Wednesday, March 18, 2009

What Is At Stake in Poetry? Part 1: Good vs. Bad poetry and the Modernists

What is at stake in poetry? For most people the answer would, undoubtedly, be, “Nothing much.” Today, poetry is read by few. Those who do read it are usually poets themselves or, if not, are using poetry as a way to engender popularity within a certain group of academics or hipsters applying certain forms of practiced elitism. Others use poetry as a way to garner sex because they've heard it is “romantic” (but, since these people are typically not qualified to evaluate power struggles within poetry, I will mostly ignore them in this analysis except in cases where the attempted elicitation of hot, sweaty lovemaking relates to elitist pursuits among the above-mentioned groups and/or poetry consumers not affiliated with Pablo Neruda).

I intend to, in the following discourse, a.) answer my first question, “What is at stake in poetry?” and b.) ask, “If poetry is indeed relevant, how much of that relevance is due to the prosody of the work and how much relies on the personality of the poet?” Hint: the answer to the first part of question b.) is yes.

Because most people have only a vague notion of “good vs. bad” as it relates to poetry and an even more tenuous grasp on the history of poetic movements, I will begin by exploring my own feelings—or, as eighteenth century philosopher David Hume calls them, “passions”—about poetry. My own likes and dislikes seem to stem from some kind of reaction deep within my bowels somewhere between my pylorus and my anus in what is commonly known as “the gut.” It may be helpful, here, to cite a portion of the poem, The Tay Bridge Disaster, by William McGonagall that is generally regarded as “bad poetry”:

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember'd for a very long time.

Few would disagree that there is a deeply embedded suckishness here—but why? “Old Timiness” seems to be one of the poem's problems. That, however, doesn't explain why the poem was ubiquitously reviled even in its own day (when it would have been considered modern). Consider this, then, from Walt Whitman's A Voice from Death, another poem about a natural disaster involving a bridge, which predates McGonagall's poem but sounds much more relevant even to contemporary ears:

A voice from Death, solemn and strange, in all his sweep and power,
With sudden, indescribable blow--towns drown'd--humanity by
thousands slain,
The vaunted work of thrift, goods, dwellings, forge, street, iron bridge,
Dash'd pell-mell by the blow--yet usher'd life continuing on,
Amid the rest, amid the rushing, whirling, wild debris,
A suffering woman saved--a baby safely born!).

Perhaps, then, it is because McGonagall's poem is too rhymey. But that, too, is reductive and discounts the fact that much of the most renowned poetry of all time has included a great deal of rhyming. Look at this stanza from To Autumn by John Keats:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

So if it isn't old timiness (discernible by the heavy use of apostrophes in place of the letter “e” in past tense verbs) and it isn't (necessarily) copious amounts of rhyming, what is lacking in bad poetry? One answer seems to be “metaphor”—something conspicuously absent in Tay Bridge. There is a vividness in both Whitman's and Keats' poems that is underutilized in McGonagall's. Other than a vague description of the bridge as “beautiful” and the river as “Silv'ry” there is nothing in the poem that distracts from the fact that he was rewriting a newspaper headline (except, perhaps, the particularly abrasive rhyming). So, metaphor seems to be a clue as to what separates good poetry from bad, but alas(!), McGonagall doesn't even try. He was simply reporting an incident. Watch what happens when I incorporate the same technique using a headline from today's New York Times:

Alas! Once mighty insurer A.I.G,
us'd taxpayer money for bonuses, you see,
both Obama and Republicans agree,
those greedy execs that A.I.G did pay
should return all those dollars right away!

See what I mean? I almost threw up a little writing that. So that we are starting from the same place, let's just agree that good poetry often includes metaphor. For Keats, there was a clear answer to what makes good poetry—beauty. He put it this way, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, - that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." And for Keats, Elaborate Word Choice + Sensual Imagery + Sophisticated Rhyme Schemes = Beauty. Keats submerges the reader into his verse and few would disagree that his poems are, indeed, beautiful. Sounds good to me. Done.

But, wait, is that really all there is to beauty? Other than in the case of puppies, kittens, and this thing, beauty is purely subjective.

As the nineteenth century succumbed to the twentieth, T.S. Eliot warned, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” By then, readers of poetry were becoming tired of rhyme schemes and iambic pentameters that had existed since before Shakespeare. They were also getting a bit lush-landscaped out, making way for The Imagists.

Ezra Pound was almost single handedly responsible for the first great poetic movement of the new century: Modernism. Contrast Pound's poem, In a Station of the Metro, with Keats':

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

It was clear to Pound that “truth” wasn't going to be found by piling on more rhyming couplets and forced iambs. Pound's prescription was to sparingly use the tools of language—replacing dense metaphor with allusion—to find some deeper truth, something even beyond Keats' conception of beauty. Pound was also the hub of the new avant-garde, influencing and supporting some of the greatest poets and writers in history including W.B. Yeats, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, H.D., Williams Carlos Williams, and Gertrude Stein, among others.

Coming soon: Pound begats Charles Olson, the Beats, and More

1 comment:

Harish Suryanarayana said...

I enjoyed reading this article and am glad you chose this field. Keep going!