Two passages have been going through my head recently. They capture the conflict between what I have always thought poetry to be, and what other people have always told me it is. Not only that, they sum up the tension I have developed between being someone who thinks he has the right foist his poetry on others, but also someone who is as intellectually and morally tired of cultural oversaturation as everyone else.
The first passage is from W.H. Auden, from his collection of essays, The Dyer’s Hand:
‘In accepting and defending the social institution of slavery, the Greeks were harder-hearted than we but clearer-headed; they knew that labor as such is slavery, and that no man can feel a personal pride in being a laborer. A man can be proud of being a worker – someone, that is, who fabricates enduring objects, but in our society, the process of fabrication has been so rationalized in the interests of speed, economy and quantity that the part played by the individual factory employee has become too small for it to be meaningful to him as work, and practically all workers have been reduced to labourers. It is only natural, therefore, that the arts which cannot be rationalized in this way – the artist still remains personally responsible for what he makes – should fascinate those who, because they have no marked talent, are afraid, with good reason, that all they have to look forward to is a lifetime of meaningless labour. This fascination is not due to the nature of art itself, but to the way in which an artists works; he, and in our age, almost nobody else, is his own master. The idea of being one’s own master appeals to most human beings, and this is apt to lead to the fantastic hope that the capacity for artistic creation is universal, something nearly all human beings, by virtue, not by some special talent, but due to their humanity, could do if they tried.’
Of course there is always the fear that you are one of these people. The only reason you turned your hand to art is because you couldn’t do anything else, because you are basically dysfunctional. And it has to be true to some extent for any artist. Some even make a sort of heroism out of it, mythologising themselves for the very things that once brought ridicule. Calling yourself a poet allows you to redeem your eccentricities and your awkwardness as somehow being sign of a gift, rather than a disability. It’s the origins of the tormented artist myth, and people have become rightly suspicious of it.
When Auden talks like this, he makes me uncomfortable for another reason. He gives voice to the dark shadow of the artist’s self-consciousness and self-aggrandisement. I hope I am not alone in this, but deep down there is the persistent worry that one’s very desire to be the independent intellectual is the very reason one shouldn’t be allowed to be one. That to be a true artist one should actually be of some use to society, and the desire to be a writer is no excuse for not wanting to do your fair share of sweating and heavy lifting. Ultimately, of course, the passage simply raises the following question: What separates the true writer from someone simply affecting a writerly lifestyle? How do I know writing is indeed my calling, and not just a mask for my natural egotism and laziness?
The question is even more pertinent today than it was when Auden delivered his lecture.
Blogging haunts every modern writer because it plays into this worry, the fear that anyone can do it. The desire to make writing one’s living not only becomes harder to fulfill, but also feels somewhat exposed, revealed for posturing towards working rather than actually being worthwhile work. With the rise of publishing technology, populism has become the cultural orthodoxy. Everyone has a right to be heard, all art is worthy. Everyone is a pretty snowflake, and therefore the notion of a literary standard is redundant. Writing is no longer a profession, but a pastime. If you are lucky you get paid, if you are unlucky, you don’t. The measure of success is luck, not talent.
Another passage that has been rolling around my mind is the following, taken from Don Paterson’s commentary on Shakespeare’s Sonnets. This particular passage is part of his comments on Sonnet 71, a particularly trite, though as Paterson points out, not insincere, poem driven by self-loathing:
‘Thinking you suck is often the hallmark of a serious talent, and I am proud to say that the poetry list I oversee is stuffed to the gills with men and women tormented by what they think of as their own wretched inadequacy, and their inequality to the demands of the art. This seems to have the effect of making them work harder than just about everyone else, if only to avoid the shame of adding another bad line to the sum of things. (The trouble is that poetry’s medium is failure. Its project of articulating the near-inarticulable, means that just about every line will inevitably have to display some degree of linguistic originality, in the broadest sense of that phrase. But by definition, most original writing is going to risk falling on its face. That’s why we don’t do it all the time. Words fail poets continually, as their workplace is that remote half-mapped zone of speech where language itself starts to falter, fail, and pass over in silence that of which it cannot speak. For that reason, it’s a perfectly reasonable critical stance to assume that a poem by an author whose strike rate is unproven is probably bad, until it proves itself good.)’
