poetry of motion, poetry of silence, poetry of love, poetry of life. “Poetry” can be construed as some kind of distilled essence, some concentrate in pure form, as it is in the literary genres, but generally it’s merely fancy phrases loping along without the shadow of reality riding beside them. And there is such self-confidence in extolling these extremes that the “rightly so’s” are embedded in the reverent tones, in the dismissive awe. In the bio blurb for the novel, Enger credits his interest in poetry to his mother’s reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s poetry to them as children. His indignation with modern unrhymed verse only proves that his mother’s influence in this regard wasn’t very deep: the best modern poetry is more interesting and linguistically charged than Stevenson’s poetry which is too often sentimental, endorsing the English status quo; so it’s clear that he just hasn’t taken the time to read it. Of course, Stevenson did write some wonderful verse for children, but is hardly a model of poetry for adults.
Besides this general sense of excess, there is the image of poetry in our culture which is more metaphor than reality. When Daniel Boorstein uses the term in his essay “Technology & Democracy,” it has been detached from its realities, its best examples in literary history, to mean a willingness to charge into uncertainty, to enter uncharted territory and take a look around, to risk. He discusses American democracy and says “To prepare ourselves for this view of American democracy there are two sides to our personal need. One is on the side of prudence and wisdom; the other is on the side of poetry and imagination, . . . what I would call the exploring spirit” (122). This view is certainly more complimentary, but it is equally dismissive. Poetry is as much about prudence and wisdom as it is about the exploring spirit. Boorstein has merely endorsed a romantic cliché that puts poetry into an exotic box. However, most cultural images of poets and poetry are more consciously derogatory.
In a short story called “The Worm In The Apple,” John Cheever describes a character named Rachel who “will become so wretched and so lonely that in order to express herself she will fall in love with an unstable poet and fly with him to Rome, where they will live out a miserable and boozy exile” (286-287). She ultimately marries a German immigrant’s son who gets a PhD in Physics from MIT and who is “taken on” in the department, and Rachel then becomes happy in Cambridge. Merely mentioning a poet in a story is short-hand characterization for disaster and wretchedness. And aren’t all poets “unstable” and “boozy,” and hellbent on being miserable, like Cheever himself? It takes some hard-working, mathematical chap like a physicist to bring stability and respect into one’s fictional life.
Even in nonfiction, the word “poet” is synonymous with someone who overpaints, who gushes, who manipulates others with purple lies, who has a traitor’s soul which is a far cry from the person Shelley describes in his “Defense of Poetry.” In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollen attacks people who write the inflated language on product labels which he calls “Supermarket Pastoral”; he says that “grocery store poets do everything they can to encourage us in our willing suspension of disbelief” (137). For him, a poet is someone who exaggerates, and “grocery store poets” are especially insidious because their exaggerations aim to cover toxic sprays, bad husbandry, chemical fertilizers, fecal feedlots, and inhumane slaughterhouses. Poets no longer legislate the truths about human existence but its lies. Even Pollan’s use of the word “pastoral” does not accurately reflect the complexities of the literary genre. Admittedly, there is a naïve quality in pastoral poetry, but it is a deliberate naiveté, a tongue-in-cheek fancy, which poets themselves have rather hotly criticized---from Sir Walter Raleigh to William Carlos Williams to C. Day Lewis. Pollan accurately criticizes corporations for using quaint and cozy pictures of nature on their milk cartons when the milk actually comes from cows stuffed in a feedlot whose “access to pasture” (the USDA requirement for “organic”) is a sniff of the alfalfa field nearby, but the fact that he equates poets with the frauds of commerce is like comparing journalists with a writer of jingles.
But sentimental clichés about poetry and poets are more widespread than their presentation in novels, nonfiction, and short stories. In the few movies that have dared to even include a poet as a character, however minor, poets are dressed in the same stereotypes. One obvious example is Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Deeds is the ostensible hero of the film because of his blank-faced honesty, his empathy, his disregard for money, and his child-like enthusiasms; however, the other characterizing details are a collection of clichés about mentally challenged but hyper-sensitive poets: he writes doggerel on postcards and records Hallmark card sentiments; he dreams of saving a damsel in distress; he lives in Mandrake Falls (a little joke for English majors); whenever he hears a funny name he has to make a rhyme for it, though he is stuck on “Buddington”; he has an imaginary girlfriend he talks to about his pet trees; when he gets drunk with the New York literati, they snicker at him all night long until he finally punches one in the nose and earns some degree of respect, so they get even drunker and chant “back to nature, clothes are a blight on civilization, back to nature.” The next morning he has no idea where his clothes are. Capra and the screenwriter, Robert Riskin, have a great deal of fun with this hopelessly naïve fool, as well as the effete, cowardly snobs of New York’s poetry scene. Perhaps the aim was to pick on such a small segment of the population that the box office couldn’t possibly be affected as it might be with a miserly Jew, another heartless business man, an angry black man, a nagging housewife, or a cruel stepmother. Mr. Deeds is the grossly naive hero whose values are in the right place, whose disdain for money makes him seem eccentric, and he even gets threatened with being assigned to an insane asylum because he won’t defend himself. In the end he does and rather eloquently, but his characteristics are those of a laughable but sincere fool whose integrity has elephantitis.
