Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Poetry and Personality

How much does the personality of the poet have to play in a poetic form's acceptance? Does a poem in and of itself have the power to create change (as activism, a movement, or whatever) or is there some kind of "I want to be like that person" thing going on?

The reason I ask is because I've been thinking about celebrity lately (as I am wont to do) and what makes someone "popular" outside of their own circles. It seems to me to be like a snowball gaining momentum as it rolls down a hill--snowflakes (lets call them "people") tend to get run over by the larger movement, not necessarily because they are positioning themselves in the path but, more likely, because they can't get out of the way. Eventually the mass gets larger and larger until, finally, other people do jump on because they are feeling left out. But what creates the initial momentum (especially as it relates to poetry)?

I would argue that boredom with previous forms leads to a lot of the shift in consciousness that precedes a poetic movement. The new thing is always difficult and, almost by definition, resists becoming relevant. The relevance, I would argue, comes not from the form itself but from the people pushing the movement--the avant garde, if you will. Imagists like Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein weren't writing poetry in a vacuum--they were engaging in a dialogue that said, "Hey, doesn't it seem as if that old thing has kind of played itself out? Look at what we're doing over here." Had they been communicating only with each other, however, it wouldn't have caught on. They were out in the world having parties and gatherings, salons and shows, and attracting more and more "first adopters,"--those people who lead by the sheer force of their personalities. Eventually the piling on begins.

By today's standards Ginsberg's "Howl" seems pretty tame but, at the time it was truly groundbreaking--and the reason it seems tame today is because Ginsberg and his fellow Beats were worth emulating (at least to those outsiders looking in). What they were saying had to be said, of course, but the way they said it was challenging to societal norms, cultural taboos, and--at that time--could get you thrown in jail. But there was something about those guys that enough people were willing to take a risk (to buy their poems and books, rally around them, defend them, etc.). People looked at a lifestyle that was remarkably different from their own (and thus appealing) and began to glorify it. The sense of freedom the Beats projected--and just enough of a ring of truth in what they were saying--made the poetry itself a difficulty worth overcoming. What warm-blooded American boy didn't want to be Jack Kerouac or Neal Cassady (and what girl, deep down, didn't want them)? For many, the advantages of a raise in stature amongst a certain group outweighed the problems inherent in trying to get through something as dense as Burrough's "Naked Lunch."

Poetry seems destined to remain on the fringes for now. There are so many disparate and often engaging art forms these days, something as "simple" as language has a hard time competing for attention spans that have become not unlike those of weasels on meth. Of course the form itself is important--people aren't going to respond to something that's been trod over and over until it is as flat as a tapeworm nor are they likely to respond well to sound poetry that barely stops short of causing eardrum hemorrhaging--but I'll bet the next time a poetic force comes along to shake up the world it'll be because the person or persons responsible for it couldn't be ignored.

3 comments:

Michael said...

After re-reading, I realized what I basically just said was, "People write poetry to get laid." Discuss...

Issa said...

Yeah, (sigh) i'd rather not get laid by a slam poet, fuck, honestly man, this is bad -- SOME THOUGHTS on snowballs and attractive people (that we can't resist jumping on their back) and moccasins and a community-- as a movement requires movement we better start uphill: gravity will deliver: momentum :change : and thirdly community : a call to gather the segmented world : scent of freedom in simply coming together in absense of commodification : the experience : such hard economic times : dimes: fringes on moccasins, by definition, will erase footprints in the snow --- is it such that we as poets, on the fringes, as you say, erase our own presence? then i don't know which attractive person's back to jump on - which footprint bleeding in the snow

K. Silem Mohammad said...

Both the term "personality" and the remarks in the comment box inevitably conjure up O'Hara's "Personism" ("If you're going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you").

I do think personality is an underexplored aspect of supposedly "non-expressive" and otherwise linguistically recalcitrant writing. How would Kenny Goldsmith's work go over, for example, if he weren't such a showman? This is not to disparage his work, but to suggest that his personality is part of the work.