Poets, is there anything they don’t know?

A couple years ago, before I dedicated myself full-time to sophistry, I was more regularly committed to an even bigger intellectual black hole: poetry. Reading this overheated attack on Garrison Keillor reminds me why I’m not so much anymore. Partly I suppose it is a matter of rhetoric. I can’t stand this loose, informal, limp “naturalistic” style that has become utterly ubiquitous in recent decades. Not that the turgid, cliché-ridden sermonizing produced by the mediocre poets of the more declamatory past eras was necessarily any better, but I feel that total informality of expression is more fundamentally at cross-purposes with the very nature of poetry. Because after all the whole business with line breaks and pauses is still essentially of a rhetorical nature, even if poetry is mostly a visual medium nowadays. Hearing or reading casual observations and ruminations chopped up in this artificial way is about the farthest from a “natural” mode of expression imaginable–when contemporary poets read their work the impression is as often as not of someone with emphyzema and perpetually running out of breath in mid-phrase.

So what does all of this have to do with Mr. Kleinzahler’s anti-Keillor screed? Well, quite naturally because he decided to follow the time-honored tradition of attacking someone considerably more famous than anyone in the poetry profession as a way of generating publicity so as to lay out his views on the problems with poetry and how to resolve them. I’d say that his central observation is absolutely correct, and one that I myself made at the very instant that I decided to withdraw to some extent from poetry:

“Let me put it starkly: the better animals in the jungle aren’t drawn to poetry anymore, and they’re certainly not tuned in to Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. Just as the new genre of the novel drew off most of the brilliant young writers of the nineteenth century, movies, television, MTV, advertising, rock ‘n’ roll, and the internet have taken the best among the recent crop of young talent. Do you suppose for a moment that a spirited youngster with a brilliant, original mind and gifted up the yin-yang is going to sit still for two years of creative writing poetry workshops presided over by a dispirited, compromised mediocrity, all the while critiquing and being critiqued by younger versions of the same?”

I would even support his other contention that “good or bad, art’s exclusive function is to entertain, not to improve or nourish or console, simply entertain” as a corrective to the orthodox pseudo-religious view of the arts and poetry in particular, even if I do find the statement exaggerated and simplistic. Nevertheless, I question the competence of anyone the musical ideal of whom is a saxophonist whose sound is described by him as being “as shocking as hearing someone scream “Fuck!” in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York” to lead the way to a more interesting, entertaining form of poetry. And that is the central problem of the whole attack. He points out a real problem with poetry, namely its lack of responsiveness to its audience (or, really, any audience), which in turn has led to a progressive marginalization that has made it unattractive even to the bright minds that might write it. And yet he also wants to play the provocateur, the respectable scoundrel who antagonizes his audience, either because that is really what he finds entertaining or because he feels exceptionally superior to his readers. First of all, that is difficult because it is nearly impossible to antagonize what is left of the small “literary” audiences these days in any of the usual ways (i.e. sex, Satan-worshiping, vulgarity–I’m sure that you could bring down the house by voicing support for Bush or the war in Iraq, but somehow I don’t think that’s what Kleinzahler has in mind). I don’t buy Klienzahler’s theory that poets have stopped antagonizing to preserve their cushy university positions; in my opinion literary circles and university types have been so indoctrinated by the view that anything offensive is “authentic” that it is precisely the scat-whippers that get hired to cushy university positions (like the inimitable Amiri Baraka), where they no doubt discover sooner or later that they have co-opted by the institutions that hired them. All that they can complain about, however, is having been too successful. Bill Hicks, probably the greatest provocateur of our time, could rile up his audiences with the most outrageous suggestions. But in contrast to the average poet a) he had to make it on his own rather than landing a government-funded sinecure b) his audience was genuinely diverse rather than being a pack of true believers and c) he managed to be amazingly funny and entertaining at the same time. Poetry audiences will uncritically applaud anything with the poetry label: yes, I would not hesitate to call the comedy-club audience more discriminating than the poetry audience.

