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Thursday, April 11, 2013

Beyond lyric. Audience. Energy.

Vignette by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
for Thaliad
Some how I never got around to reading John Barr's essay on contemporary poetry until tonight.  I'm rather glad, as it matches a good many of my thoughts well, and I might have failed to think for myself, letting him do so for me . . . Reading it, I am once again pleased that I left academia early on and have lived a very different sort of life from that one, and I am glad that I have worked in all sorts of forms, paying little attention to fashion, and chased after meter and rhyme and my own particular "golden apples of the sun" and "silver apples of the moon."
My suggestion here is that the ubiquity of the lyric poem today, to the exclusion of other modes of poetry, is another sign of poverty in the art form. The limits of the poetry of any age come not from things the poets perceived but were unable to attain (that would be failures of craft), but rather from the things they never thought to include or never thought of value to their art. It's not just the poets; this is how one age differs from the next. In the eyes of those who succeed it, an age of poetry comes to be defined at least in part by what it was not. You cannot know an era—say, Kafka's Europe—until half a century later, when it no longer exists, when you can see what it was not, and what came out of it and displaced it. -John Barr, "American Poetry in the New Century"
In fact, I have worked a great deal outside of the confines of the lyric. Because I also came to write novels, I gained an interest in using narrative voice, character, story, and plot in poems, particularly in recent work: the title sequence of The Throne of Psyche; the epic adventure Thaliad; and the long sequence of lyrics, narratives, and monologues focused on characters and transformation, The Book of the Red King (not yet published.)

But the question of how to return audience to poetry is still puzzling to me. One can write an adventurous narrative with distinct characters and events that are charged with life and meaning, and still not find more than a relatively small though engaged audience. John Barr writes,
No one knows if poetry has a golden age ahead of it any time soon, but it's hard to imagine one without an audience. If you look at drama in Shakespeare's day, or the novel in the last century, or the movie today, it suggests that an art enters its golden age when it is addressed to and energized by the general audiences of its time. In a golden age of poetry the audience will not be just the workshop, where poets write for other poets, or the classroom—both of which have provided crucial sanctuary to poetry during the past half century. Its audience will lie also in that world of non-poetry readers who come to discover its deep sustenance. "To have great poets, there must be great audiences too," Whitman said, and then he wrote for them. 
Caring for culture, then, demands an audience's growth and involvement with the arts. I entirely agree that being "energized" by audience is key to a golden age. If we had no Shakespeare, his time would still have been an aureate era. And I also agree that an epoch in which poets only write for other poets is a sadly reduced one.

I am grateful to the internet for providing writers who live in obscure places a community, with other writers and a place to talk to readers--things I have found on twitter and facebook and elsewhere. People I met online have done lovely things for my books, making videos, collaborating in multi-media projects involving images and music, and more.

Still, there is much that I don't grasp in this matter of the diminished audience for poetry after Modernism. When an audience dies away, can it return like resurrected spring?
Meeting me elsewhere: Excerpts from 2012 novel, adventure in blank verse, and collection of poems--A Death at the White Camellia OrphanageThe Foliate Head, and Thaliad--are at Scribd. Or take a peep at Thaliad at Phoenicia Publishing. (The Thaliad paperback is on sale at Phoenicia during Poetry Month. The hardcover is only available through Phoenicia, and the paperback anywhere.) See page tabs above for clips, links to reviews, and information on those three brand new books plus The Throne of Psyche from 2011, and more. 
Elizabeth Adams has updated the Phoenicia Publishing Thaliad page. Amazing, mesmerizing, filled with pithy wisdom, THALIAD is a work of genius which also seems particularly relevant to our own time." --Lee Smith.  "Extraordinary, deeply moving and fiercely intelligent." -- Tomcat.  "It's brutal and gorgeous, and like nothing else out there." -- Nathan Ballingrud. Etcetera. Please have a peep!
Back-of-The Foliate Head image,
also by Clive Hicks-Jenkins


  1. I'm trying to figure out what to make of this: Caroline Kennedy has just put her name on a new book for children called Poems to Learn by Heart. The cover art doesn't strike me as very boy-friendly, but the contents are wonderfully wide ranging, and the Disney Channel is hyping the book to such an extent that it's currently an Amazon bestseller.

    The optimistic side of me thinks it's great that Disney (which published the book) is making itself useful, and I'm amused to imagine that the Mouse might just help introduce kids to such poets as Paul Laurence Dunbar, Richard Wilbur, and Elizabeth Bishop, all of whom are represented in the table of contents. On the other hand, I can foresee lots of books bought by well-intentioned grandmas and uncles going unread because kids haven't been taught poems in school and are increasingly unlikely to open random books in their home.

    I'm more content when I learn toward optimism.

  2. When my daughter was at a tiny private school for a while, I made a little pamphlet of poems to memorize for her also-little class. They had a splendid recitation, and there weren't so many of them that it was overwhelming. Each child memorized several poems.

    I think my daughter, now 21, can probably still recite Kathleen Raine's "Spell of Creation." She was still saying it outloud, years later. And she did a great little rendition of Puck from MND. The whole event was charming and lively.

    Children could enjoy this sort of thing, given less homework and less testing. I'm not sure how well it will work in a public school setting without those reductions. My observation is that a lot of kids (more boys than girls but a great many of each) go full tilt from around 6:00 a.m. (finishing homework) to 5 or 6 p.m. when sports are done. And then they must eat and either do or avoid homework!

    I actually think really knowing a few poems by heart is probably worth more to one's life than a million poetry projects.


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.