One Thing Poetry Does


is the work of making and reflecting the world. We are the world? We are of it, in it, reaping it, breaking it, building, patching, sewing, seaming, composting, revising, whitewashing, thatching, stripping, and collaging it daily. Every moment.

Rather than write about the Ashbery profile mentioned a few posts ago (okay, I suppose it’s a nice primer for the uninitiated, but I didn’t really learn anything new since I only read about one fourth of it), I want to make another one of my simplistic notes that spiraled like a thin tendril from my head as I read.

So there is culture proper—the societally-dispensed material we “receive”—and there is attention to the making and mechanics of culture: hyper-culture? Meta-culture? Artifice? Benjamin or Bernstein anyone?

Anyway, one element that is a major part of and enables culture, among other things, is language. Without language, could we think? Communicate? Painting is a language. Images communicate. But words. Words are the directions, the engine, and the steering wheel of our everyday relations.

And poets. Poets are the workers of words. They watch words, noting how they mean. But they go beyond the study of linguistics; poets manipulate and create. They try-out and test-run language constructions. Poets choose and move words around, toying with how they mean, often dissecting along the way.

Poets are not so popular in the mainstream. Poet as superstar? Nope. Poets’ products, works of poetry, are not in high-demand. Poetry books don’t make for popular commodities. Why?

One reason might be: poets point out the seams. As Ricky Fitts noted, Never underestimate the power of denial. People want their word constructions to entertain; they usually want to absorb specific types of writing for entertainment purposes. Very few want to get tangled in the puppets’ strings or notice the cardboard props on a sitcom set or how genre writing is geared toward a conditioned reception. In other words, we get the sentiment we buy and expect.

In “A Transatlantic Interview 1946,” Gertrude Stein quoted her friend, “Picasso said, ‘You see, the situation is very simple. Anybody that creates a new thing has to make it ugly. The effort of creation is so great, that trying to get away from the other things, the contemporary insistence, is so great that the effort to break it gives the appearance of ugliness.’”

Is poetry ugly? Sometimes poets don’t attract the masses. They aren’t making seamless scintillating narratives for the world to purchase. Poetry shovels into culture proper, identifying, manipulating, and discarding the mulch along the way. Sometimes, this offends the masses, who love the mulch. I am part of the mulch and enjoy a good bit of it, which makes me wonder why the work of my pen will most likely never be appreciated by more than a handful of others (not that such appreciation isn’t appreciated!). Is this pull paradoxical: to write in such a way that requires a divorcing of one’s self from the desire for a popular reception but also to simultaneously desire a sense of appreciation that feeds society’s hunger for easily-consumable mulch?

This is not to negate other forms of appreciation … or to imply that appreciation is the only reason we write. However, audience is another question related to “why write,” and one form of audience in this culture is the audience we are each a part of, that of the masses, even if we choose to reject our assigned roles.

So if poetry were to gain in status from the point of view of the masses, we might next ask if the popularization of poetry would lead to its demise? Would poetry simply be synonymous with “Hallmark verse culture?” Maybe. I’m guessing so. But I can’t speak for everyone. And I’m talking in circles tonight, so I’ll just bow out of my own monologue now. Happy Saturday night!

One Response to “One Thing Poetry Does”

  1. Love Phillip Says:
    November 8th, 2005 at 9:55 am eI’m not so sure that the popularization of poetry would lead to a Hallmark-ization. Let’s look at the last time that poetry actually was popular: the beats and their progeny, the hippie sixties. Is Ginsberg Hallmark lite? Corso, Snyder, Creeley? Sure, there probably was a lot of fluff being written. The more people that attempt to write, the more fluff is produced. But at the same time, more “eternal verse” is written too.

    I daresay, even if, for the sake of argument, even if we were suddenly a hallmark-poetry culture, tomorrow we woke up and everybody was writing hallmark cards, there would turn out, when all the cards are counted, to be some damn good hallmark verse. Immortal Hallmark verse, if you will.

    That’s why, looking back to the great load of alien-invasion/science-fiction/radioactive monster movies that were made in the forties and fifties, the collective conscious only remembers a few. King Kong (yes, I realize that it wasn’t made in the forties) maybe. Or Ed Wood’s Plan 9. The Blob. The Fly. Some episodes from The Twilight Zone.

    In the 1890’s there was a sense of unease in the literary community as to the direction that literature was taking. A lot of people thought that literature was ‘dead,’ and there could be no recovery from it. It isn’t unlike where we are now, with all this talk of poetry being dead, of the mass culture ignoring literature. All that talk seems to imply that there was an awful lot of nothing being written. But that’s not what we collectively remember. We remember Herman Melville, we remember Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Stephen Crane, and we say, They were good. They were good.

    In the same way, in fifty or a hundred years nobody will remember that poetry today sucks and that everybody hated it. Instead they will read a select few works that don’t really represent the time, but do sort of because they were written in that time, and they will say, Those writers back then were good.

    What am I trying to say? I don’t know. I think that I’m trying to convince myself that there’s some hidden meaning to all of this crap that’s plaguing the poetic world right now, something to reassure myself, I suppose.

    Are we happy yet?

Philosophy Poetry

AMY KING View All →

Amy King is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. Her latest collection, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She co-edited with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. She also co-edits the anthology series, Bettering American Poetry, and is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.

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