The Case for Popular Poetry
Stanley Kunitz, one of the most respected American poets of our time, has died at the age of 100. Until I read his obituary I didnt know that his father had committed suicide six weeks before his birth. Touching detail.
Poor man! Poor boy! What a thing to live with. And it surely had something to do with the boys becoming a poet, though it might be hard to explain exactly why.
I accept the consensus of poetry lovers that Kunitz was an excellent poet. But isnt that an odd thing to say? As if poetry lovers were a small class of specialists sharing an eccentric taste. Poetry today is notoriously the least popular, least remunerative form of writing. You can still eke out a living writing prose. But verse? Forget it.
Ive tried to read Kunitz and other recent poets of repute Seamus Heaney, Elizabeth Bishop, Louis Zukofsky, and many more but I have to confess I just cant get into them. Im obviously not the only one. This is in no way a diatribe against them, but let me put it this way: Why doesnt their work stick to the ribs?
Not since Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot, both of whom died about forty years ago, has there been an English-language poet of both high literary prestige and great popular appeal, whose verses and phrases could be recognized by ordinarily literate readers as, in earlier centuries, it seemed that Pope, Wordsworth, Byron, Longfellow, and Tennyson were common possessions. Everyone quoted them. But how many people today can name even one living poet?
And yet we are all poetry lovers by nature, arent we? The surest proof of this is that popular poetry survives in popular song; we can all quote Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney, and, if we are older than the rock era, Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart. This takes no effort of memorization; on the contrary, when poetry keeps its roots in music, such devices as rhyme, meter, and melody can make it nearly impossible to forget.
I can still recite hours of Shakespeare, less because I am studious than because, in my youth, I listened to recordings of his plays until I knew them by heart. Others may have thought this was a great feat of memory on my part, but actually, of course, the great feat was the authors: writing words that, heard a few times, became a permanent part of the listener.
Its as if several of the modern arts have repudiated, as vulgar or bourgeois, the very conventions that once made those arts coherent and readily intelligible. So we have had novels without narrative, music without melody or harmony, and painting without representation, as well as verse that seems impenetrable.
In some cases these experiments were brilliantly successful on their own terms, like Joyces Ulysses; and we neednt disparage them. But when Joyce took his experimental fiction further in Finnegans Wake, he set a precedent that was bound to find few imitators.
In fact, progress of this kind in the arts entailed loss as well as gain, but the cult of modernism has sometimes refused to admit this obvious fact. When art fails to communicate, as C.S. Lewis observed, it is now widely assumed that the fault lies wholly on the side of the audience: In this shop, the customer is always wrong.
The heyday of audience-defying modernism is over now; it survives wearisomely in attempted provocations such as obscene or blasphemous pictures and sculptures, mostly tax-funded, that cause banal disputes on editorial pages. These silly rows really have nothing to do with either artistic freedom or artistic merit. They signify the exhaustion, and greed, of what now passes for the avant-garde.
But some artists will always experiment, as they should. I merely say that excellent art may also be, and usually has been, conventional and popular. It should hardly be necessary to point this out. Tom Wolfe has argued that the novel has its roots in the lowly craft of journalism; and he has proved his thesis in a series of brilliant and essentially old-fashioned novels full of colorful characters, dramatic plots, and social observation nineteenth-century novels for the twenty-first century. And they sell like crazy.
If the novel can still do this, why not the symphony? Or even the sonnet?
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