But on a more serious note, I don’t doubt that Garrison Keillor’s schtick, in poetry as in everything else, wallows in a somnolent middle-aged nostalgia which is unlikely to produce anything of lasting value or entertainment, at least for me, but based on his peculiar stature in America I have to imagine that he is closer to the nub of what people want to hear and read than some randy old beatnik who still approvingly cites Antonin Artaud (!?), the inventor of the “theater of cruelty” who entitled his final radio broadcast “Pour en finir avec le jugement de Dieu” (“To have done with God’s judgment”), which is described in the following terms (keep Garrison Keillor in mind as a point of contrast):

“a heretic’s scatalogical tirade at the extreme of the linguistic lunatic fringe…the broadcast was cancelled at the last minute by the director of French Radio, Vladimir Porche[,] citing Artaud’s scatalogical, vicious and obscene anti-American and anti-Catholic pronouncements as something that the French radio audience could do without…In the actual text of “To Have Done With The Judgment Of God” America is denounced as a baby factory war-mongering machine. Bloody and apocalyptic death rituals are described. Shit is vividly exalted as evidence of life and mortality. Questions about consciousness and knowledge are pursued and answered with more unanswerable questions. It all dead-ends in a scene in which God itself turns up on an autopsy table as a dissected organ taken from the defective corpse of mankind. In the recording all this would have been interspersed with shrieks, screams, grunts, and an extensive vocabulary of nonsense words– a glossolalia of word-like sounds invented by Artaud to give utterance to the dissociation of meaning from language.”

Needless to say, I’d probably turn off my radio if Keillor came on, but if Artaud came on I’d throw it out the window. I was going to say that Kleinzahler’s prescription for contemporary poetry would only make it popular among the masochistic, but I’m pretty sure that is already its main audience.

3 Responses to “Poets, is there anything they don’t know?”

  1. shonk Says:

    From the article:

    Cultural and economic forces only suggest further devastation of any sort of vital literary culture

    Is this guy fucking joking? The literary culture in this country is booming as I suspect it probably never has before. Millions of people write publicly on forums and blogs, reaching a bigger audience than ever before. And the best of those writers don’t have to wait until they die and have their work uncovered and published by their executors; I can think of dozens of writers who started with nothing more than their own, non-revenue producing websites and are now employed or published by major publishers who reach an international audience (or who remain officially unemployed but derive their income from those same, formerly modest, websites). Is there a mountain of crap out there to sift through? Of course. But that has always been the case; the numbers of both good and bad writers who reach a broad audience are simply greater than they’ve ever been before.

    And if those writers aren’t communicating through the traditional forms (poetry, novels, etc.), well, that might not necessarily so bad either (although a surprising number are writing novels, with mixed success). Let’s be honest: if the measure of art is entertainment, then the movie is better than the poem, because given a movie and a poem of comparable quality, the movie will almost always be more entertaining. And it’s also simply false to claim that the movie is an inherently more commercial form of art than poetry. There are an astounding number of pretentious arthouse pieces of crap out there that never make any money nor intend to, more than enough to keep the elitist intellectual circle occupied (not that all arthouse movies are crap, but plenty are).

    That all being said, poetry will never die, because the rare great poems evoke a response in the reader that simply can’t be achieved through any other medium (of course, the same can be said of most forms of art). Plus, it only takes one person to write a poem and he can do it without having to buy any expensive equipment, neither of which conditions holds for movies or albums. And, if we take an honest appraisal of history, great poets tend not to be the sort of people that work well with others or accumulate much money.

  2. Curt Says:

    Given that nostalgia for the supposedly better old days is probably the most instinctive intellectual instinct in history, I would normally consider Kleinzahler’s statement to just be a vacuous variation on the theme. After reading and listening to this particular plaint as applied to literature for a number of years, I have concluded that precisely the factors you cite to suggest that literature is booming are exactly those that displease the pessimists, even if they don’t realize it. It’s true that few people believe that there is a contemporary author that they can point to as an equal of Dante or Shakespeare (whether Dante and Shakespeare were themselves considered of much stature during their lifetimes is itself an interesting question). But if there has been any decrease in the relative stature of authors, it is probably precisely because the sheer proliferation of work has created an infinitely wider spectrum across which it is more difficult for any single author to stand out. And the democratization of production mirrors an accompanying democratization of taste, so that readers are both less willing to bow to the taste-making of influential figures and less comfortable with the idea of exalting a single individual too high above his peers. I do still believe that Kleinzahler is probably right about the best and the brightest pursuing other paths–it is hard for me to imagine that the most daring and creative minds would really be attracted to the cozy dullness of the tenured university life, and one ought remember that the London theater-scene in Shakespeare’s day was much more similar to Hollywood than to the Iowa Writer’s Conference (Dante’s Florence was more like Iraq, but let that be). But one has to take an encompassing view, and certainly creative productivity across all areas has only increased with the years.

  3. selling waves » Blog Archive » Poets: is there anything they do know? Says:


            Poets: is there anything they do know?
                A couple days ago, Curt  [...]

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