Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Dreaming the revolt of the Muses--

Gustave Moreau, Hesiod and the Muse, 1891.
Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Wikipedia gallery / public domain
The world is a Silk Road--we have been adopting and adapting bits of other people's culture from the start. Culture is no more a static thing than is language. It's a living, growing thing, and we should hope that it is in good health for all our sakes. What many froth over--cultural influence--is the condition of the planet for many thousands of years. Cultural contact meant and still means change and growth and a way of re-imagining one's own arts. At the moment, I don't think the culture is in especially fit health, in large part because we've cheerfully let in the Trojan horse of entertainment (enjoyable and fun and occasionally rising to heights, yes, but not usually the height of human achievement) to defeat the high works of culture and leave only tiny audiences for many of our most important arts. Precious traditions dwindle and die away.

Take poetry as an example. We find ourselves--at least in this country--with a vision of poetry that is extremely small these days. As readers and as writers, we have forgotten our Western classical roots, seldom study the great works of the past in our own language (we oust Chaucer and Shakespeare and Milton from the English major in many schools), and have abandoned our knowledge of a range of forms, prosody, syntax, modes, tropes, figures, and auricular pleasures. And that means we have kicked a good deal of variety and surprise and liveliness out of the poetry tent.

A great many writers have come through the Romantic period and into Modernism and Post-Modernism with a conviction that poetry can only begin with our own (sometimes itty-bitty) feelings and end in an epiphany of some sort, and that stance cripples us. We have been devoted to the small lyric for too many years, and we have ignored the other possibilities. When such things happen, we fall into the world of diminishing returns.

I like this (already somewhat old) trumpet call from Mary Kinzie:
...the poet aims to restore to poetry the universality and aboriginally that over time has mistakenly been reassigned to prose. Poetry is the preconditional state of language, not its late and shiftless offspring... Poetry was once the queen of literature, not its poor cousin. At various junctures drama was written in it; so were letters. Once the medium of songs as of satire, of philosophical meditations and allegory, of civic as well as private praise and lament, poetic verse periodically could do anything a thoughtful or unruly bard wished it to do. It was the very expanse of possibility in which literary structure was secured. I subscribe to the notion that, if language can be thought of as a pyramid, its base is poetry, not prose. Poetry is the ground--the ground of resemblance, controlled in time--from which literature of all kinds takes shape.
Isn't it time for a revolt of the Muses? My hope is that we are entering a period of unruly bards who will take new territory and unruly readers, who will look far beyond the limits of entertainment.  We ourselves are, after all, the ones who can change our world. The past and tradition don't just make us look backward but are the nourishment that helps us look forward.

Here are some thoughts about the state of poetry and the arts from writer and poet Jeff Sypeck, drawn from a series of comments on the previous post, "The Fool in his fish skin cloak," that I thought deserved to be in greater light and not tucked away in the comments section.
And it's not just at universities. I spent two years attending major conferences in the museum world, and everyone was fretting about how to meet the demands of young people, with almost nobody willing to claim that their field should be promoting slow-paced contemplation and beauty as an alternative to the culture. I've seen museums use their exhibition spaces as dance clubs, and some symphonies now make a big deal out of programs devoted to movie soundtracks or video-game music.

I don't necessarily object to any of those things, but you can smell the nervous sweat of arts professionals desperate to be liked by the culture at large, even though the culture has overwhelmingly opted to embrace corporate entertainment instead. Museums, art centers, indy publishers, orchestras--they should all be starting with the premise that for at least some people out there, alternatives exist to a $410 million piece of crap like "Batman vs. Superman," and I don't mean "Batman vs. Superman II."
What can we do? I, for one, am trying to promote and spend more money on art and entertainment that's weird, independent, unaffiliated--but I think it would help if we had stronger rebuttals to cries of "elitism!" and "snobbery!," the most common smears against fine-art and high-arts advocates. People who like crap aren't open to hearing someone scold them to like better things--but how to persuade them is something I've been thinking a great deal about lately.
What we need are good arguments—not lofty statements that we ourselves already believe, but claims that persuade. To my mind, one of the best is an honest expansion of the argument used when music and theater programs in schools are threatened: that these things are lifesavers for kids who desperately need outlets. There's no reason that thinking should apply only to kids or only to school programs; I've seen middle-aged people find new purpose in their lives by learning oil painting or becoming mosaicists, and I once saw a 60-year-old student, a construction foreman, discover that he loved opera (to the bemusement of his patient wife). We should greatly expand the thinking behind the cry that sensitive kids need the drama club; all kinds of people need this stuff in all phases of their lives. 
Lately I've been thinking that another viable argument involves a bit of gentle shame aimed at the more liberal-minded: if you so distrust and dislike corporations, why do you give them 100 percent of your art and entertainment budget? Diversify! 
I should note that I write this as someone who used to be a popular-culture junkie. I still like a good superhero movie, danceable music, ambitious comics...but I'm grateful to have had bigger things to grow into. I foolishly assumed that this more high-minded culture would always be there; I never imagined that popular culture would so overwhelm it. 
I'm still thinking about how to promulgate the arguments and use not only the shame but also the hope and the curiosity and even the fear of people who opt for corporate entertainment by default. I don't expect to start a cultural revolution, but every person who takes a little more non-corporate art and entertainment into their lives is a victory as far as I'm concerned. I want to come up with arguments that are as scrupulously honest as they are persuasive, but to be persuasive, those arguments can't be disdainful or insulting. It's an interesting rhetorical challenge. (One of the strongest tactics may be to appeal to an ongoing countercultural impulse. Is there anything more establishment, more pro-corporation, more consumerist than marching off to the latest superhero movie?) 
I also think it has to be a face-to-face process: getting people into artists' studios, art centers, theaters, literary events, and so forth. I'll go so far as to say that even video-game night or sci-fi theme-song night at the orchestra could be good starts, as "pops concerts" once were, if these events were presented not apologetically, but as the first promising glimpse of a much larger creative world.
So what do you think of all that? I expect there are plenty of people who have interesting ideas about how to deal with the conquest of entertainment and the need for unruly bards! If you are one, leave a note. How to care for culture is a issue that sings out to us all.

