The poem stands alone.
But it is not made of itself alone. It is not brought into being by parthenogenesis. Not endowed with that level of self-sufficiency or self-concern. It gets it on with all the other arts. It communes with the non-arts. It strives for discipline. It never surrenders its wild streak. For some of the makers it is virtually on tap; for others it is like opening a vein. Whatever it takes, it takes. Whatever it gives, is also taken. Once made it has a degree of autonomy and with that comes the terrible face of isolation from having been made and having no sphere. From having only its own space to occupy.
Is this it then? The consumption of all by one? Does Walmart win?
Not so many are required to constitute a sphere, but enough to girdle, say, the great tree of Tule.
Poetry moves by indirection and in so doing avoids the crowd. This does not mean it would not draw others in. But one has to be responsive to its movement. One has to adjust to its unfamiliar configurations. One has to train one's best ear on its retrofitted lyre.
Poets do not create the environment in which their works would be received. Born in Somalia. Born in the Autonomous Region. Born in Arkansas, raised by the grace of God to be a razorback. Born to be a greeter at Walmart.
Indirection makes the circle hard to draw. It changes the route, and often the destination.
The inquiry poetry postulates remains intact. An inquiry extended along the lengths of the lines of knowing and beyond the tips of the known. Poetry figures the field of questions because it is never satisfied with the answers being so efficiently distributed as to capture the whole consumer base. Poetry it turns out, not capital, is what is fluid.
What if, one poet asks another poet, in a flash of foreboding, what if this is just middle capitalism?
Most manners and habits of thinking degenerate around the base. The forces—as I choose to call THEM—drive thinking away from its vast holdings, especially thinking variously. Rendering the base all solid- and smooth-seeming. Poetry tries to insinuate itself in the cracks. It tries to initiate cracks where all appeared heretofore imperturbable.
The language of poetry specializes in doubt. Without the doubters, everyone is cut off at the first question. Poetry does not presume to know, but is angling to get a glimpse of what is gradually coming into view; it aims to rightly identify what is looming; it intends to interrogate whatever is already in place. Poetry, whose definition remains evasive by necessity, advocates the lost road; and beyond speech—waiting, listening, and silence.
Some would blame poetry for being sidelined; some would blame forces beyond its control. Some would say poetry saved them from a life of futility, degradation, and despair, but this consequence cannot be measured in running feet. Some would say poetry alone had secured the relationship between their perceptions and their experience. I say, follow the money.
Not so long ago, it is fair to suggest, American poetry enjoyed an air of respectability. Like most important spheres, it persisted as an almost-exclusively white man's preserve. Even when it was composed by the madman or the drunkard, the poet himself might be written up, rewarded, even revered. A poet was a minor, secular god. Until the moment when he was caught driving backward on the main road, he was in command of his own field of ears. Then, blackout.
And there were, in those halcyon times, important arbiters to flush out the important voices, ensuring that a tiny number entered the tiny chamber, who could then be introduced to the great halls of the selectively schooled. And then did the art matter (to the selectively schooled).
Blame it on democracy; well, that grand philosophy has been put to the barbecue. Poets came out in swarms once the bell rang for them, but readers moved away in ever-greater numbers. Distraction trumps concentration. We knew this even before Mr. Walter Benjamin told us so. And nothing is more distracting than buying a ginormous pallet of stuff. Mr. Sam Walton did not even have to say it. Step onto the back of your shiny cart and take a roll down Action Alley. You need never run out of the things you never knew you wanted.
A common charge is that poetry is an internal affair—meaning poets partake of poetry; nonpoets would not be caught in its light. In view of our proliferation (a consequence or a casualty of its democratization, depending on your perspective), it doesn't mean there are not enough to complete the circle—that there are not enough to reinforce the circle. As Leonard Cohen put it, poetry is the opiate of the poets; but therein the circle threatens to close in on itself, and thus the boundaries begin to harden. And herein lies Walmart's great advantage: ever growing. And herein lies poetry's endurance: determination at the core.