This is a gratifying paragraph for any aspiring writer. Hating your own work might be a good sign. Then again, it might be a bad sign. What’s encouraging is that though you are only as good as your last poem, your last failure is not a sign of your lacking any talent. However, there is a sting in the tail of all this encouragement. Don Paterson is not a man prone to warm and fuzzy new-age style tips for the creatively insecure. You are still bad until proven otherwise. But he’s not ruling you out, and that’s nice to know.
Auden said that snobbery was as good a way as any to reduce the chance of being over-saturated. Implicitly this admits the arbitrary nature of intellectual snobbery. And, as in the passage of his quoted from above, he has a point. There is a real danger of cheapening the value of writing, by allowing anyone to claim the job title ‘writer.’ However, Paterson’s point seems to be that a failure to hit the mark is at least no reason to dismiss a writer. A bad poem doesn’t mean a bad poet.
Populism is here to stay. It’s delusional to fight it, and it should be celebrated rather than resented. Having said that, there does seem to be a problem for the modern poet. On what grounds can someone claim that they are a poet, rather than just someone who writes poetry? How do we avoid dismissing potential, while at the same time avoid cheapening the craft of poetry as a whole by allowing the ‘publish’ button on a blog to be the only editorial cut off?
The real test of something is whether or not it works. In hip-hop, arguably a continuation of poetry as a popular art form, it is not enough to claim that you are a rapper or a DJ. You have to prove it, and you have to earn your chops by direct confrontation with your rivals. All aspects of hip-hop culture seem to have the concept of ‘battling’ at their core. Being a street art-form, this makes sense. For all its populism, hip-hop is very dependent on the perfection and development of a craft. Rappers must not only perfect their word-play, they must also add something new, something surprising to their art. That is, a rapper is judged not just by her ability to master certain techniques of rhyming and word-play, but also on the extent to which they bring something new to the craft. In the process of battle, the most effective crafts win out. The biggest test is ultimately the visceral responses of the crowd. That has always been the character of hip-hop. DJs created the genre by focusing on the parts of the song that were irresistible to the crowds, the breakbeats, the bits that were so funky and so basic that people’s choices were subverted and they simply had to get up and dance and move to the dictates of the beat. The challenge of the MC was to do the same with words. To create strings of sounds that attacked the crowd on both their mental and their emotional fronts, and which couldn’t have any other reaction other than a desire to move and participate.
In a similar way, the measure of true poetry is not any one particular feature of meter or vocabulary or form. It’s simply what works. Does it demand to be heard or read? Does it move someone? Does it ring in their heads and keep them awake at night? Whatever tools you need to get you there, that level of brutal resonance should be your ultimate goal.
The need for a definition of ‘good poetry’ is made all the more urgent by the fact that poets, in the traditional sense of that word, no longer have a direct line to their audience. Other more immediate art-forms have usurped their position. Cinema, photography, slam poetry and rap are now holding court where the lyric poet and the versifier once did. This bothers the poet. As it should.
Because traditional poetry has become abstracted from popular society, the label of true poetry is up for grabs. Everyone, populists and snobs alike, seem to have a claim on the definition of poetry. The populist says it’s poetry if it is simply authentic. The snobs and traditionalists reduce the art to the classical tools of meter and form and the variations within those traditions.
The saddest thing about this is that both of these camps seem to be treating poetry as if it is already dead. They argue like scholastics, or even archaeologists. Each poem is an artefact to be debated over and scrutinised the minute it is uttered. One either rejoices at new discoveries indiscriminately or one wastes time in academic tail chasing, almost relishing the critical process more than the experience of the poem itself.
The problem of course is that poetry no longer has a clearly defined function in society. There is no longer a test of ‘audience impact’ the way that say a hip-hop battle is decided on crowd reaction. The question of a poem’s worth has been divorced from the value it adds to people’s lives. Poetry has become a self-serving art form.
It’s become fashionable to take a dismissive tone about love poetry in particular, as if this was the most tedious of populists tendencies. In fact, it might be the last bastion of true, pure lyric poetry there is. It might be the very poetry that survives technological change and popular culture. The reason for this is that love poetry has a clear aim, it is written with an audience in mind, and with an undeniable desire to affect a change in the reader – the beloved. It is erotic, it seeks to transcend physical boundaries, loneliness, limitations of matter, and to create a unity between lover and the loved.