Update: Lots of views, no comments! Maybe I'd better promise not to put any comments on the front page! I also ought to say that a great deal of what we once regarded as entertainment has lasted, and lasted well--Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Fielding, etc. Evidently the meaning of this word entertainment has changed over time, though, and perhaps I need to figure out what it meant and what it means now.


  1. Hmm, my thoughts are complicated and somewhat a right angles to what Jeff is saying. I think the raw numbers of literate people have changed the situation utterly. In all of Chaucer's England, the number of people with the education and means to write literary poetry was probably smaller than the number of poetry bloggers in a midsize American city -- say Cleveland -- today. I'm perfectly willing to entertain the notion that Cleveland produces great poets at a lesser rate than Plantagenet England -- but even so, it's hard to imagine that we are so much worse at it that there aren't scores, maybe hundreds, of Chaucers producing fabulous poems. I could name two who have produced notable poetry cycles just by glancing up the page here :-)

    There are economic consequences to this. English poetry, in an age of 500 million (give or take) people who can potentially read and write poetry -- and in an age in which reproduction and distribution is for practical purposes free -- has no scarcity value whatsoever. It is, economically, completely worthless. There is no such thing as not being able to find enough poetry written in English. Hell, I can't keep up even with the published books of my friends whose poetry I adore, let alone with the academic world. Supply totally swamps demand. I know that there are many people who can't find contemporary poetry that they think is any good, but I can't say I share that point of view.

    But it means that the stately progress of the slowly growing literary canon, with one or two Great Poets canonized per generation and (after much bickering) assimilated into English schooling before more come along -- has been blown to bits. Which is both a good thing and a bad thing, I guess. In a world in which we desperately need to slow down and savor... the reading of poetry requires creating an artificial scarcity, now: slowing down and reading a book as if it was the only one that was going to be worth reading for the next twenty years. It's not actually so, but how else do you give the sort of attention poetry deserves (and rewards?)

    Forgive the length of this: I'm writing in haste, and must away. Didn't have time to write shorter :-)

    1. Ah, that's all so true, too, though I've never quite understood how important numbers were for producing work of the highest order. I mean, do raw numbers of educated people mean more work of the very, very best? It doesn't seem to work quite that way.

      Certainly you are right about poetry and worthlessness in mercantile terms--everything is available so easily. And even if you don't read a person's books, you can find a good number of the poems online. (And I, also, have stacks of books by friends to read!)

      But I wouldn't at all say that readers have increased proportionately, would you? I don't have that sense at all.

      And with poetry, the presses that I see that actually seem solvent are ones that produce a lot of books without counting on making a lot of money from each. I'm thinking of a new press that really cranks out the books and is doing well financially. But it seems hard on the writers because most don't get much distribution.

      As for the canon, you are right there as well--on top of that, we're going back into the past and finding new people, women and people of color. So it's quite a library of books to read.

      I tend to find it hard to pick out the good work, so much is obscured by the massive quantity of books. Once you get beyond books that are pushed by a publisher, it's an enormous sea.

      I feel a bit like a whirligig. I agree with Jeff, then I agree with you, then I think of many more things--then I wonder why it should matter what I think at all!

    2. Maybe it's because I spend so much time with young adults (and they are constantly "in touch" with one another in a way I find tiresome), but I have the sense that everything's moving fast, that time is being frittered away by technology, and that there's no sitting down with a book because we really are entertaining ourselves to death.

  2. The substance of your posting exceeds my grasp, but I will try this abbreviated response/reaction: artists are either voices bought and paid for by their cultures or solitary voices outside of and independent culture; that fact of life has been and will always be true, so artists must choose -- live free or . . .