Garrison Keeler also likes to sport with sentimental clichés about English majors and poets. The fact that he edited a collection of his favorite poems suggests that he does indeed have an abiding regard for the product of poets and English majors, but he favors the easy joke which he repeats a little more than occasionally. He conducted his show from New Orleans which aired on National Public Radio July 17, 2004; he was reading through a list of people from New Orleans--home of jazz, mimes, poets, etc.--and each had a humorous apposition after it; for the poet, it was “Life is a dark hole. Hey, you going to eat that?” His criticism is a bit more sophisticated than Capra’s and Riskin’s. He clearly objects to the sentimentality of darkness, that common assumption among the purveyors of literary excellence which asserts that moaning about the meaningless universe, about inhumane humanity, about the fickleness of love, about the warranted depression we can’t take enough pills for, about the thoroughness of greed and hatred, about global racism and universal suffering, about, about. What these critics and poets don’t seem to understand is that poetry which only documents our woes in the bleakest terms is as sentimental as the poetry that persistently looks on the sunny side of things, that is always smelling roses through the aromas of fertilizer, that gets fuzzy and soft about the vagaries of the human drama, that chronicles the persistence of hope and charity in any slum it encounters. In a story called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” Ursula LeGuin has noted this penchant for discovering bleakness: “The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain. . . But to praise despair is to condemn delight, to embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else. We have almost lost hold; we can no longer describe a happy man, nor make any celebration of joy” (278). This “treason” is widespread among people who wish to write literature, and in a sense, this is quite understandable. Popular culture and the mass markets feed on silly, indulgent novels like Robert Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County or Nicholas Sparks’s The Notebook. As a way to separate themselves from this sappy bunch, serious writers move to the other side of the dance floor, that underlit corner where the drugs come out, where there’s more than a little groping, and sneers are a kind of induction rite. Yet it is much more difficult intellectually to find what holds, what can sustain us in times of despair, what values can stand the test of experience and a clear look at the world. Many, many poets today are afraid of joy and delight, fearing that they might be accused of stupidity. Keeler thinks they deserve to starve for this fear, that their whining about the horrible universe shouldn’t earn them any bread. All the bread should go to the sunshine poets, the rosy writers.
Stevens rejects this treason, this gloomy sentimentality, in his poem called “Gubbinal”:
That strange flower, the sun,
Is just what you say.
Have it your way.
The world is ugly,
And the people are sad.
That tuft of jungle feathers,
That animal eye,
Is just what you say.
That savage of fire,
Have it your way.
The world is ugly,
And the people are sad. (85)
The poem criticizes people who can’t see nature as a catalyst for imaginative exercise, for experiencing delight, for seeing beauty. Stevens has made it clear in other poems like “The Idea of Order at Key West” that we compose our own realties, so he can’t really argue with the poets he addresses, the people who read the world and sun as ugly. Yet, he does. He loves the world, that “savage source,” and the imaginative equipment we’ve been endowed with to turn the sun into a “flower,” a “tuft of feathers,” an “animal eye,” a “seed.” If people can’t delight in this life-sustaining phenomenon, then there is little help for them; they are left with a sad and ugly outlook.
Poets are made so uncomfortable with the cultural clichés judging them that they also criticize themselves and devalue what they do. Edwin Arlington Robinson, one of America’s greatest poets of the late nineteenth century, wrote a sonnet called “Dear Friends” in which he suspected his friends viewed his efforts as “bubble-work too small for you” (2). He challenges those who might call it this to do better if they can, knowing full well they couldn’t. But it’s a rather lame challenge, too meek and ready to believe it’s bubble-work himself. In another sonnet called “The Clerks,” he calls poets “the clerks of time” who as they decline are “tiering the same dull webs of discontent,/ Clipping the same sad alnage of the years” (14). He is too willing to slight his own marvelous achievement, to trivialize his remarkable skill. Sylvia Plath wrote that “For me, poetry is an evasion of the real job of writing prose” (3); she echoes the implication in the Hawthorne quotation and deliberately devalues her own magnificent lyrical abilities. Of poets writing in the twentieth century, she had one of the most finely tuned ears for language, despite the darkness of her poems which can seem a little too personally ingrown.
