If I said all about this subject that I’d like to, the post would probably be as long as the aggregated contents of this blog thus far, and probably a goodly portion of the old blog besides. There’s nothing stopping me from doing that, I guess, but I really don’t feel like it. It would be a fruitless endeavour.
For many of the readers of this blog, the phrase “modern poetry” will likely have produced a slight frisson of unease. This unease (if my own situation is anything to go by) will have a number of components to it. The first might be the awkward tension that comes when those who love old-fashioned formal, metrical poetry are confronted with the omnipresent supremacy (in a publishing sense, but more on this in a bit) of what could generally be called “free verse.” The second might be a sense that, given the enormous amount of free verse that is published, one has not really read enough of it to feel as grimly about it as one does. The third might very well be a reflexive distrust of anything to which “modern” is attached as an adjective — which would almost necessarily problematise the first two rationales. It bears all of the blasphemous baggage of our age, to be sure, but also has (more justified) resonances with the productions of the Modernists, many of whom seemingly pursued baffling incomprehensibility as an end unto itself.
This unease, anyway, is probably justified. There are a number of reasons for this; I’ll get into most of them in later posts (oh look he’s committing to yet another lengthy posting project – I bet that will turn out well, and in a reliable fashion), but one of them is the more or less complete obscurity in which the bulk of established poets currently toil, however enormous their numbers. The whole economy of poetry has become officially insane, as you might suspect (see the linked article, seriously; “if journals merely continue to grow at the current rate, there will be more than 35,000 of them by 2100, and approximately 86 million poems will be published in the 21st century”), and I don’t see any clear path out of this particular swamp that doesn’t involve a lot of universities being burned to the ground and a lot of Smart People being burned at the stake. Fire is the answer 90% of the time; the other 10% of the time it’s at least an option.
There’s a lot of poetry being published right now, but a great deal of it is legitimately terrible and very few people read any of it anyway, good or bad. Joe Average (that doughty exemplar!) seldom rises from his labours and declares that a collection of the most recent poetry would be just the thing upon which to spend his money. Mere recentry isn’t even the only field of valuation being neglected; Mr. Average will not even rise (again, from his labours) and say that a collection of the best recent poetry would be the very thing for his idle hours.
He does not say this for a number of reasons. The first and most important among them is that he cannot say it; he lacks utterly the competency to judge of value among the varied and difficult and alien works being published today, so he would have to submit to the judgment of external authorities in finding “the best” of what modern poetry has to offer, and those authorities are so often compartmentalised in their expertise and interests that Mr. Average would have no assurance that what they declare to “the best” is really very good at all, or taken from a fair, broad, fairly broad sample of the available work. Another reason is that much of his education will have instilled in him the sense that “poetry” really is just stuff expressed in rhyme and meter; and so, finding that he did not like “The Road Not Taken” or “The Raven” or “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” he imagines that all “poetry” is like those Great Works to which he was forcibly exposed in his boyhood days, and will seek no comfort therein. In the unlikely chance that these exemplary works (and those like them) awakened in him a real love of poetry after all (there’s always a chance), if he does rise from that aforementioned labour and decide to buy a book of poetry to enjoy in the pleasure of his leisure hours, it might very well be of much the same character as those poems with which he was originally instructed, and – what is more likely – from much the same time period. That is good. He should do that. I am entirely in favour of that. Still, it’s not his only option, and, if he views it as such, he’s possibly not doing it for entirely informed reasons.
Nevertheless, Joe Average does not lack poetry in his day to day world. He will likely never buy a book of poetry in his life, or give the poetry industry a moment’s thought, but the desire for poetry – which he may periodically feel, since he is human – is easily satisfied by something else. In a strictly production-based sense, Western poetry hasn’t died at all, as we’ve seen above, but is instead bigger now than it has ever been.
