I don’t know much about art but I know what I like… 

I hate to sound like a Top Gear-viewing father-of-two on a daytrip to the Tate Modern, but I realised today that I don’t understand contemporary poetry. 

I read a lot of it, too, because poetry is important to me and I want to keep up with what other people are doing. So I skim Ambit, The Rialto, Antiphon etc. I admit I also want to find out what is being published, because I always think I should submit more of my own work.

And I don’t get it. Any of it. They’re all just short stories about nothing, written in very short paragraphs. There’s no consistent stanza – everything is formatted like e e cummings with a broken TAB key. There’s definitely no metre. And Jesus Christ, if you think you’ve found a rhyme you must have imagined it. 

And I know poetry doesn’t have to rhyme. I know there is such a thing as free verse, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But when did everything except non rhyming free verse disappear? 

When did every poem become about waking up in New York and checking your iPhone while musing on how disconnected you are from modern life? Or about reconciling your second generation immigrant status with the fact you’re middle class as fuck?

Oh God. I’ve done it. I’ve become the reactionary sophist prick I’ve always feared. 

I think the last Anglophone poet I could read and understand consistently was Auden. Fucking hell, that’s such a twatty thing to say, but it’s true. I could understand him because he was testing and trying to see where his skills and his experiences fit into the great tradition of verse extending back to Homer. He thought of his predecessors as colleagues. He wanted to have something to say to them.

Now, it’s like every poem is about how do I fit into the contemporary. How do I find my agency in a sea of Starbucks and Uber apps and Apple products? (The DeLilloification of verse?) Or, can I find the meaning of life in a quaint relationship I had with a mildly eccentric friend?

There’s probably an element of jealousy here. I feel like saying, I want to write about the universe, gods and demons, love and death, darkness and art, time’s impermanence. I stress over every bloody word I put down on paper. And you’re getting paid for prosing about drinking tea in a cafe in the afternoon. 

I’m going to stop there before I crystallise into an English professor at a dusty 19th century boarding school, the unseen villain of Dead Poets Society. 

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2 thoughts on “I don’t know much about art but I know what I like… 

  1. I believe English language poetry started its decline in the late sixties. I wrote poetry in the mid sixties and rubbed elbows with some excellent poets living in NYC, even contributing to a poetry quarterly called “Athenor”. I think this may have been the apex for American poetry. Yes, God forbid you should write in meter or with rhyme , now matter how good or enlightened it is you will not be published or even posted on a shitty poetry web site. You will we dismissed as a benighted idiot who has not even read e.e. cummings. After a career in science and alcoholism I lost much of the small endowment of the poetic “genius” of my early twenties, and returned to writing after a 30 year hiatus with a lot of difficulty and pain. I chastise myself that I tend to write now much more simply with a clearer understanding of what I am saying (so being short on incomprehensible metaphors, I have lost the distinction of being a real poet) I am writing and conveying in in a more structured way. I used to be able to write in what I termed large strophes, where cadence and pitch would rise and fall according to content and progress through the stanza. Now, I fall back often on a meter, even if it is not a real absolute meter, but rather a “sprung rhythm” in the way of Gerard Manley Hopkins (or at least I believe it is). This following lament on the loss of my youthful poetic powers is in such a sprung rhythm (I think!). You will see it is neither exactly a tetrameter nor a pentameter, but a sprung rhythm that seems to hover around a 4.5 foot more or less trochaic line; Let yourself read it as you would read it naturally without scansion and you will be reading virtually every line with four BEATS even is the foot length varies quite a lot.

    POETS SELDOM …

    Poets seldom in their subtle art
    Grow old gracefully; rather, start
    — Sometime past their 22nd year —
    To write so artlessly it could tear
    Your heart. It seems as if a vital gear

    Once whirring with all its sprockets sharp
    Had been stripped; as if Homer’s harp
    Had lost its strings, and all worthy things
    And sentiments, all truth the poet sings
    Have no accompaniment, so hollow rings

    His call. If at all he has an eye
    Or heart, great truth or beauty to descry,
    He fails in mind to identify, and his ear,
    Enfeebled, hardly hears the spinning gear
    His nature winds, or the falling of a Muse’s tear.

    Pray God that I upon my 61st year
    Find my harp strung, that the work begun
    When I was twenty-one will have lost none
    Or little of its vigor in the interim

    (Alexandria, VA, ca. 2004)

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