Tuesday, September 15, 2009

More Poetry

In my second year of grad school at Yale, I made a faux pas, which I still regret. On learning that a couple of friends were going to be reading poetry at an event, I mused, after absent-mindedly congratulating them, "I wonder, do we need any more poetry?"

It was a terribly rude thing to say, and I still, twenty-five years later, regret having said it. It was philistine and awkward and unpleasant. But now I'm going to say it again. Do we need any more poetry?

Well -- in one sense, no. We have more than we can read already. We have not only more good poetry than we can read already, we have more great poetry. I am only now, after forty years of assiduous reading, getting around to Li Po, who stands in the Chinese poetic tradition, very roughly speaking, as Chaucer does in the English. He is not just a good poet. He is a Major Poet. An Important Poet. He is an amazing poet.

And there's plenty more where he came from. The shelf-life of poetry, if it has one, has not yet been reached in historical time. There are people who won't read an old poem, and I don't really know what to do for them. Someone who thinks Shakespeare beyond his sell date is someone I probably just can't talk to: I wouldn't know where to begin. But beyond that, whole new literatures have been unearthed in my lifetime, and translated into English. I have on my shelves a book I picked up free, some thirty years ago. It's a translation of what I'm assured is -- and believe to be -- a great classic of Vietnamese poetry. It's become something of a memento mori, for me, because I have gradually become aware that I will never read it. Not because I don't want to. Not because I won't love it when I get to it. Not because I doubt that it is in fact the great classic of a great literature. No, the reason I will never read it is very simple: it's that I will die before I get around to it. Dead as a doornail. And the Tale of Kieu will end up in a second-hand bookshop, or possibly pulped and recycled on the spot. (I'm sorry, Kieu. I didn't mean it to end like this!)

So: on the demand side, no. We don't need any more. What about the supply side?

Poetry doesn't have a general audience, any more. This is occasion for much hand-wringing, and remarks on what crude barbarians we have become. Sure, I can go with that. But the fact is that written poetry only ever had a large audience for a century or two -- during the 19th Century, with a slop backwards into the late 18th and a slop forward into the early 20th -- and this was a direct consequence of technological advances that greatly increased the potential audience of poetry without much increasing the number of potential poets. To wit, advances in printing, which made it cheap to produce lots of copies, though it was still quite expensive to produce just a few. The great medieval poets didn't write for a general audience: they wrote for little court circles, and counted their hand-transcribed editions in -- if they were very popular -- scores, not hundreds, of copies. The same goes for most Renaissance writers, in the early days of printing: Shakespeare's readership -- as opposed to his play audiences -- was quite small.

The effect of printing was to artificially preserve the small community of poets -- all the Romantic and almost all of the Victorian poets knew each other -- while their audiences grew. So there was still something similar to the small court circle: it just had a fishbowl of interested (but mute) listeners around it.

This highly artificial and temporary situation is what many writers now look back to nostalgically as the way things ought to be, and what many of us aspire to. We want to be known nationally. We want to be the Coleridge or the Tennyson of our times. We want lots of people to buy our books.

But population has exploded and technology has moved on, and a very different landscape has appeared. There are not, now, a score of good poets in a generation. There are thousands of them. Bad news if you want to be Tennyson, and have graduate students write dissertations about your poetry a hundred years from now. Because let me tell it to you straight: there are not going to be any more Tennysons. Not ever again. English poetry has shattered into a thousand little circles: and that's not because there are no good poets any more, but because there are scads of them. There are going to John Ashberrys for the the foreseeable future, because academics grind on regardless -- the exact counterpart of the medieval monasteries, producing their Lydgates -- but Tennysons and fishbowl audiences are gone. This is a good thing. Because those mute audiences didn't want to be mute. And now when you find a poet as good as Tennyson -- it takes more digging, I admit, than it did when there was a desperate scramble to catch hold of the single national microphone, but it's still quite doable -- when you find your Tennyson, you can strike up a correspondence with her. She'll probably even read your poetry in return, if you ask nicely. This may be a hard time for poetic egos, but it's a wonderful time for poetry.

So once again, we are writing in small circles. We are publishing our poems in human-scale numbers: editions of a dozen or a hundred copies. We are talking to each other in poetry.

Look at it this way. In Chaucer's time, in all of England, how many young men or women were there who could even conceivably get a shot at air time for their poetry? Who might get a chance to read their poems at a royal or noble court? A few hundred, tops: dependents of great houses; monks in some of the great monasteries; members of the royal or noble families themselves. There just weren't very many potential poets. Probably a number on the same order of magnitude as, say, the number of poetry bloggers in Cleveland today.

You may think that modern culture is inimical to poetry: that we are so busy truckling to capitalism and so bombarded with entertainments and so ignorant of our traditions that not many of these potential poets will ever write poems, and far fewer of those will write good ones. And I may agree with you. But even if you think it's a hundred times unlikelier for a potential poet to become a good poet nowadays, when the pool of potential producers of English poetry has gone from a few hundred people to hundreds of millions of people -- as it has -- you're still looking at a generation with some thousands of Chaucers in it. Not hundreds: thousands. (Do the math, if that's your sort of thing.)

There is simply no way that we could, or should, pare that number down to the small literary circles that used to make literary history. There will be no more Tennysons, because we are awash in Tennysons. There are half a dozen poets in my blogroll that I think are that good. Odds are they won't be in the Norton Anthology in the year 2050: those slots will be taken, as they are now, by the pets of academia -- good poets, some of them, no doubt: but to call them the good poets of the early 21st Century is simply delusionary. It doesn't work that way anymore. The floodgates are open, and we're swimming in poetry. If you want to be a literary Name, that's distressing. If you want to make a living by selling your poetry, God help you. But if you just want to read and write poetry, it's marvelous.

MFA programs tend fundraise and justify their existence by advertising themselves as the cultivators of the next Tennyson. That's rather bogus. But to call MFA programs a Ponzi scheme (because what they really cultivate, economically speaking, is the next generation of people who will start up and teach in MFA programs) is to miss the point. There may be no more Tennysons, but there is a deep need for literary circles, for communities of reading and writing, for opportunities to study under masters and to learn the traditions of the craft. Online communities like this are also springing up left and right, and I expect great things of them as they mature.

There is a downside to all this: which is the fragmentation of literature. Literature has for centuries served as a table around which a nation could sit, a shared space of things all had read. Any random railway carriage in Victorian England would have held people who had some of Tennyson's poetry by heart in it. But literature is rapidly losing that function. And we have to beware of what a biologist might call "assortative mating": with so many poetry communities, you're likely to find your way to one that suits you perhaps a little too well. It was good for poetry when, say, Browning and Swinburne were jostled together and had to read each other. I'd urge poets to read poetry that makes them a little uncomfortable, poetry that's not quite their thing.

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