In 2006, the Poetry Foundation published a survey and concluded there is an abundance of poetry "users." Only a modest 10 percent of those surveyed admitted to being "non-users." And more than half of the users know the title of a poem. (No comment.) Among non-users it is conceded that poetry may add something valuable to life, but just how they would know this is beyond the reach of this survey.
I say, read the children poetry.
If the competition is killing us, it is weirdly killing everything else, too—the water, the air, the recipe for Coca-Cola; it's even killing competition. Why spare "the best words in the best order"? Walmart rules.
As traditional forums for literary dissemination confront their own pressures, poetry can no longer be assigned filler space (apart from the publications created and maintained solely for the genre). In the process of disappearing from traditional media, poets have been as busy as every other enterprise in redirecting energy to the Internet—where the vitality of the practice is evident, but where the suffusion of word and image tends to minimize distinctions. Distinctions not just between good and bad but also between this and that, between now and never, between memory and forgetting, and so on. That hits do not necessarily translate as readers is obvious. However, hits do signal converging lines of curiosity. Hits also encompass actual readers. And hits combined with blogs and poemfilms enlarge the circle.
Entrepreneurs are not interested, period. When Steve Jobs said people don't read anymore, he could have been just taking a reflexive swipe at the competition (in this instance, Kindle), or he may have been merely musing aloud about his own habits (reading not being one of them), or worse, kissing off the beautiful dark schist of reflective thought. A couple of years prior to the Poetry Foundation survey, the National Endowment for the Arts conducted its own survey on reading. It does not hold out very good prospects for nonreaders. And it does not take into account just how much text is devoured online—surely the equivalent of many books—which as we know is still not the equivalent of a single particular text. And this is the swift decline they could measure: the deep, unrivaled pleasure of deep reading.
Just before the wiring and then the wireless changed everything, I attempted to make the argument for slow being better, old being good, quiet being required. I conclusively lost that case. I cannot make anything stop moving. I cannot convince the young that the old are good when they (the young) are salivating over their inheritance, not because they think they are entitled, but because they think they'll be eating dirt. Dirty dirt at that. Nor can I put the earth noise on pause. I have to keep coming back to the word being carved into poetry as something that in and of itself puts a much-needed, no, a necessary drag on a single construal; that retrieves; that accumulates density even as it accelerates.
Even so, poetry gestures toward silence as it speaks and casts its stillness about us. There is, however, the threat of total, full-time, all-over silence. Death clings to poetry. It brings back the taste of ashes. It directs you to the forehock. Religion consoles; many believe it cleanses. Poetry faces the end without obfuscation. But much is to be said for "going down fighting."
Poets do not have the answer. They say what they see. They take their own pulse. They stay up thinking of lines of poetry that they might use.
I say, teach your kids to read.
Poetry's twin desiderata: to speak once and for all, to forever hold its peace. Like the old man said, "Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself." A hundred years later John Ashbery murmured, "I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. [But] to leave it all out would be another, and truer, way." A blank page can serve as one poem, as close to perfect as one poem may come. It cannot serve as poetry.
Changing the name won't help any more than switching parties that are already pretty freaking interchangeable.
I am not bent on the preservation of the genre in anything approximating a pure form. (It's a poem if I say it is.) Yet I am not convinced poems, novels, plays have exhausted their own stock-in-trade. I do not think the genres persist, to the degree that they do, just to conform to marketing requirements. Regardless of identifiable practice, no crossover, hybrid, blended, or the dissolution of taxonomies will bring the readers around.
When has poetry not availed itself of everything from full-frontal sex to crackpot economics. When has it not worked every effect known to literature, especially the longer its history and the more extended its compositions. When has the uncategorizable not justly been called poetry. I say, when it begins to stink. At the stinking point, all writing should retreat to its own smelly corner—as bad poetry, bad fiction, bad theater, bad meat. Poetry should not be the default for every writer's mess. Otherwise, it is a poem if I say it is.