In a poem called “Osso Buco,” Billy Collins wrote:
I am swaying now in the hour after dinner
a citizen tilted back on his chair,
a creature with a full stomach--
something you don’t hear much about in poetry--
that sanctuary of hunger and deprivation.
You know: the driving rain, boots by the door,
small birds searching for berries in winter. (49)
Collins is eager to agree with Garrison Keeler who has had him on his show several times to read his cheery poems. Collins has deliberately chosen to side with our cultural stereotype when he knows better; he’s appealing to his budding audience of non-poetry readers, saying stay with me and we’ll be fine, no more driving rain and berries, no more black holes and starvation. Please pass the salt. Collins’s poems are generally entertaining and clever and imaginative, but we wish he might get a little more serious, that he played the fop a little less often, that he represented American poetry a little more fairly, that he more readily acknowledged its breadth and scope. Calling poetry a “sanctuary of hunger and deprivation” is a very selective reading of our grand anthology, one that smacks of smugness and privilege.
Hart Crane made a comment which illustrated an alternate view of sentimentality when reading poetry. He was referring to his poem called “Chaplinesque” which analyzed Chaplin’s The Kid. The poem begins:
We make our meek adjustments,
Contented with such random consolations
As the wind deposits
In slithered and too ample pockets.
For we can still love the world, who find
A famished kitten on the step, and know
Recesses for it from the fury of the street,
Or warm torn elbow coverts. (386)
He wrote to a friend that “Poetry, the human feelings, ‘the kitten,’ is so crowded out of the humdrum, rushing, mechanical scramble of today that the man who would preserve them must duck and camouflage for dear life to keep them or keep himself from annihilation. I have since learned that I am by no means alone in seeing these things in the buffooneries of the tragedian, Chaplin. … I have tried to express these ‘social sympathies’ in words corresponding somewhat to the antics of the actor” (386). He wrote to Gorham Munson that “Chaplin may be a sentimentalist, after all, but he carries the theme with such power and universal portent that sentimentality is made to transcend itself into a new kind of tragedy, eccentric, homely, and yet brilliant. . .I feel that I have captured the arrested climaxes and evasive victories of his gestures in words” (386). The suggestion here is that poetry, as a metaphor for the depth of our inner experience, is the hungry, homeless cultural kitten on America’s doorstep which has been nearly run over and starved by technological advances and the humming scramble of our comings and goings. The man who bends for the “famished kitten,” who “can still love the world,” has to find “recesses” in which to protect the kitten and try to be contented with his “random consolations.” He is clearly an alien, shadowy presence going against the grain of the traffic and exhaust of his culture. This kitten-saving is a kind of “game” that “enforces smirks.” The man who wishes to make a case for the value of poetry must “duck and camouflage for dear life” because there are so many “inevitable thumbs” and verbal snubs pointed against it.
Crane’s poem was written in 1921, and in 20011 the smirks are more like derisive laughter. Poetry is a quaint anachronism, a sentimental entertainment from a bygone age. Even people who purport to be enlightened see nothing wrong in brandishing the clichés of the poet/character who is kittenishly withdrawn from the world, selfish, egotistical, insensitive to others in the pursuit of linguistic fame, pushing a product that is absolutely useless, pathetically needy, too out of it to see the sources of his or her own literal and figurative impoverishment, intellectually pudgy, fearlessly fatuous in the public readings of his mock heroic squiggles, a chaser of butterflies, a fruity dilettante with bad hygiene. The kitten metaphor is a detail from Chaplin’s movie. It is, however, an adequate image to illustrate Crane’s point about Chaplin: “sentimentality is made to transcend itself into a new kind of tragedy” (386). The poverty and destitution of the kid is countered by his ingenuity, his resilience, and his humaneness. The tragedy is neoned by the kid’s attention to the kitten which becomes a metaphor for the kid’s own helplessness and need for a parent. This is the strategy of newscasters reporting on tragedies in distant lands: the camera pans the destitution, homelessness, starvation, and then ends on a child playing with a skinny pup or a mother nursing a child with a face full of flies. The sentimentality seems to make the story more poignant. When we do this in fiction, it reads a little like the ending of Grapes of Wrath where Steinbeck’s Rose of Sharon suckles the nearly dead farmhand. It seems excessive despite our logical mind insisting that it might be possible given what these characters have been through. However, that “new tragedy” can fall flat on its sentimental face and seem as deliberately orchestrated as a Christian charity’s ad designed to bilk people out of their money and emotions. Great poems and great art don’t depend on such obvious gestures and easy manipulations and juxtapositions.
