Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers.--John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Amis on poetry & a response

from David Wallace-Wells, "New New Yorker Martin Amis talks about terrorism, pornography, idyllic Brooklyn and American in decline"

 Amis: It’s why poetry is in retreat, very generally. What a poem does, what a lyric poem does, is stop the clock. It goes, right—we’re going to look at this moment, this epiphany, this little revelatory meditation on mood and setting. And the clock is going to stop while we do this together—that’s what is said to the reader. And the modern reader goes, Nah, I don’t want to do that, I’m busy. And when you’re reading some enormous piece in The New Yorker or the New York Review of Books about Iraq or Afghanistan, and there’s a poem on the page—you go, what’s that doing on the page? It looks bathetic.

Wallace-Wells: It’s amazing that at one point, the poem could be expected to do the same work as a cartoon—that people reading The New Yorker would have the same appetite for stopping and reading a poem as they would for reading a cartoon.

 Amis: Yeah. And the appetite is gone. People talk about dumbing-down, but there’s a parallel process which is a numbing-down. When a poet is asking you to commune with him or her for this period of time—it gives people the creeps, now. That’s why people are always talking on their phones, or looking at their phones, it’s because they don’t want to be alone with their thoughts.

Novels don’t work like that. The element of escapism is a real one, and you become absorbed in others’ lives. There’s a very good poem by Auden called “The Novelist,” a sonnet in fact. It begins by talking about the poet—”encased in talent like a uniform, they can dash forward like hussars.” And it comes to the novelist. Your talent is very different. You must submit yourself to all human boredom. With the just, be just, with the filthy, filthy, too. It’s a much more promiscuous and Everyman-ish form than the poem. And those novels we talked about, the long-headed essayistic, wise, sort of Babel novels, where you’re just sort of sounding off about this and that—I like those novels, but that is too much like the voice of a poem, not the novelist.

 * * *

 I'm mulling over whether these things are true; being devoted to both poetry and fiction, I'm interested in what novelists (particularly novelists who claim they are not poets) have to say about poetry. Someone with a little distance from poetry but devoted to words can have a sheaf of sharp opinions... And Martin Amis generally does. I once saw him read from The Information at The Regulator in Durham, North Carolina, and thought that he had a real gimlet eye--piercing, demanding.

Some thoughts:

 1. On stopping the clock: Yes, I agree with this in great part. A first-rate lyric can be about much more than "mood and setting," but in our age it frequently isn't about more than mood and setting. And I also agree that (as he says elsewhere in the interview) we're still knee-deep in the powerful current of Modernism, however many times we do protest too much by setting "post" before the word. The "avant-garde" in poetry sometimes appears to have discovered Duchamp for the first time...

 2. One of the things a return to formal poetry attempts to do is wrestle those old patterns of richness and argument (vs. simply "mood and setting") into the current day.

 3. Yes, it seems to be almost possible to pull the average modern reader into the kind of receptiveness that lyric poetry demands. I do know some poetry readers who are not poets, though, and still have a hope that the tribe might increase.

 4. I'm wondering if much of this could just as well be an argument against the long, long dominance of the lyric over longer forms like dramatic monologue, narrative, and epic. (I hope so, since I have a long narrative coming out--a cross between a novel and a blank-verse epic that adheres to epic conventions and focuses on dramatic events and character. Perhaps I prefer to delude myself here. I prefer. I prefer. A reverse Bartleby.)

 5. To what degree is a distaste for poetry actually a result of being force-fed often mediocre or axe-grinding prose broken into lines in the public school system? And being made to write the same? While many children enjoy these portions of English class, the undertaking is so inferior a program to what our ancestors experienced in school, translating Greek and Latin poetry into passable meters. Perhaps today schoolchildren should be asked to translate a passage of Chaucer or one of Shakespeare's sonnets into passable meter and contemporary English.

 6. Bathetic is an interesting word, combining the pathetic and sheer bathos. So the argument is that if you glimpse a poem on the page along with a serious work of journalism, it appears sentimental or downright hokey--before one has even glanced at a word. The whole idea of a poem, Amis says, is suffused with a sense of the maudlin. I have a mixed response here: I'm imagining the newspaper reader more like a cow (no insult--a lovely, pricey Belted Galloway, say), absorbed in her nutritious grass, who flicks away a pesky fly. Of course, that's the "what's that doing there" response he mentions. But a huge quantity of contemporary poetry is barren of feeling, sentimental or otherwise, and to call it "bathetic" is probably to pay more of a compliment than a lot of poetry deserves. (Not that we're any different here than other recent ages: there is always a lot of bad poetry of various sorts. One hopes not to contribute to the storehouse.)

 7. The poetry and cartoon comparison: I'm not sure what it means to say the same "appetite" for each--perhaps I'd agree with the same "willingness" to experience a thing. But the experience of a one-panel cartoon is much, much briefer than the experience of a good poem, which may involve re-readings and certainly asks for an interiority that does not seem common now--although I may be too swayed by the image of people with phones clamped to their heads. All I have to do is look out my front windows to see just that in the shape of a Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame tourist. (How do I know it's not a Glimmerglass Opera tourist or a museums tourist? Dead giveaways: baseball cap, striped uniform. Never worn to the opera or Fenimore Museum. Occasionally to the Farmer's Museum.)

 8. The discussion about poetry and novel seems to suggest again what a loss it is that the more dramatic and narrative types of poetry have faded away during the long dominance of the short lyric--which has, of course, over time become less and less lyric-like. What's the use of a lyric that refuses to sing?


  1. Marly,
    I don't disagree with him at all. In fact, it is probably true that people have just that response to poetry on a page of journalism. And if he's thinking about the poems published in recent years in the New Yorker, which I only occasionally bother to read, when I do look at that magazine, they are pretty forgettable, it seems to me, as if they were chosen for just that quality.
    It isn't that he is saying poetry deserves to be ignored; it's a more descriptive than prescriptive comment. People don't have the mind or the patience for reading poetry.
    But oddly enough, as some people have found, these same people often have favorite poems they hang on their walls or put on Facebook. So perhaps there's hope yet.
    There have been ages where people don't read fiction much (the Romantic period, for example). Perhaps we're going through something like that with poetry?

  2. Am I disagreeing? Don't think so. Responding, yes, and adding or taking away... Just dancing with his ideas a bit. And I'm certain not saying that loads of people have "the mind or the patience."

    You're not the only writer to comment on TNY in connection with this post! (See fb link.)

  3. That is, to comment negatively!


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.