Jul/Aug 2013 Miscellaneous

What is Poetry Today?

by Jascha Kessler

Digital artwork by Adam Ferriss

Digital artwork by Adam Ferriss

POLONIUS: What do you read, my lord?
HAMLET: Words, words, words.

It has been taken for granted for hundreds of years, ever since the invention of the printing press, in fact, that universal literacy is a good—indeed an excellent—thing. In retrospect we can perceive that Gutenberg's creation was one of the crucial steps out of the Medieval universe into the limitless and unknown ocean of universes we are now cognizant of, because it broke the monopoly of knowledge, dispersing the control of information that had always until then been held by a very small, elite group, the clerisy. The power of what came jocularly to be called the Fourth Estate, that is, of the press, especially journalism, was part of the essence of the series of revolutions that began with the dissemination of the Bible in vernacular translations, and which then showed its full strength in 17th Century England, and then in the American and French Revolutions a hundred years later. It is no accident that the goals of universal literacy and universal suffrage are part of the late 19th Century's continuation of social, often revolutionary movements and change, especially in Europe. In the 20th Century, the powers of the media, that is, of the means of communication, have gone far beyond the printed words of journalism, extending now through broadcasting, telephones, radio, television, and recordings, continuing to expand and thus to promote both change and upheaval—and also integration—until what is developing today, as Marshall McLuhan put it, is in truth a global village. All this is part of the vast extension of the primeval and primordial power of human speech, or to put it theologically, of the human expression of the Word that was in the Beginning. Yet we know that the word is not by any means a simple thing, though it may be an elemental, perhaps the fundamental, human thing.

Now, although it has come to seem in our time that we are deluged by communications, by the sounds—better, the noise—of voices pouring words out over the planet and making one contemplate an imaginary project like building a soundproof Noah's Ark that could float above the confused, tumultuous waves of babble that are drowning the world, I think it better to recall from time to time that reading poetry, listening to poetry, is something utterly different from attending to the communications of journalism and mass literature and entertainment that permeate our waking and even our sleeping lives. If the tribes that once lived in villages everywhere had their local bards and singers, what will be the situation in the global village? One bard? One singer? We have always lived in the multitude of villages among the ruins of the Tower of Babel, and we have had our complicated tapestry, our interwoven patternings made out of multitudes of poets and poetries. But, in the global village there will be the one faceless, boring bard who speaks in the reduced and infinitely reductive voice of the message of the Media. From one point of view, it might be said that the Fourth Estate will be the only Emperor, ruling over the world village. In 1984, George Orwell prophesied that this Emperor's mouthpieces would be writing and speaking broadcast in a controlled linguistic system called Newspeak, the universal language of propaganda/ information/ indoctrination, a language designed not for feeling and thinking, remembering, imagining, or recording the details, the facticity of existence, but for insulating people from all that consciousness implies by means of generalizing and profoundly tendentious euphemisms and lies. Newspeak is not the language of the poet, nor even the language of any writer, as Orwell's hero learns as soon as he tries to keep a secret, that is, forbidden, diary. Perhaps it may also be recalled that in the mid-1930's, Aldous Huxley's futuristic satire, Brave New World, predicted a negative Utopia, too, and the protagonist there was also a writer, a writer of advertising copy: that is, a scribe trained in a specially contrived and limited language of propaganda, who learns from the single remaining text of Shakespeare what enormous power poetic language contains—manifest, unconcealed power at that.

More than 70 years ago, at the dawn of Modernism, Ezra Pound was a great force, a proponent of various radical movements and novelties, in poetry and the other arts, and some of his novelties were in fact derived from his studies of Classical and Provencal, as well as ancient Chinese, poetry. His shibboleth was: Poetry is news that stays news! Looking back from the 1980's, it seems to me that he was already deeply defensive in maintaining that poetry was a sort of superior—because transcendental—journalism. (Of course, an ontological question lies hidden beneath his distinction, principally involving the problems like the dimension of time, and history and language in static Platonic perspectives, as well as poetic making of songs from out of the flux of novelty, songs that seem simultaneously dynamic yet permanent.) Poetry, as Pound declared, may indeed be news; it may be the quintessential expression on how it is with us, a phrase Saul Bellow used in a lecture to describe the job of the novelist. But, in the world where the Fourth Estate rules, the news by its very nature is made into hourly news , and yesterday's news not only does not stay news, it seems to vanish forever.