And it is not true to say that a poet is ‘just trying to get into the pants’ of the beloved either. Someone who is trying to manipulate the other in this way, would not write them a sonnet. Even the most naïve lyric poets can’t delude themselves that much. The love poet is, rather, trying to raise his or her game, trying to meet the person who is rejecting them on their own terms. A love poem says the beloved: ‘Okay, you have made your choice. I have not moved you. But maybe I haven’t revealed myself enough, maybe you missed the true and the beautiful things that I have to offer, and I realise that might be my fault. So here goes.’
Love poetry is the opposite of rape. It is directed at the visceral, the part of the beloved that usurps their rational agency.. But it does all this without forcing the issue. It does all this knowing, somewhat tragically, that you cannot fool the sexual instinct, you cannot sustain that kind of trickery. Just as you cannot fool a person into having an orgasm, you cannot fool someone into loving you. At least, not for very long, and certainly not by appealing to their sensuality.
Love poetry either works or it does not. A love poem’s very ambitiousness should redeem it. In fact, the ambitiousness of any poet should redeem them from the charge of being self-serving. There are many other ways to get your wicked way with someone, other than write them a damn sonnet. For instance, you might want to start with a couple of vodka-Red Bulls, and take it from there.
The poet, like the rapper, or the good DJ, is at once trying to subvert the rational mind while not subverting the agency of their audience. A good DJ is not a propagandist. He has no politics behind his craft, he just gets off by making other people get off. The same is true of the poet. If a poet is an egotist and is self-serving, it is because what she lives for is impacting as many people as she can, and as deeply as possible. The poet’s job is getting a reaction out of others. If it was just a case of ‘look at me’ then they would be content with a small audience of close friends. Their audience wouldn’t have to be a global one.
It’s easy to be reductivist about the artistic instinct. But selfishness and childhood intimacy issues are not enough to sustain consistent and persistent poetic output. The poet’s motivation is more likely to be simpler and more elegant than a desire to win love.
There’s something much more altruistic in true poetry, or true art of any kind. The simple, human excitement of crossing the divide into another person’s consciousness and unifying an experience within the moment. The poet, like the rapper, does this not through tricking their audience, but by empowering them, by giving them a sense of themselves as agents and as powerful human beings. The poet’s task is to invigorate, to motivate, but not manipulate.
That is the tragedy of the best love poetry. The poet knows his or her task is doomed. That’s why they are writing poetry for Christ’s sake. They are making one last stab at moving and invigorating the beloved, appealing to the humanity in them, trying desperately to gain or regain a connection. The test of the poem is in the lover’s reaction. Manipulation would not be enough for the lover. The courtly poet wants to be chosen in return for their own choosing.
And this is what has been lost for modern poetry. The test is the extent to which the art being shared invigorates and resonates with the audience. The craft can’t be reduced to anything else. This annoys the snob because it means that there is no critical, academic formula for what makes a poem a poem. But it also aggravates the populist, because they know that if no one is listening, if no one cares, it is less likley to be because the audience is cruel and philistinic, than the fact that they haven’t quite risen to the challenge of their chosen craft.
In a culture of blogging, self-publishing and social media, it seems that craft has become meaningless. It seems that standards are impossible to uphold. This is not true. Good writing will always exist, and there will always be ways of critically defining what makes writing good and what makes it bad. The triumph of populism is not a tragedy for poetry. Poetry has always been about entertaining the populace. And neither does this culture mean that traditional forms of lyric poetry are redundant.
What this new culture of self-publishing and populism does mean for poetry, though, is a further raising of the stakes. What strikes fear into the critics is not that poetry is redundant, though this might be their defence. Rather it is that they are redundant. Or perhaps they are simply not up to the task of being ‘guardians of taste’ when the orthodoxy says anything goes. Populism cuts out the critic. The test is in the impact of a piece of art. The challenge for the poet is to delve deeper into the meaning of craft, not to abandon it. The very nature of artistic craft is called into question, but rather than leaving it useless, it has made it all the more important for writer, artists, poets, to absorb themselves in craft. The issue of critical judgement becomes a personal one, one for the poet to consider when she or he reflects on how they relate to their audience and their wider social context.
