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

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

You Asked, no. 16: Poetry in our day

R. T. (Tim)10:54 AM, March 15, 2016 I'm going to be bold (and I hope not rude) by making a comment (observation) and asking a question. (1) I've known a few poets in the past half century, and I've been impressed by their commitment even though their reading audience seems to be painfully small; (2) How can poetry now in the 21st century ever grow beyond its self-contained audience (usually academics, other poets, and a smattering of others) and become more commonly read by more people? Perhaps neither my observation nor my question are worthy of your attention. I'm just thinking out loud.
Not only is the audience for poetry small, the academic-realm support for the kind of poetry I want to write is even smaller--that is, I want to write something that is not a free verse lyric poem with a bit of narrative. I want to write in forms, sometimes old and forgotten forms. I want to use all the tools of Puttenham's "arte of English poesy" that were lost in time or laid down in Modernism. Occasionally I do something that looks like free verse, as when I fooled around with poems inspired by Yoruban chant. But it's still a running after shapeliness. For the most part, the academy isn't interested in such things, so that leaves me with the "smattering of others." (A large number of poets are ensconced in the academy, so I can't count so much on those other poets you mention.)

But I happen to think that a lot of the most exciting possibilities in poetry mean chasing the past and making it work for today. That's part of why I pursued a long epic adventure in Thaliad. (Interestingly,  that 2012 book still trickles along in sales, a narrow runnel but not yet stopped.)

I want the past--which contemporary scholars are busy ousting from our best schools--to go along with me. Get an English major without a jot of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton? It happens. Spin poetry out of your navel instead of out of the rich gold of the past? Lack a proper humility in standing before the masters? It happens.

Little springlike shoots, desires for tradition and its magic and powers are cropping up in all the arts, I expect. In painting, somebody like Makoto Fujimura, painting in the Nihongan traditions, calls for culture care and the creation of beauty out of the ashes of destruction, a gift to the wounded and dehumanized soul. A devoted follower of the Old Masters like Jacob Collins says, “Those people who never lose sight of beauty and power are attractive. I’m trying to make things beautiful in a deep way. Poetic. Transformative. Mysterious.” A good number of my friends who paint, even when they are clearly children of Modernism, have embraced narrative and sometimes figurative work. Many of them seem like bridges between one thing and another, and some have moved (I'm thinking of Victoria Adams in particular) from something near abstraction to an enchanted realism.

The great transcendentals, beauty, truth, and goodness, are returning to us in various ways, though there are many who fight against their elemental powers. At times, they feel fresh and alive with energy once more.

You suggest that numbers in poetry are a problem. I am not so sure, though it certainly would be lovely to have more readers. Many a press has foundered over poetry's small sales. The "sugar'd sonnets of Shakespeare, among his private friends" were passed by hand (Francis Meres, 1598.) Later on, we know that Donne's poems were circulated this way, as were the works of many others. A small, beautiful work like Chidiock Tichbourne's "Elegy," written before his execution, may well have been dependent upon a single hand-written copy, though the poem soon made it into a book. Poems have survived their times despite small readership.

Was there ever a mythical age when all the world knew poetry? Perhaps not since the days of oral recitation by the fire, if then. What can we do? Well, schools could focus more on memorization and recitation and appreciation instead of dissection. (Need a written school assignment? Translate a sixteenth-century sonnet into your own words. Or write a sonnet, and then look at it two weeks later. Time tells all.) But how much needs to be done? I don't even know. I expect we might be surprised by meeting people in seemingly un-poetic occupations who read poetry--perhaps not contemporary poetry, but poetry all the same. Certainly it was not uncommon in the nineteenth century. And today there are elements of poetry in popular slams, rap, song. Do those lead young people on to better work? I have no idea. Maybe not.  But I'm not fond of the idea of shoving poetry down people's throats as if poetry were an intellectual castor oil.

