Why is contemporary poetry such a vexation?
Poetry, one of our favorite writers once said, should be a passion, not a study.
But why shouldn’t poetry be a study? What’s wrong with poetry and study?
Poetry and study are oil and water.
Study’s observational rigor demands factual results, not happy ones.
Poetry, contra study, seeks happy results, not factual ones.
Modern poetry, however, has turned the truism upside down. Seduced by the apostles of modernism, William James, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, and John Dewey, among others, our poets don’t care for poems which are happy results so much as poems whose results are in the broadest sense, true—which ought to be an improvement, and in some ways, is an improvement.
On the other hand, poetry lost its public when it began to use study rather than passion as its guide.
The public demands poetry full of whimsy, passion, froth, delight. The public will pardon the poet when he calls a chicken a pig, as long as the poet does not appear to be great and wise while doing so, or mumble into his sleeve while doing so, or pretend to be some priest of the yellow-skinned moon while doing so; the poet must not do so while counting every feather on the chicken.
The public does not like a lot of mumbo jumbo. A line or two of folly is fine, but pretentious stretches of more than that will not be tolerated, never mind entire landscapes of bombast like “The Four Quartets” or Canto Number One. Forced to read the entire Cantos, out will come the pitchforks and torches. Oh, and deriding the public of pitchforks and torches will only sever relations between poet and public further. ‘Torches and pitchforks’ is a metaphor. The public is smarter than that—or not. It is those who blame the public rather than the poet who are most far gone.
The public will not put up with too much fooling around; the public prefers the poem of the happy, or finished, or beautiful result.
Poets fell out of public favor when they began to engage the world for the world’s sake and lost sight of poetry as a certain instrument with certain uses for happy results.
No one consciously made poetry into a study; they merely embraced Dewey’s idea of experience as the key to aesthetics.
As far as the public goes, how could experience leave poetry so bereft? One would think experience is the one thing the public qua public understands. The public may not know its Sacred Wood, but the wood of experience it knows.
Dewey said two crucial things re: the public, art, and experience. He said 1) experience was crucial and 2) the public did not associate art with experience. (Yes, like all modern poetry theorists, he blamed the public. Bad move.) It’s right here in the very first paragraph of Art As Experience, first published as a book in 1934:
“In common perception, [that’s the public, by the way] the work of art is often identified with the building, book, painting or statue in its existence apart from human experience.”
Dewey’s whole strategy, his whole philosophy of art, is laid out in that single sentence.
Dewey’s intelligence was such that he could discuss painting and poetry at the same time, but he rode painting’s wave; the “New York School” of poetry followed in Dewey’s wake, but ironically, poetry, like a great sea, dissolved Dewey’s ideas—his wordy formulations triumphed alongside paint and clay but crashed and burned in the theoretical sky of that wordy art, poetry.
The brainy theorists of modernism pushed poetry ahead too quickly for public taste. The fine arts are erected in the public square; museums force public taste to follow its lead, but taste in poetry dwells more privately and cannot be shaped by cultural fiat. A Ginsberg is no match for a Warhol, a Pound is no match for a Guggenheim, in forming public taste.
Despite all its braininess, scientists pay no attention to modern poetry, just as they pay no attention to Dewey’s “experience;” after all, our experience on earth is that the sun, not the earth, is moving; science has proved the opposite; a poem describing an experience of the sun moving across the sky would not be modern, per se. Poets can experience a poem as they write a poem—the very writing of a poem is an experience, and the reader shares in this experience, but this is not unique to moderns, nor does it signify the poem in question will be good.
The experience of language which reader and poet share is facile. The free-association style of Ashbery, for instance, produces an experience on many levels, a complex experience which is open-ended and arbitrary, and due to the remarkable nature of language, is an experience which is actual in every sense, even if ol’ Ashbery is half-asleep and absent-mindedly laying on linguistic paint as randomly as he can. If we grant this experience—reading stream-of-consciousness writing in a trance—is a genuine experience—and I don’t see how it is not a genuine experience—then Dewey’s “experience” becomes less than advertised. If the act of reading meets the experience test, any experience within the reading experience (if such a thing does exist) will not actually be able to distinguish itself from its surroundings.
If the experience of poetry is the experience of reading, if mechanically these two are the same, if the reading experience is what greets all readers of poetry and no poetry would be experienced without the reading experience, it is safe to say that poetry’s unique qualities (whatever we dare say they are) cannot possibly belong to experience, per se. Poetry cannot distinguish itself as poetry from the experience of reading, or any experience at all without having qualities which somehow set poetry apart from the experience of reading, and thus all other experience.
The more expansive poetry’s subject matter and formal properites become, the more poetry disappears into the reading experience, for it is the reading experience which is actually expanding, not poetry.
As poetry is currently defined, reading
is a reading experience precisely the same as reading poetry.
Reading Pig is fraught with ambiguity: why pig? What does not only the word, but the fact that someone wrote pig mean? Pig contains an infinite number of associations—once associations begin to flow, there is no end to that meandering river, and so in this sense Pig contains as much associative knowledge as a play by Shakespeare and thus generates as much experience, for associations, potentially infinite, are the key to any reading experience.
Experience has nothing to do with the happy result of a poem. The term, as used by Dewey and the modernists, is empty.