Poets: is there anything they do know?

A couple days ago, Curt deconstructed August Kleinzahler’s diatribe against Garrison Keillor and the state of poetry in America today. Amidst his various thrashings, Kleinzahler cynically opines that “[c]ultural and economic forces only suggest further devastation of any sort of vital literary culture,” to which I responded:

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…

In other words, Kleinzahler, in his chosen role as intellectual/elitist/poet/prick, mistakes a degradation in his favorite form of literature for a general “devastation” of the entire literary culture. This observational bias, while intellectually dishonest, is nonetheless understandable (after all, who hasn’t seen a decline in the popularity of his favorite musical artists/styles as a sign of the impending musical apocalypse). However, this bias stems from the misunderstanding that, I claim, lies much closer the the real root of the decline of poetry.

You see, Kleinzahler, like so many people who’ve spent too much time on the academic literary scene, mistakenly thinks that poetry is really a literary pursuit. It’s not. At it’s heart, poetry is an oral artistic endeavor. The ancient epics were oral traditions long before they were ever written down. The best of the modern epics, like the Aeniad, the Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost, recognize this fact and practically demand to be read aloud.1 The Petrarchan explosion, with its sonnets (“little song” in both Italian and Provençal), songs, eclogues, etc. was similarly tied to the oral traditions and forms of the song and the ballad (what other reason could one give for the extreme emphasis on rhyme and meter?) Since then and even up to the present day, the most popular forum for poetry has been the salon, the coffee shop and even the tavern, where intellectuals and wits compose, read and recite poetry to each other.

Admittedly, the strains had been there at least since Virgil, but somewhere along the way poetry become serious literature. A more industrious scholar than I could probably make the argument that that’s when poetry started to die. As Curt points out, modern poetry is mostly visual instead of oral. It’s either totally impossible to read aloud or sounds like “someone with emphyzema [] perpetually running out of breath in mid-phrase.”2 And one detects a hint of bitterness in Kleinzahler’s diatribe: part of the reason he hates Keillor (aside from the totally justified distaste for Keillor’s reading of terrible poems) is that Keillor is trying to once again make poetry oral, to pull it out of its hermetically sealed “literary” strongbox. Not that this makes Keillor a hero or anything; wretched taste in poetry is still inexcusable.

And in this analysis we see how to reconcile the decline in poetry that Kleinzahler, Curt, I, and pretty much everybody else acknowledge with the non-“devastation” of literary culture that should be equally obvious. After all, oral culture is in the decline and for precisely the same reason that literary culture is on the rise: the written interaction that dominates the communication of the Internet generation has supplanted a good chunk of what would otherwise have been oral interaction and the Internet/movie/television obsession with the visual has eroded much of the priority given to verbal eloquence. That the president of the most powerful country in the world is a guy who seems to have trouble speaking in complete sentences ought to be evidence enough of this trend.

(Of course, I’ve also argued in the past that pop music generally and hip hop in particular is the real “new poetry” and in that medium one might see a return to poetry’s oral roots. I still think this is true, although this is a sort of “low” poetry, more on the level of a ballad or romance than on the level of Petrarch or Shakespeare. However, one could also make the argument that “high” poetry is, by its very literary pretentions, a departure from the oral heart of poetry and, as such, presages its own decline. Another argument that really requires the scholarly treatment, not mere blog-rantings)

1. I should point out that I once spent a very long but enjoyable evening drinking cheap beer and reading Paradise Lost aloud with three friends. As I recall, we kept going until we were too drunk to continue, which, for practical purposes, meant we made it through about Book VI.

2. In quoting this, it should become obvious that the entirety of my point is contained in the first paragraph of Curt’s post, but I still felt it deserved a more complete explication/dissection.

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