From an optimistic point of view, one might say that the news, the constant communication of human activities and events—as beamed by satellite and cable television 24 hours a day on the All-News Network to all of the United States—creates a situation in which the description of events with pictures, continuously, almost as soon as they occur, constitutes an approximation to a perpetually informed, never-sleeping corporate body, even to the life of the nation itself, or the life of the world, since the news is world news. Not only the “news,” but the ubiquitous “social networks” of gossip and chatter and chirping—constant communications by voice and 18-syllabled textings. Life itself being a ceaseless flow of events, the emergence of the new, of novelties, the news, or journalism, which means the events of the day, even the day itself, comes to be as close to life, as much like life itself, life by immediate playback, as is possible. It is easy to see here the prototype of mimesis, of life reproduced by techniques of mirroring skill, if not of art. And we are about to have a stream of printed words transcribing such broadcasts flow from a little screen into our waiting hands, providing what journalists call history-in-the-making.

Nevertheless, telling the news hour by hour, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, year in, year out, is something other than the condition to which the arts have always aspired. For news to stay news, for news to become poetry, as Pound put it, it needs the poet who will transform patterns and structures of the telling, sublimate and reify the images of language, its tones and rhythms, and offer them as a fixed, a static, and a relatively atemporal, or non-daily, non-journalistic esthetic object. News must be rendered by the poet into a fairly permanent form like an unmoving rock in the torrent of passing time, or into a set of symbols that contain much more than signs do. We don't require a semiotic treatise to make us aware that the challenge of poetry has always been the same: to render the signs, the message, the facts of words, even news stories, the dailyness of the daily, so to say, into symbolic utterances that are not coals, but diamonds. We all know that is the challenge.

Today, however, there is also a problem. It stems directly from the Empire of the Fourth Estate, which consists not only of journalism, but of the whole battery of the Media, and those are the means of communications in the mass societies of our global village. We know of course that, as Huxley and Orwell reminded us, there was going to be a world coming in which the powers of censorship, the control of public language, would be all- pervasive and enforced by ruthless social means exercised by political-military persons. Another commonplace today. The problem I am thinking of is much more subtle and challenging, however. We are not threatened truly by the division of civilization into Two Cultures, Humanistic and Technological-Scientific, as C.P. Snow complained in the 1950's. Neither are we truly threatened by science or technology, by business-under-capitalism, or business-under-socialism, nor even by all those bureaucratic oligarchies that menace people everywhere. And we are not even truly challenged by the many esoteric, arcane, and recondite systems of jargon concocted by the sciences and social sciences. Nor are we challenged by the obsessions of intellectuals and academics with the abstrusities of analysis, of metalanguages and metacriticisms, by playthings and distractions like computer intelligence. All those things can be understood as useful and instructive inventions. Indeed, I think it might be said that poets and poetry have never really been threatened by the truly decisive creations of the intellect, or their embodiment in civilizations more elaborate than those of tribal tents and the archaic settlements, the villages we have come from since agriculture was developed in neolithic days. Poetry has in fact always been challenged by culture to create its statements, to provide us with human responses that are crystallizations of the contemporary conditions surrounding the poet, to grasp phenomena intuitively and intellectually, and to express their meaning. That is the task of the poet, the fate of the poet—and not the making of sensational news reports about what concerns people this week.

No, the problem is, the Media, that vast and proliferating complex called communications, has always taken up from its beginnings the work of entertainment and amusement. The novel itself has always been a hybrid of history and journalism, and some think it partially displaced the longer forms of epical and narrative verse, as well as heroic drama. But the abundance of newspapers and magazines by the hundreds in the U.S., and now the total and saturating access to radio, movies, and television, particularly the latter, have resulted in displacing—not reading per se—but the ability of the reader to grasp and comprehend the kinds of forms that art offers, among them the anti-temporal thing that is poetry.

