1/29/2013

Zombie Poetry That Looks Just Like Healthy Poetry (and Could Very Well Be Healthy and Not Undead)


Fair Warning: This post has little to do with Dead Poet's Society. And only slightly more to do with a defense of poetry or a defense of that particular poem read at the inauguration.

I'm not sure if any of those topics are pertinent anyway. Especially since this post is so late—a rabbit-with-a-pocket-watch-running-around-his-rabbit-hole late—and the inauguration long past. Though timing may not matter. I can’t imagine too many people are sitting around counting the drips from the faucet echoing down the hall just waiting for a new defense of poetry (or, contrariwise, a eulogy for poetry) to spring up on their facebook news feed. But nonetheless it’s still kind of late, this post.

You might have missed it (I almost did) but in The Washington Post last week Alexandra Petri wrote an editorial called “Is Poetry Dead?” In her article she reacts to the inaugural poet Richard Blanco’s poem read before the nation last Monday. Leaving aside Petri’s criticism of the poem itself (which, I also thought was pretty bad, as most on-demand poems are), I’ll jump straight to her headlining question, Is poetry dead? 

Who cares.

I’m not arguing that nobody should care about poetry. I’m only arguing that no one should care about the Is-Poetry-Dead argument/question. It's a ridiculous question. If we give it any credence then we also must need to engage in many similar arguments about all kinds of other things: Is backgammon dead? Is bocce ball dead? Are talent shows dead? Who cares.

Like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, it seems to me that Alexandra Petri is running around the halls of some great and crumbling echo chamber with this article, furiously rushing to a meeting that no one will attend so that she can then declare her answer to that age old question: Yes, poetry is very dead, and really, really boring, too (so she argues). 

But this is a ridiculous. One could argue, straight faced and unironically, that all artwork is dead until someone (a viewer) stands in front of it, reads it, runs their eyes over the paint, the texture, flips the pages, reads the notes of a score. In the moment of being seen by a true and appreciative observer, that moment when the work is held in the viewer’s mind and allowed to color and expand their thoughts if only for a few seconds, the work is then given new breath and back to its former life. In this view, as soon as the artist has finished painting, or the poet stopped writing, the piece dies, quickly and fully. It is the viewer/the reader that gives it life. And poetry still has many viewers.  

Yet, even that argument doesn’t matter much. The life-giving breath of reading is just a philosophical matter, somewhat divorced from the real world. It’s a bunch of encouraging words to express the possible joys of art. The fact is that a justification for poetry (and by extension, art; and by extension, all things) is unnecessary. It simply is, and, for the foreseeable future, will continue to be and grow. In her op-ed Petris mentions that poetry in this day and age cannot change anything, and for that reason it is dead--a "zombie" she says quoting the playright Gwydion Suilebhan. Yet, I remember no quotes come down from the god of poetry, Apollo, that state this as poetry’s raison d'etre. 

And secondly, yes it can, if only by tweaks here and there to the way we view the world. Poetry warps and wraps our justification of the world, how we explain it or ignore it, how we fit it into our personal narrative by twisting words and images into unfamiliar shapes, making strange what once seemed so familiar, familiar what we could not before comprehend. In this sense, poetry changes the world more fully and literally than the revolutionary and political sense meant by Petris. Comparatively her political ideas seem small and paltry.  

I’ll choose a poem at random to illustrate, one that I like but is no more “great” than thousands of others.

When I read lines like this from Hart Crane’s “Chapliesque,”
We make our meek adjustments,
Contented with such random consolations
As the wind deposits
In slithered and too ample pockets.

For we can still love the world, who find
A famished kitten on the step

I feel both confused and exhilarated. I read it as both stunningly fresh and so very old, both explosive and diminishing. The ground under our feet falls away when we get to those last lines quoted: “For we can still love the world, who find/ A famished kitten on the step…” Sure the world is hard. Sure there are retched things we must face daily. But, beyond this, the world is still wild and blooming and beautiful, so much so that it can engulf us even in the midst of suffering. The world is changed after Hart Crane, as with so many other artists and poets new and old. And nothing can change so much of the world as we see it from that great a sleep.

***

This, somewhat tangentially, reminds me: When Jackson Pollock was asked how to interpret the chaos of his paintings he retorted by turning the question back on the interviewer: Do you ask a flower what it means? Do you tear your hair out over interpreting its color?  

It is just there. And with a likely eye, it is there to look at and be enjoyed. If you don’t, the flower will not suffer and the world will just keep on going. Jackson Pollack/poetry/plants need no further justification for their existence than to exist. And they resent the question.

Oh, and one more reason poetry's not dead:

The Drunken Poets from Andy Knowlton on Vimeo.

By Adam Shutz

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