Poetry in the West has not died; it has rather transformed, and what it has become – the popular music industry – is both fascinating and nauseating. The familiar and cherished meter and rhyme can be found in abundance, but the third component of classical poetry – authentic imaginative will – is sometimes lacking. We have often (and rightly) complained about the stultifying superficiality and, when we get really heated, artificiality of modern popular music, but to denounce it completely would be foolish. There’s a lot going on there, much as I hate to admit it, and, while not all of it is pleasant, some of it is intriguing enough to warrant attention. Hell, it deserves our attention merely on the strength of its popularity. This doesn’t mean it’s good, of course, but if we are to evangelize our neighbours and help them towards virtue, it would be worth knowing what songs they’ve willingly listened to hundreds of times, and what those songs are saying.
I once spent about six weeks listening to nothing but Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row,” from Highway 61 Revisited (1965), several times a day, and at all times while writing and reading. Some might raise their eyebrows at such a choice, but I stand by it. It was excellent. The trouble is, however, that while some people will listen hundreds of times to “Desolation Row” or Long John Baldry’s “Mr. Rubin” or The Beatles’ “In My Life” or Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, there are others who will do the same with the latest hip-hop outrage, or bubblegum pop, or heavy metal opus, or any number of other novel things. This will happen, for good or ill, and we’ve got to deal with it.
People once screamed in the streets for the latest works of Byron, or threw themselves to their knees at the sudden appearance of Alexander Pope. While I wish people would still do this when it comes to those specific authors (and those like them), it should be admitted that those days aren’t really over, per se – it’s just that the objects of these exuberant reverences have changed. If we’re to live in this world, and function as artists, or critics, or students, or anything, we have to try to come to grips with this.
What I’m proposing is that we – as academics (and, indeed, as Christians and virtuous folk) – are more or less obliged to consider the philosophical and moral ramifications of the modern poetry that actually dominates the West’s imagination. Never mind the latest bewildering self-published free-verse chapbook from some dude you’ve never heard of; even the author of the book isn’t sure what’s in there, and only he would ever be interested in it in any event. No, I mean that we ought to care about – and grapple with – what Lady Gaga and Kanye West and Taylor Swift and Beyonce Knowles are saying. It may hardly ever be fun, and the works studied may hardly ever be good, but there are things at work that cannot safely be ignored.
Ms. Gaga’s latest hit, “Bad Romance” (for example; a line from the song is this blog’s current subtitle), seems to have become the sort of success of which most artists only dream. The song’s music video – which is a psychosexual nightmare, and not easily recommended for viewing in spite of its technical excellence (I do not include a link) – has been viewed on YouTube alone roughly 150 million times. At the peak of their careers, a Browning or a Tennyson would have simply been unable to find that many people who had even heard of them, much less read any one of their works with such comprehensive gusto. A hell of a lot of people read “Childe Roland” and “Ulysses;” a hell of a lot more have listened to “Bad Romance” and “Poker Face.”
The ways in which these two sets of work are being enjoyed differ substantially, of course; one might read “Childe Roland” but once and have his world forever changed, while “Poker Face” is heard dozens of times and generally becomes just another strain of the background noise of which the West is never completely free. Still, even this passive reception (not to speak of the reception by people who really love modern pop and follow it with a poetry-fan’s voracity) will likely have some impact on the listener. Hearing the same words over and over, until the point they become internalized, has necessary consequences.
I’ve gone on too long, here, so I’ll wrap it up. Have to save something for later, after all, and I need to think about what direction I’ll be going in first. A look at Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism (which deals with some of these issues very fruitfully) seems like it would be useful, when I’ve the time to do it, and an exemplary review or two of the poetic, philosophical and moral contents of some popular song might set the stage for the thing in general. I’ll see what I can whip up later.
In the meantime, here are two key points in recapitulation of the unwieldy paragraphs above:
1. There is a lot of poetry being published today, and a lot of poetry being “consumed,” but it’s not the same poetry in each case. Hundreds of thousands of entirely forgettable free-verse poems are being published in tens of thousands of mostly unread journals every month. The poetry that is being consumed, however, is that which has been set to music and presented to the public through television, the radio, and the internet. That poetry is what might very loosely be called “pop music.”
2. We may analyze the form, meaning and effects of popular songs just as we might analyze the same features of the popular poetry of bygone times. A preliminary examination of Reel 2 Reel’s “I Like to Move It” suggests that he likes to move it, but the “it” is ambiguous and there may be more at stake. How will we know if we don’t try to find out?