    1. Well, I'm not sure. I've certainly been politely obstinate, going my own way and often not doing what one is supposed to do. But there are all sorts of ways of being a writer or artist. And there are people who fit the zeitgeist, and people who don't. The whole enterprise is infinitely variable.

      And even what you say about the artist and culture is tricky. I mean, you can't say, oh, Annie Dillard's essays are no good because she got attention so young and so never managed to be outside of culture--no, she made culture and shaped culture, as well as being popular. You see? Once you start looking, there are exceptions to every thing we could generalize about writers and their relationship to culture.


  3. First of all, Marly, thanks for finding my two dashed-off comments worthy of elevation to a blog post of their own! I'm still thinking through these questions, and I may yet emend these initial impressions. We shall see.

    Dale, thanks for the reply! I don't think we disagree as much as you might think, and in fact I think you're right about the increased supply of poetry, art, and other lovely things. That said, I can't shake the dreadful feeling that the demand has also gone way, way, waaaaay down. I'm old enough to remember when middle-class people tried to signal certain cultural aspirations by going to the theater, the symphony, museums, and so forth; they were imitating wealthier elites who, as a class, felt duty-bound to support the arts. Now, because of several dizzying cultural changes and the egalitarian impulse of the age, well-to-do upper-middle-class people are happy to gab about corporate TV or movie franchises instead.

    The generation that dutifully supported some of our most beautiful and most refined arts is dying off. Tomorrow night my girlfriend and I will drive into D.C. to see "Othello" at the Shakespeare Theatre, where we're likely to be 20 to 30 years younger than nearly everyone sitting around us. Whole chunks of art and culture are being written out of public consciousness.

    There's a telling sight I see every time I go to an art or craft market: browsers who almost certainly spend $2,500 or more annually on television will express shock, sometimes even take offence, when they see that a potter has priced her handmade, one-of-a-kind wares at $40 or more. As a result, I've been trying to support artists, artisans, and independent writers by buying original art, reading weird books, and buying nice handmade things over junk whenever possible. It's been enlightening to discover just how much deliberate effort that takes (and how selective I have to be, since I'm not made of money). Our culture hasn't made it easy to support non-corporate entertainment and art, so it's understandable why people with the means to do so do have stopped supporting the fine arts: it's drowned out by commercial entertainment in ways that have come to be accepted as normal. They rarely know this stuff even exists anymore.

    1. That does seem to be the thing--that we are not replacing audiences. Instead, we are replacing what we put into the heads of audiences. T.V. and video games and apps, not theatre or dance or concerts or books. I do see younger people at Glimmerglass Opera, but that's about it. And they are not the majority. The only local events that bring in a lot of young people are the Ommegang Brewery concerts. Again, not in the realm of "our most beautiful and most refined arts."

      You are quite right to think of supporting what you can. I buy books, pottery, local crafts, and a lot of artwork, mostly by friends. But I think most people don't have anything of the sort in their budgets. It's doable, but you have to want to do it.

      I noticed novelist Adrian McKinty comes right out and asks people to review his books on Amazon, asks people to support his books. Maybe there needs to be more asking, even if it's a thing people in the arts--especially writers, who tend to be reluctant--don't like.

  4. good points, all; kudos to marly for the post(age). my own view involves education. instead of teachers trying to make students learn by lowering standards to their level, they need somehow to try and get the students to be curious about quality art. easier said than done, i'm sure, and social changes occur in what seem to me rather mysterious circumstances. like the beats in the fifties leading to the flower children in the sixties. movements like these have seeded the production of major poetry and art in the past; if such occurrences happen in the future it will be in similar circumstances, it seems to me. only how to induce something like that... the only way i can see is through education, unless they really do occur spontaneously...

    1. For a long time, I've wanted schools to do more memorization and appreciation in poetry, rather than the dissection that kills! And I've wanted better choices in fiction; I can't quite grasp why some schools have simply dumbed down the curriculum, but of course our colleges have led the way.

      Of late, we have not taught people to feel any awe or wonder before the work of artists who achieved greatly. Instead, we've suggested that anybody can write poetry, paint, etc. Everybody's great.

      Dana Gioia's memorization project is a good thing, I believe, but it strikes me that not so very long ago, people knew a lot more about achievement in all the arts. Children translated Latin poetry, or copied a work of art for a drawing master. That's not going to happen these days--it'll be the rare student who finds a Jacob Collins for a teacher, or who writes sonnets until the form is in his bones.

      Perhaps poets and other practitioners of ebbing arts are the lacemakers of today... And tomorrow there will still be people interested in what they do, just not so many.

      I'm still feeling like a whirligig on these matters!

  5. And a bit of Faulkner, a bit of grit and determination as a reminder: I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

  6. Permanence of soul (or species): it really makes a sharp philosophical divide. I'm glad we can hulloo across it :-)

    1. Doesn't all that Faulknerian glory sound a million years away? No Nobel prize winner would say such things now. Try, and they'd probably nab the prize and run away!


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.