Crane is right, though, about areas of human emotion being endangered by the “mechanical scramble” of today, by the time spent on watching TV and playing video games, by Internet’s chatrooms and pornography, its blogs and cams, but they are also endangered by persistent cultural stereotypes that degrade an art form with so much potential to uplift and examine, to address issues of identity, to penetrate social ambiguities. Poets are especially adept at finding meaning in things that most people walk by, in those dark recesses, and we need them to teach us how to see, how to feel, how to express what we see and feel. They name what we’ve felt, and having a name to approach a complication is a long stride toward addressing it. They use their reading and imagination and synthesizing abilities to expand individual and cultural options. They find ways for us to embrace sentiment and enjoy it without shame. They can make us slow down and appreciate our gifts, or blessings. They examine our fears, our strengths, our limitations, our potential, our thinking in ways few other observers can. Poets can help us “still love the world” when we don’t really feel like it. Crane pins his value on a pursuit of the “heart” and says there is intrinsic value in hearing that “kitten in the wilderness,” that there are “evasive victories” in capturing “gestures in words.” Even though his kitten as metaphor for poetry seems part of the problem, a regard for otherness, for ways of understanding different points of view and experience, are exactly the province of poetry. When Chaplin’s street kid grows up, he’s probably not going to be a poet because he will have been conditioned to fear it, to ridicule it, to misunderstand it.
A number of poets have written about the positive social effects of poetry. In Book 1 of “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” William Carlos Williams wrote that “It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there” (161-2). The fact that he was a medical doctor gives him some authority for making generalizations about misery.
One only has to look at the way poetry is used in America to see that literary and pop culture have found easy targets which, like most stereotypes, are hard to give up. Yet if we examine how poetry is used by most of us—at Weddings, funerals, after tragedies like 9-11, after divorces and most unsettling life transitions—we’ll realize that its power to console and interpret is monumental. Christian Wiman, the editor of Poetry magazine, has written in an essay called “Poetry in a Visual Culture,” that “in the end we go to poetry for one reason, so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy them” (120). I have seen first hand, from students and colleagues and friends, the power of poetry to transform us into more thoughtful, more humane, and more generous people which to me are the criteria for living more deeply, for inhabiting our lives fully.
Of course, there are readers and writers of poetry who are not shaken by its charms, who despite reading large chunks of it will continue to be bitter, exclusive, derogatory, for change in character is not so simple; it requires a native susceptibility, yet some of us may be oblivious to what learning or knowledge has to offer. These people may become even more crabbed and dark and cynical. Poetry magazine sponsored an “exchange” between poets about whether poetry has “a social function.” Daisy Fried wrote that “People who talk about poetry’s social utility often concentrate on content. They think, perhaps, that poetry Tells the Truth, or Provides Solace. These notions make me queasy” (298). For her, social function seemed to center on politics and poetry’s inability to make things happen; she wants to separate “content” from explanations of “why the poem is extraordinary.” Of course, it’s impossible to separate content from form—or from any of poetry’s strategies like tone, understatement, obliqueness, metaphor, economy, or syntax--and Fried’s queasiness seems to come out of an implicit obligation as a poet to write socially significant poems. This would feel claustrophobic to lyrical, confessional poets as if they were being asked to climb into a time capsule with Robert Lowell and W. H. Auden, but the fear is groundless. Discoveries about our own motivations and weaknesses and strengths can be just as personally edifying to a reader as a meditation on free will or alienation. Major Jackson replied to Fried’s comment by saying “Whether as a form of witness, as a medium which dignifies individual speech and thought, as a repository of our cumulative experiences, or as a space where we ‘purify’ language, poetry, like all imaginative creations, divines the human enterprise. This is poetry’s social value” (299). Poetry’s value is that it explores the human experience so that we recognize ourselves more completely, that we understand more of why we did what we did, and have a lozenge of language to chew on that gives off a sweetness with its beneficial effects. Aside from all the stereotyping about poets and poetry, poets are people who simultaneously live deeply in language and the human and natural worlds so that their textures and rhythms, their nuances and needs illumine ours; they also inhabit and expand the imagination in ways that assimilate and create experience so that we can understand and live more fully.
As an undergraduate I was wrong about the limits of psychology, and if I had gone further into it then, I would have realized it. The psychologists are clearer about the value of poetry than most poets are. Robert Caper, in his article “What Is a Clinical Fact?,” wrote that psychoanalysts have a “a sense of insecurity about whether or not we can even define in words some of our most fundamental scientific notions, let alone communicate them to a broader public, or even among ourselves. I don't believe that the solution to this sense of insecurity lies in trying to make psychoanalysis more expressible in the scientific language we have. I think we would do better to try to change the language of science into something more psychoanalytic. At present only poets and artists are able to capture these kinds of experiences so that they retain their meaning outside the context of the events immediately surrounding them" (912). The real gift of both poetry and psychology is, finally, the understanding of our own minds, our own hearts, with the language it uses to see itself.
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