One used to hear complaints that it was actually the emergence of Mass Man, the urban proletariat and the lower middle classes, that had deprived poetry, an elite form of literature in the 20th Century, of its audience; also that the schooling of the masses in universal literacy, once meant to free people from ignorance and make citizens of democratic societies flourish, was also to be blamed. That may be true. However, I recall the passage in Maxim Gorky's autobiography, in which he describes his days on the passenger steamers of the Volga River. He tells us he used to read books to attentive illiterate audiences, hour upon hour, and they responded with questions so trenchant and profound that he was himself, still a boy, forced to think hard about the art of writing. He says that in effect the people were his teachers, in collaboration with the Masters of literature. I doubt if that could happen today. Why? Because, in my opinion, the audience itself is being transformed. Most people today, of whatever social level, no matter whether schooled or unschooled, are simply incapable of approaching the very manifestation of art, of poetry. They cannot apprehend the presence of poetry. Their esthetic apperception being altered, they are incapable of responding to poetry, as well as to most of the kinds of writing produced by the kinds of artists who aspire to write Literature in the genres of poetry, fiction, or even drama. Is it true, as I appear to be asserting, that something is wrong with people?

It is my impression, after teaching Modern Literature and Writing in the university for 50 years, that most people, and especially the younger generations I have known, are hardly less intelligent, less-informed, or worse-prepared for understanding language than they used to be. The contrary is perhaps true: they are cleverer, more experienced, and much better informed about the nature of the world and the varieties of human experience than they used to be. They have seen more and heard more, incomparably more. However, they are in our time strangely different sorts of persons: what they have seen, heard, and read has been presented to them in new ways, and their esthetic faculty, having been nourished by the new forms of communication, is attuned to forms of experience wholly different from those inherited from Western Civilization (and I suppose that has already happened in Japan, and is happening in China, in the Middle East and even most of Africa). Indeed, they have eyes, but they see not. They have ears but hear not. Even with the best goodwill in the world, it is becoming simply more difficult each year for them to respond, to enter into rapport with what we call poetry. (Unless you understand the preaching upon the religious texts of the Western World, the Bible and Koran, and the charismatic phenomena of religious ecstasy and fanaticism sweeping masses of people from California to Pakistan, to be the effects of great poetry from the past.) And who has not seen the future on the screen of the computer terminal on a child's desk, and tapped out in 18-syllable letters as tweet and twitter on a child's handheld device? The future is forming and ought to be recognized as a profound transformation already well underway.

It is not necessarily for the worse; it may in fact be for the better in so many directions, social and political. But one thing should be understood: it is different. Qualitatively different. How so? The esthetic experience, not merely the esthetic faculty of enjoying the world of nature, not the sense of beauty, but the kinds of objects created by humanity for contemplation—that is what has been and will be altered in ways that challenge poetry and even the other arts.

I think it's a challenge that must be taken quite seriously. When it comes to the many elites of our complex societies, the people of science, technology, art, politics, business, warfare, what have you, there is an increasingly high level of skill and sheer intelligence, or brainpower, displayed in their work. But—there are not common means of communication, let alone understanding, between all these people, or even within the individuals' internally fragmented selves. There is no common language of words or meanings. And there is no longer available to them or to us, the language we ourselves speak in each of our own countries as our own common language or mother tongue. Not that the words are not here, but that the persons who might have heard those words as they were once used and spoken, and as they are used still by some of us, are not here, for although those kinds of persons may be present, they are not where the words are. Yes, they are all hearing and speaking something: not necessarily Orwell's Newspeak, but the lingua franca of the Media. That lingua franca is not quite barbaric, superficial, degenerate, dimensionless, unreal, impoverished, or whatever... yet it is qualitatively different, like its hearers and speakers.

The various kinds of specialists and elites share that strange common language; still, they really all live in the systems of their own disciplines, which are far removed from common life. For example, recently the MacArthur Foundation in the United States made gifts of great sums of money to various people in various pursuits—art, science, literature, et cetera—to free them from jobs and give them years of time in which to work. A graduate student at the California Institute of Technology, a theoretical physicist about 21 years old, was awarded something like $125,000 to spend as he wished. His needs are simple, he told the reporter that interviewed him: a pencil and paper, and the computer terminal in his little apartment. When the reporter asked him what he was doing, the young man replied, "There's no point in talking about it, you wouldn't understand." And that was that—not a word, not a sentence about time, space, particles, gravity, matter, antimatter, et cetera. Just... silence. The scribe from the Fourth Estate was not to be given the least hint about the young man's problem in physics, not a phrase to offer the reading public, so called, because there was no way for the scribe to apprehend it, nor even to misapprehend it. That tells us something about the radical deculturation of language. And I think that most of the rest of the elite professions in our world, if asked about their problems, their thoughts on matters of crucial importance to our civilization, would remain silent, too. The great organizations and powers hire specialists, scriveners, or so-called technical writers, to issue what are described as press releases, or reports. people who are trained to translate some information into the language of our everyday speech. But the translations they produce are seldom faithful, accurate, or even true; they are at best merely paraphrases designed to communicate and conceal at the same time. Propaganda is not theology, nor is an article in a magazine physics.

