In the glory days of Harriet, back in the summer of 2009, the following exchange took place between one of our Scarriet editors, Thomas Brady, and the poet, Bill Knott.
“It’s not because the public is too ‘stupid’ to ‘get’ difficult poetry; the poets, and their friendly critics, are stupid in their refusal to stop cultivating ‘long attention span’ poetry.” — Thomas Brady
“Even among the damned there are divisions…there are even (and it’s almost unbelievable that they can exist) some poets who want to succeed! Who want their poetry to be read! Who actually try to write poetry that is accessible and can reach an audience!” — Bill Knott
I don’t think the crisis in poetry is a social engineering issue.
It’s not a question of ‘how can we bring poetry to the people?’ Or, if this is the question, the question is not a large, complex one, but only a matter of refinement.
Despite the efforts of ground-breaking poet-academics like John Crowe Ransom (whose ashes are scattered on the Kenyon campus), there is no expertise anywhere that can decide how or what kind of poetry should be delivered up to ‘the people.’ I think we need to cure ourselves of this notion right away. Poetry is not for experts. Poetry is how the people short circuit the experts. Science demands a certain a certain amount of expertise; poetry is the joy of science sans expertise.
The people get all the poetry they need from old poetry or pop songs or prose or opera, or comedy, and these avenues will never be supplemented by contemporary poetry of the difficult variety to any significant degree.
Contemporary poetry is mostly lyric poetry and this is in keeping with our ‘short attention span’ age—which began with the rise of the penny presses 200 years ago and coincided with Poe’s famous words, “A long poem does not exist.” How could it? No recordings of Poe reading exist, but we do have Edna Millay and Dylan Thomas: listen to them reading their brief poems—how could one take that intensity for long?
John (Harriet comment) asked about the first ‘lyric poetry reading.’ Poe in the 1840s was asked all the time at salons in NYC to read his “Raven.” John is absolutely right; not only does a long poem not exist, but short poems should not be read for long; they should never be a big imposition.
Perhaps we need to stop apologizing for the ‘short attention span.’ What if it’s not a flaw at all, but a feature of our advanced, busy, speedy-communications age?
Instead of slamming that square peg into that round hole, why don’t we accept that ‘short attention spans’ are part of who we are now; simply a reflection of how we are adapting to our times, and if poetry is not popular, it’s not because the public is too ‘stupid’ to ‘get’ difficult poetry; the poets, and their friendly critics, are stupid in their refusal to stop cultivating ‘long attention span’ poetry.
POSTED BY THOMAS BRADY: ON ON JUNE 2, 2009 at 4:07 PM
“It’s not because the public is too ‘stupid’ to ‘get’ difficult poetry; the poets, and their friendly critics, are stupid in their refusal to stop cultivating ‘long attention span’ poetry.”
–I agree totally with Brady’s point there.
But WHY do (we) poets do this? Doesn’t the answer lie in the realm of the psychoanalytic…
Almost all writers begin in adolescence by writing poetry—what differentiates those who continue in this futile practice while others (call them adults) go on to write prose…
Given that poetry is the least rewarded/ the least funded of all the writing genres, and indeed of all the arts,
–knowing that, why would anyone willingly opt to pursue this abject vocation…why would anyone seek such inferior status; why would anyone in their right mind join this subgroup, this slaveclass—
Masochists, manic depressives, suicides, all poets are neurotics of the death instinct, losers and failures who embrace the misery of their wretched trade, who wallow in its servile aura of diminishment and squalor—its paltry practice.
But among poets, those dismal defeated schlemiels and corner-biting cowards lured by vile Virgils into the abyss of verse, a fortunate few manage to inhabit the upper circles, its higher hellblocks—
Even among the damned there are divisions…there are even (and it’s almost unbelievable that they can exist) some poets who want to succeed! Who want their poetry to be read! Who actually try to write poetry that is accessible and can reach an audience!—
What traitors these are to their class—(jeez, if they didn’t want to be failures, why did they become poets!)
No wonder all the normal (i.e. unsuccessful) poets hate the Judas Billy Collins and the quisling Mary Oliver…
POSTED BY BILL KNOTT: ON JUNE 2, 2009 AT 5:10 PM
And did Martin Earl take this sitting down, and did Bill Knott not come back with post after post that broke every rule of length and frequency Travis Nichols had ever dreamt of, and did the fracas not wake everybody up and get all the bells in Parnassus ringing?
Oh yes, and yes, and yes!
Yet shortly after Thomas Brady and his friends were punished for writing too much too often, Bill Knott, Eileen Myles, Martin Earl, Annie Finch and all the other passionate irregulars stopped bothering, and despite the best efforts of the new Contributing Writers, Harriet stalled to a Members Only Chat-room — like it is.
What a failure of The Poetry Foundation mission!
The Scarriet Editors