Thursday, April 5, 2007

In Defence of Shelley

Even though I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says in A Defence of Poetry, and even though his name is Percy—Percy Bysshe Shelley is my kind of guy. Shelley was an antiestablishment hedonist who married the chick who wrote Frankenstein! Even though his life was short, he lived large—and he certainly lived on the fringes of society. He brutally laments the mindless bourgeois surrender to the mundane in his treatise as being incompatible with poetic thought while praising those whose “delicate sesnibilit[ies] and “enlarged imaginations” put them at war with “base desire” (6). If the base desires of early 19th century England were appalling to him (which I can only imagine must have consisted of something like attending church and kicking the tires on a brand new 1820 Harvey barouche) he should see us now—a country of 300 million people blissed out on Twinkies, Mountain Dew, and American Idol! What would he say about someone with a garage full of ATVs, jet skis, and Chevy Tahoes and a rented storage unit to contain all the kitsch that no longer fits in their 4,000 square foot McMansion? I’m pretty sure he would find them unpoetic at best. It is here that I agree with Shelley—we should be closer to the source or as he calls it, “original purity and force” (6), to write poetry. The mindless distractions seem to be mostly incompatible with poetic creation—or are they? Could it be that in modern society are we so inundated with the ethics of voting for Sanjaya and the paternity of Anna Nicole’s baby that we necessarily have an ever- churning defamiliarization of the language in which to plug into? Hmmm, if I take this stance then I think that both Shelley and I are right—only the times have changed. I would have to agree with him, however, that immersion in the bourgeois is detrimental to poetry because it doesn’t require much original thought. As someone who doesn’t watch TV and yet, somehow, still knows about these pop culture phenomena, I can say, with no uncertainty, that they provide hella good material for poetry and, since one of the few advantages of becoming a poet is to necessarily set oneself apart from “those people” to become one of the “unacknowledged legislators of the world” (7), I’m sticking with Shelley.

Where I diverge from Shelley is in his views on the form that poetry should take. Thanks to his and his compatriots’ popularity and the deluge of poor junior high school reproductions that followed, his adherence to “a certain rhythm and order which may be called the beautiful and the good” (5) is dead (R.I.P.). But, then again, Percy seems like a pretty hip guy and would probably recognize and even applaud the new directions that poetry has necessarily taken since his day—or maybe this is just wishful thinking on my part because, if she were still living and even though she would be 209 years old, Mary Shelley would be welcome at one of my orgies any time.

4 comments:

Mike Young said...

Ha. This is awesome. I think you're right that what's called "pop culture phenomena" is, on another level, simply part of the melee that makes up our lives. Totally "worthy" of poetry. Twinkies and Mountain Dew have done more to change language than a lot of poets.

It's odd. How well can you tell through my poetry if I'm caught up in base desires? I could visit the park on Saturday and write about a softly alighting sparrow -- then spent the rest of my time stressed out about my job as a marketer for a bottled water company or something. That would be sort of a lie. If Shelley demands that poets sever themselves from the "calumny" of "base desires," who keeps track of the poet's nervous system to make sure that severance exists?

K. Silem Mohammad said...

Great reflections, Michael. I have one small, totally selfish request: could you possibly choose a less optically pain-inducing color scheme? Preferably one with dark (and maybe slightly larger) text on a light background? I need a prescription change for my eyeglasses, which I may not get to in the near future, and this is tough going for me.

Michael said...

Oh, I suppose...

K. Silem Mohammad said...

Thanks!