However—you cannot paraphrase a poem. It is what it is, a unique phenomenon, a symbolic construction disguised as an act of communication, as an action, a gesture, whatever. Neither can you paraphrase a painting or a dance, not even metaphorically. The phenomenon—painting, sculpture, dance, and poem—must be approached by its audience, as objects in the realm of the sacral are approached by their votaries. Yet, it is becoming the case that although the audience may be present, it no longer recognizes that there is the phenomenon, the poem, the story, before them. What is present to them? Usually something else: a simulacrum of the work of art, a version that substitutes for it, recognized in the same way that the body recognizes an artificial sugar that contains no nourishment but is more easily recognized by the body, and more swiftly assimilated than other sugars, and which the body prefers to metabolize instead! It is not that there is no content in that simulacrum; it is that the content is what we call junk.

This is to say that the media languages in which the Fourth Estate expresses itself do not offer what we all require: a proper esthetic dimension. I hope I will not be taken as a cultural snob. But what those languages of the Media offer are pseudo-esthetic experiences in pseudo-languages, like the pseudo-food of the artificial sugar. Unfortunately, language is all we writers have, and what we offer cannot be pseudo, if it is art. But in a world where the pseudo-languages and means of expressive communication of the Media are becoming the real languages, how can the unparaphraseable language of art, of poetry, be recognized?

I may sound pessimistic. Yet I am not without hope. Poets will of course continue to make poetry—or they may not. Poetry is in any case their natural destiny and their fate. They will probably make their poetry even if they do not speak their poems to the world they live in, much as Schubert wrote music he never heard performed—because, as he said, he had come into the world to make his music. The challenge, therefore, is to make poetry. To make it, not in opposition to the forms of expression of the world about us, not as the product of alienation, of avoidance, or ignorance, or in the private argot of coteries and communes who defy our culture of technology, and not in the secret languages of secret societies, secular and religious, not in the hermetic disciplines of merely self-regarding arts. The challenge is to make poetry by using as much of the language or the many languages of the intellect as the poet can come to command. Why? In order to master Time: to bind our time to times to come. Poetry must not be buried like the hoards of treasure buried with the noble dead in past ages, or by the defeated who were overrun by invaders. It must and will be fully present and available to speech and meaning, interpretation and understanding, now, no matter how hard it may be for people to learn to read it. It must be made now, and made out of our present as it is now, in order to enter the future. Poetry has in fact always been difficult, from the most ancient times. The lore of even primitive societies is just that. Lore. What is taught and what is learned. It is certainly not the news of the day. And it passes into the hands of initiates to whom have been revealed its forms and inward structures, in order to preserve the tribe's wisdom and maintain its spiritual life, in order to pass beyond the limiting boundaries of the present and into a future unknown. In short, the challenge of poetry is not merely to survive today in hopes of a tomorrow, but to believe that it comes from an immemorial past and is on its way already, as always, towards the future. And the future will have an even much greater need of it than we in the present can possibly guess!

In 1912, a neo-Romantic poet named Walter de la Mare wrote an especially mysterious poem, one frequently anthologized even today, though utterly unfashionable in every way. It may have many kinds of meanings. I myself have never known what I take it to be saying, and I have neither read it nor even talked about it to students. Yet, oddly enough, that poem was the first thing that came to mind as I thought about the challenge of poetry. Perhaps it says what I have been trying to say at length here. Perhaps it describes the unreality of the mind of the masses who inhabit the global, indeed the world's, village, and who are connected by the networks of the Fourth Estate in our house of media communications today and the webs of (formerly) private conversation.

It is called "The Listeners":

Is there anybody there? said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
Of the forest's ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller's head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
Is there anybody there? he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf- fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams of the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller's call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
'Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:
Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word, he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.


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