Friday, October 30, 2009
They're just not that into us
Everything would be different if our stuff wasn’t so difficult, or obscure, or highbrow, or introverted, or solipsistic, or autobiographical, or experimental, or academic, or postmodern. Some of these charges may be justified, but as far as the public is concerned, we’re wasting our breath. There is no once-popular style and subject that, if brought back, will stop poetry’s sliding poll numbers. There is no traditional link between poetry and the public that, if repaired, will turn things around. That’s because reestablishing the public’s trust in poetry would be like reestablishing the public’s trust in Latin. Is it crazy to believe that Latin—once the lingua franca of government, church and cultural circles—has a chance in the age of English? Of course it is. Most people would be gobsmacked to learn the language is spoken at all. Similarly, I’d bet many general readers have absolutely no idea that 1) poetry-writing still goes on, 2) since the turn of the 20th century, the public has been tangled up in a lover’s spat with the art form, playing the long-suffering Judy to the poet’s self-absorbed Punch; and 3) after a series of good-faith attempts at reconciliation, Modernism was the last straw: cold-shouldered, readers moved on for good.
This is the perfect example of a story that’s kidding itself. The high-stakes drama is all in our heads, though you can see why such a delusion—with poets cringing guiltily—would take hold. As long as we’re responsible for our predicament, we’re in control of our destiny. But solving one’s escalating irrelevancy is hard enough without being reminded of all the more interesting things winning the reader’s attention: “roses and locomotives (not to mention acrobats Spring electricity Coney Island the 4th of July the eyes of mice and Niagara Falls).” So said e.e. cummings in 1917...
If grownups don’t read poetry, it’s not because they have a bone to pick with poets. The truth is even more intolerable: they prefer not to. How often do we need to get Bartlebyed before we finally admit to ourselves that those Clancy-thumbing dentists and Grisham-toting lawyers aren’t confused or afraid of commitment? They’re just not that into us.
-- Carmine Starnino, from an essay forthcoming in Poetry