I quickly poll a few of my contemporaries as to why poetry matters more now than when it mattered less than before: "It prevents us from living a fixed life ... a life of stasis," Jenny Boully suggests: "Now, more than ever, when the world seems to be experiencing so much strife because of beliefs that are rooted in a fixed worldview, we need poems to remind us what it is to be this or that, to feel joy or sadness, to marvel at our physical universe." Arthur Sze wrote, "Poetry matters more than ever before, because we are more challenged than ever before. Poetry is the essential language that, endlessly branching, enables us to live deeply and envision what matters most .... Poetry dissolves boundaries—it is the finite that puts us in touch with the infinite—and, as languages and species vanish every day, it is a crucial vehicle by which we apprehend the urgency and precarious splendor of existence." And Ben Lerner: "The scarcer the spaces for this formal exercise, the less we are asked to ask ourselves to relate part to whole, the SUV to the dirty war, the more desperately important such spaces become.... The ideal poem and Fox News are opposites. The former enlists your participation, teaches you to see patterns, while the latter is divided into categories ... whose boundaries guarantee their emptiness .... Maybe a culture that attends to poetry is in a better position to unfix the language from the ruinous project of concealing the forms we live by." And Forrest Gander: "Because in a time of spectacle, poetry is the anti-spectacle, the wormhole through silence into the interior rich with nuance, with feeling sparked by intuition and attentiveness ... the place of our deeper transformations and renewals." And Cole Swensen, "I think of endangered species .... [Poetry is] an entire way of thinking, and the less we have of it in the world, the less variety in thinking there is around—and it seems we need continued broadening of thought modes, never narrowing." And from Jane Miller, "Poetry has given me life. Then I think, how maudlin, then I think, how sane." Maybe Walmart doesn't rule.
The poets lock themselves in and work off-the-clock. Of their own volition. They leave lines lying around the break rooms. Lines of their own making.
Everyone I ask sounds a note of urgency if not emergency. We must find the words, we must put them down, we must order them, we must resuscitate neglected terms, discover new forms; we must scrawl on the walls in our own waste if we have to, but mostly in cyberspace, which provides a surface without end.
"There is disequilibrium between ourselves and the world that nothing restores to balance but poetry," writes Brenda Hillman. The attention it demands ensures that "the qualities of individual words and their relationships to one another are what matters .... Loving words is a way of staying interested ... Poetry allows the mind to come into contact with the impossible oddness of everything."
The world at risk is the meaning of words. The felicitously manifold meanings of words. And if meaning itself be mangled beyond recognition ... Are you next of kin? Are you next?
I say, teach your kids to read poetry.
Poetry abhors the lie. The lies we are told, they pile up, they become truth by virtue of the heap. By their volume. By virtue of constant recapitulation. Many things we absolutely knew to be true were, by dint of being spoken in isolation, delivered in silent space, sifted through the archaeology of lies to the bottom. There is no room to breathe on the bottom.
Poetry digs through. Its castings make some growth possible even on contaminated ground. Though forced to make do with shrinking day-length, though forced to go the worm's way, poetry ensures new shoots. It could be that an international vault will have to be established for poetry, to ensure the renewal of the greatest variety of voices, of lines capable of challenging the uniformity of thought. The vault that must by definition of its mission reject the Walmart cheer. Spring clings to poetry. It brings forth possibility, "the greatest good."
That the poems we snatch from the language must bear the habit of our thinking.
That their arrangement strengthens the authority on which each separate line is laid.
That they extend the line into perpetuity.
That they enlarge the circle.
That they awaken the dreamer. That they awaken the schemer.
That they rectify the names.
That they draw not conclusions but further qualify doubt.
That they avail themselves of the shrapnel of everything: the disappearance of cork trees and coral, the destroyed center of Ramadi, the shape of buildings to come, the pearness of pears.
That they clear the air.
That they keep a big-box sense of humor at the ready (like an ax in a glass case).
That they bring the ship nearer to its longing.
That they resensitize the surface of things.
That they resonate in the bowels.
That they will not stand alone.
This is our mind. Our language. Our light. Our word. Our bond.
In the world.
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