It seems that whenever I read an article on the state of poetry today the author inevitably dwells on the negative. They fixate on how poetry today is suffering from le grand malaise of apathy on the part of the reading public. I have yet to read a treatise on what is working well in today’s poetic scene and what is worthy in today’s state of poetry. Is all poetry truly tired and stagnant? Are all poets becoming more and more alike, surviving vicariously in a symbiotic, albeit poetically incestuous relationship with other poets? Have poets truly and completely lost the interest to even write for a general public? Would this purported public even care if they did? I have no answers to these questions.
What I do know is that I write for myself. I do not write & publish to acquire tenure; to impress my poet mentor; make my bones in an MFA program; receive fellowships, grants, and other subsidies or to garner poetry prizes that I can stick into my poetic hat. I agree that I am totally narcissistic when it comes to my poetry, but I also care a great deal about craft and I envy the MFA student that can devote so many hours in a day to poetics. I would like to be so steeped in poetics that I might see elements of poetry in every objectification that I encountered on a daily basis.
And yes in response to Barr’s point that almost all poets end up teaching, I too have worn the hat of teacher. But I have never defined myself as such. It was merely a means to an end. (Not that it left a discernible bad aftertaste in my mouth. Actually, I rather enjoyed it!) But I have never defined myself by that which engaged me in a remunerative activity. My educational background is in Sociology (M.A.) but I do not consider myself sociologist either. I refuse to let my social roles confine and pigeon-hole me. And so too, when it comes to my role as poet - (which is admittedly rather a small role in the grand scheme of it all), I refuse to be stereotyped.
Nature vs. Nurture & Poetic Careerism
There has been a longstanding point of contention among social scientists as to which variable: (nature or nurture) is more instrumental in determining the behavior and personality of the individual. What truly makes us who we are? Is the poet born or socially molded and socialized into one? Is the predisposition to develop into a poet based on our genetic or social makeup?
Barr clearly indicates that he feels that nature is the determinant factor in the poet’s evolution. Craft can be learned via MFA programs but we already come to these programs as writers. If anything these programs seem to mold the student in the likeness of the program’s mentor. Ergo; his assuredness that the next poetic Messiah will probably not be an MFA student. Whereas this lends an infinitesimally slight optimism to my personal history as poet, I cannot wholeheartedly accept this premise without any corroboration.
Nonetheless, I do agree that,” The creation of art is not a matter of fellowship. Writing a poem is a fiercely independent act. It is the furthest thing from mentors, residencies, and tenure.” The need to write does not (at least in my case) ever arise during a social event. It is a “sullen craft” that I ply alone. The words & elements of the “poem in vitro”, ebulliently bob to the surface of the conscious mindset when the need arises. And, yes, the urge to write is often something that I must assuage. Having said this I might, however, add that revision & critique is perhaps better suited to “fellowship”.
Write What You Know
I have always contended that any attempt at writing from another POV completely alien to one’s cognitive mindset is necessarily tinged by the subjective. We cannot help but imprint on all that we create the unique stamp of our subjectivity. To quote Anais Nin: “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” Our socio-cultural perspective precludes any true objectivity. As a social scientist conducting social research the quicker that we come to grips with this reality the more accurate our studies become.
Writing poetry appears to be no different. When Barr indicates that we must live broadly to write boldly I have a tendency to agree with him. As he posits: “…the poem one might get from a poet strolling past a construction site versus the poem one might get from the poet who is pouring concrete” will inevitably differ. Certainly the latter poet can bring more to the poetic table that the former. But where I disagree with Barr is in the extent that one must go to, to attain ”material” conducive to stimulate the creative juices. Writing about something or an event that is out of the ordinary in our reader’s life experience is simple enough. Writing about the commonplace in some profound way which deeply resonates with our reader is the more difficult of the two tasks. And it is precisely this incisiveness which demarcates the good poet from the exceptional one.
Great Poets & Great Audiences
“To have great poets, there must be great audiences too,” Barr quotes Whitman. But Whitman himself, self-published Leaves of Grass in 1855, as it had not garnered the critical acclaim that he had envisaged. Another of his contemporaries Emily Dickinson never even had an audience in her lifetime, let alone a great audience.
To reach a greater audience the poet perforce must be more accessible. Yet when a poet becomes accessible such as a Billy Collins or Ted Kooser, they are usually written off by academics & critics alike. Become a “popular poet” and you are disparaged by your peers. Write for your peers and the critics alike and you are considered too high-brow and inaccessible by a greater audience. There’s the catch-22.
Furthermore, in order to even attain any modicum of success in the Po-Biz you must be published in reputable literary magazines which are inevitably edited by individuals that more than likely have attended some form of writing program & thus will have probably acquired a preference for poetry with a more academic bent. It appears to be a cycle that cannot be easily broken.
In conclusion, Barr’s recommendation that, “Groundbreaking new art comes when artists make a changed assumption about their relationship to their audience, talk to their readers in a new way, and assume they will understand.”, is not likely to be realized if the poet is too busy writing for an audience that will inevitably publish and/or acclaim them. The poet is no position to change their relationship with this audience when their poetic success is contingent on the very group that decides whether they will achieve notoriety or remain in obscurity.