Populism makes it harder to cultivate a unique identity, to say something original and effective. But it doesn’t make it impossible. If anything, populism makes it simply more urgent to confront these uncertainties. It may be a legitimate concern that the rise of self-publishing can lower standards of what counts as important art. But that is really a neurosis for critics. As far as the poet is concerned, it just means that they must dig in and dig deep, broaden their influences, experiment more arduously with craft.
Populism inevitably means that a large swathe of people are practising the same thing. A noisy culture of schoolgirls all playing the same scales on their cheap violins, and playing them badly. But the mark of the poet is not just someone who writes poetry. The mark of the poet who feels enough of a mix of narcissism and social duty to want to add something new, to stand out, and to make a lasting contribution. It is harder now, than it ever was, to be a Milton, or a Shakespeare, or even a Ginsberg. Harder, but more necessary than ever too. Technique has become more relevant than ever, because the need for a poet to distuinguish his or herself is even more vital. Populism is a worthwhile challenge to meet, because it confronts you with the worry that, ‘anyone can do it’ and therefore your work is not unique or exemplary. The things that we used to find exemplary are now commonplace.
Jack Kerouac, the king of populism, spontaneous prose and the champion of the writer who postures against his critics, wrote scornfully in his last years, about pop culture and the liberated literary world that he had helped to create. In Big Sur, Kerouac details the last fight he has with mental illness and paranoia, before psychic breakdown, hallucinations and alcoholic delirium win out. There is a telling passage towards the end of the book, where Dulouz, his dramtis personae, pours scorn on the legions of writers that are going to follow him, posturing as writers and artists of importance. Kerouac knew that the raw honesty of his work would be misunderstood as narcissism (despite the fact that narcissism is one of the subjects that he writes about with acute humour), and that the freedom of his language would open up the doors to millions of others who believe that their stories are important, that their deep feelings and their conflicts and grief are worth writing about. He sees what is happening in the early years of the sixties, each disaffected teenager with a childhood trauma to recall and recount, and he knows that to a very great extent the permissiveness of it is largely his fault.
There is no writer that is more misunderstood than Kerouac. The free lyricism was a technique, not anti-technique. It was about taking experience at face value, ridding the writing process of too much interprative noise, and thus allowing the maximum intimacy between writer and reader. This is why people love him.
Each poet is concerned with this intimacy. Each writer and artist seeks to refine their voice in such a way that they might streamline the force of their meaning, and hit the reader below the mind, beyond categories, and through categories. Robert Frost, in an interview for the Paris Review, compared the poet to an athletic performer. When discussing how he answers a query about the mystery of poetry from a younger poet he said:
‘It ought to be that you’re thinking forward, with the feeling of strength that you’re getting them good all the way, carrying out the intention more felt than thought……When they want to know about inspiration, I tell them it’s mostly animus.’
This, of course, reminds us of Keats, and negative capability. Another grossly misinterpreted notion, but related the Blakean purification of sensuality that we find in popular poetry such as the Beats. The important thing to remember is the impact. Perhaps a poet should be judged on his technique only in so far as it enhances his impact. In all arts the divide between the technician and the populist too often becomes and clash of class, rather than than artistic method. It becomes a question of gentilisms, about whether we should use a fish knife or not, about how non-U it is to pronounce french phrases in a french accent.
Of course it is wrong to think that any deep feeling, or depression or rejection and grief, can be the defining feature of what poetry is. Most blogs, and most poems written for hobby, or for personal therapy, are attempts to articulate difficult emotions, to come to terms with unacceptable and taboo feelings and responses. To make sense of the senseless. What distinguishes the amateur from the full-time poet is not one question of technique or how he holds himself among the guardians of taste. A poet is someone who is able not only to solve the emotional conflict for himself, but to do it for others as well, in a way that lasts, and that is not limited by class, nation, or language. In that sense, populism and technical craft become one and the same thing, for technique is only measurable if it actually enhances the meaning and power of the poem to its widest effect. Or rather, it’s ultimate impact.