Departments

Poetry

I write poetry but I will not call myself a poet. My experiments in poetry are more a kind of tinkering than writing. The way meter, phrase, caesura, and alliteration complex in poems fascinates me like an exhibition watch or a vivisection. I try to follow the meshings and articulations; to test my understanding, I try to build or animate for myself. But prose has never failed me; I turn thoughts and scenarios into poems not because I must, but because I can. And for the subtlest and most difficult thoughts, I turn to prose first.

In writing about poetry it seems obligatory either to defend or diagnose Modern Poetry. Admittedly, I have a strong distaste for hermeticism in poetry. I am indifferent to whether poetry be accessible—inaccessibility no more blames good poetry than accessibility excuses bad poetry—but I resent hermeticism, not because it is elite, but because it is the ape of elitism. A secret society imitates how an elite looks from the outside, substituting loyalty for merit and ritual for sympathy. (That is, an elite is the only true secret society). When poetry has a hermetic seal, I am content to leave it shut.

But I resent the synecdoche of "late 20th century academic English-language poetry" for "modern poetry." There is too much to generalize about, and I do not want to generalize or judge. I want to ask a question: "If poetry did not exist, would anyone invent it?" It seems to me that all poems now must answer this question; and that most of them answer "no."

The two forces which pose this question are recorded music and photography.

The force of music is evident. How can poetry be invented in a world that reveres songwriting? It has the flavor of a bull session: "You know how there's that piano piece, right— Song Without Words? Well how about a song without music?" Remember how uncertain the boundaries of poetry and song have always been. Much that is read as poetry was written as song or chant. And modern singers are wonderfully adept at setting poetry to music. Browning's "A Toccata of Galuppi's" is a miracle of poetry, music frozen on the page; but here the poem is turned into a song. If they can do that, they can do anything.

It is not even cheaper anymore to be a poet than to be a songwriter. If you add up the cost of your Moleskines you will have saved little over the cost of a laminate guitar, an electronic tuner, a digital recorder, and a copy of Guitar for Feckless Morons. Three chords will get you far; if you can type, you can fret. If your poem cannot be set to music, why not call it prose? What give a special name to prose with whitespace? Why elevate a typographic distinction into a literary one? And if your poem can be set to music, why should anyone pay attention if you cannot be bothered to take the extra step?

The force of photography is subtler, but equally strong. Music only vanitates the form of poetry; photography displaces it. The urge to preserve, embody, and share an experience, which poetry satisfies, photography satisfies just as well and much more easily. Indeed I largely credit my own interest in poetry to my near indifference to photography. Poetry is intensely osmotic. Doggerel is not inept poetry, but dry poetry—squeezed from a mind already drained of what poetry should absorb. Photography is a valve on the same vessel. If you would be a poet, leave your camera behind.

Poetry will go on losing to music and photography. It has already lost; yet I do not give up on it. Poetry has been cornered before and survived. Writing relieved poetry of its responsibility for history; printing relieved poetry of its responsibility for education (textbooks of math and grammar were once written in verse, to aid memorization). Recording and photography are relieving poetry of its responsibility for contemplation and confession. What is left for it, I do not know.

I am not looking for poetry's savior; poetry is not languishing, the question has been answered many times. But each poet who has found an answer has found only a particular answer, not a general one. None has established an answer that imitators can borrow. This might be taken to point the importance of originality; but that is spiteful. Imitation, both imitating and being imitated, is necessary: an art where only genius is adequate is not worthwhile for anyone, geniuses included. An art where every achievement is unique, where nothing can be built on, is an unnecessary art.

"If poetry did not exist, would anyone invent it?" Because I cannot answer this question, I am not a poet. I will call you poet if you can.