Makoto Fujimura would say that culture belongs to all of us, and it is our responsibility to share what's beautiful and good. Surely that is true, and one thing we all can do is talk about the poems and books and art we love. I buy art, mostly by friends, and I buy books that I want to support. Often they sit a long time before I read them because I am busy with deadlines, but I buy them anyway because I know a purchase is an encouragement to the writer and an assurance to the publisher. The most destructive thing to a book is, after all, to be ignored. And some degree of that is the fate of most books, poetry or not. How could it be otherwise when only some minute percent of all writers are self-supporting, and when publishers choose and push the lead books of fiction and nonfiction?

Perhaps there's some lovely good in the idea that the best poetry, even in its loneliness and neglect, resists the current world where art is an expensive widget often fettered to ideology, where commercialism is god, and where utilitarian pragmatism rules. Perhaps that small, burning lamp--a gift to the world that mostly looks away--will continue to call to itself those who love the high play of language. Perhaps that readership will grow. As Mako says, art offers "our dying culture unfading bouquets, gifts of enduring beauty that we do not want to refuse." Poesy as posy: I, too, wonder who will accept that gift, those flowers.

9 comments:

  1. Thank you, Marly, for giving my mind so much to chew upon on such a pleasant pre-spring day in the 70 degree sunshine on the Gulf coast. I do very much like your passion for forms, and you've motivated me to resume writing a sonnet or two; however, I've just read a few 14 liners by Shakespeare, so I'm intimidated beyond all common sense. Well, for whatever it might be worth, in spite of the folly, I will let the stringing of iambic pentameters begin, and -- even if there will never be any readers (and there won't) -- I will at least (because of the formal effort) have something in common with the past and present masters: Words, words, words!

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    1. Translate one into today's English and your own situation! It's a great exercise.

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  2. an erudite and provocative essay. it's nice to know someone out there realizes that money isn't everything. if the planet survives, maybe values will rise above capitalism and establish a real civilization wherein people evolve into something other than money-robots...(i see i got my syntax rather mixed up, there...)

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    1. Well, it is something, but it's certainly not what our era tells us it is via ads and so on. Civilization... devoutly to be wished!

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  3. I appreciated both the thoughtful question and your thoughtful answer, Marly. For my part, it's too much to worry about changing the world - I'm just trying to keep the lamp lit. (And, hey, three copies of Thaliad so far this month also make me happy!)

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  4. I appreciated both the thoughtful question and your thoughtful answer, Marly. For my part, it's too much to worry about changing the world - I'm just trying to keep the lamp lit. (And, hey, three copies of Thaliad so far this month also make me happy!)

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    1. I expect keeping the lamp lit does change the world a little, and perhaps that's all we can hope for. (Yes, I'm always glad when a 2012 poetry book is still able to bob along in 2016!)

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  5. I'm really curious to see what happens in a generation or so as a result of the "Poetry Out Loud" program Dana Gioia put into place when he ran the NEA. To date, something like 2.5 million high-school kids have participated in it by competitively reciting and memorizing poems. Gioia planted some fantastic seeds, but those kids still need better support (or any support) for their interest in poetry in college and beyond. I wish I had the vaguest idea how to do that.

    I recently struck up an email conversation with a poet (as one does), and I strongly recommended Thaliad to him. I've also been lobbying the advisor of the local high-school book club to recommend Thaliad to her kids. (Of course, I have an "in"; I cook her dinner most nights...)

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    1. Yes, I thought about Poetry Out Loud and wondered if it has had made any interesting ripples in the world when I replied to Tim. Having poems in your head makes such a difference if it's not a one-time event.

      I once made a poetry anthology for the tiny private school my daughter attended for three years. They did a wonderful recitation... My daughter recited Puck's address from the end of MND and Kathleen Raine's "Spell of Creation." I've been wanting to memorize more poems, to have more of that sort of furniture in my head.

      Thank you for any and all recommendations! Word of mouth is so strong, as is the cook's voice. (I highly approve of men who cook, having one of that sort myself.)

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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.