When “poetry became bad”

I feel very fortunate that my novel Sons and Fathers was able to garner a high degree of media coverage for a literary novel published by an independent publisher. Sons and Fathers was written up in The National Post, New Brunswick’s Telegraph-Journal, Calgary Herald, the Ottawa-based Hill Times, Quill and Quire, and rated a brief mention in The Toronto Star. I also did a fun interview with Saint John CBC’s Information Morning.

As my first collection of poems, Catullus’s Soldiers, was winding its way through the proofing process earlier this year, I assured my editor Robyn Sarah that I would work equally hard to reach out to media for this book. She was pleased to hear it but cautioned me that poetry is a harder sell than fiction.

As Catullus’s Soldiers goes to print, I find myself pondering Robyn’s observation. I know it to be true that most Canadians don’t read poetry the way I know that most men don’t read fiction.

Too often, poets shrug this off and seem to assume that people will be more interested in other things, or take it as a point of pride that poetry is not on the radar screens of most people, as if poetry is located somewhere in the stratosphere far above popular culture. In many cases, these poets attribute the inability to appreciate poetry to a lack of interest or education or some more serious defect in the reader, not the poet.

But the situation in which poetry finds itself is not surprising if you consider the rise of competing art forms during the last century. Poetry, like the NDP, has seen its best ideas adopted by its rivals for our attention.

In the twentieth century, much (although admittedly not all) poetry became difficult in a way that it had never been before. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that poetry became particularly challenging at the same time that English literature became part of the university curriculum.

But poetry also became difficult, and increasingly so, because it allowed itself to be driven into marginality by younger, more dominant art forms. By “difficult” all I mean is that the surface meaning of the poem – let alone its deeper meaning with a capital “M” – would be a challenge for the average reader to comprehend, and would require the assistance of a specially trained and paid intellectual guide – a.k.a. the professor or critic – to interpret it.

In an interview with The Paris Review, Isaac Bashevis Singer attributes this failure of poetry to poetry itself: “It is true that poetry has suffered a great blow in our times. But not because of television or because of other things, but because poetry itself became bad. If we are going to have numbers of bad novels, and bad novelists imitate each other, what they write will neither be interesting nor understood.”

At a very simple level, the fact that most of us associate poetry with difficulty is largely Shakespeare’s fault. I am being facetious, of course. It’s mostly to do with how Shakespeare is taught in high school. It’s in high school that we are often introduced to these colourful Elizabethan characters holding forth in their outlandish iambic pentameter.

For many of us this mental association of poetry with difficulty lasts a lifetime. What most teachers fail to teach in high school is that the barrier their students face is not one of poetry or language itself but the result of the passage of time.

Shakespeare’s language, although unimaginably rich and diverse, was relatively simple and accessible to everyone in his lifetime. You didn’t need a course in literary theory or poetic devices to appreciate the meaning of what he was trying to communicate, whether you were sitting or standing in the Globe Theatre. Shakespeare didn’t write with a particularly educated reader or audience in mind, and didn’t write off the connoisseur of what we would today call pop entertainment.

I still think the English teachers who make their students slog through Shakespeare’s plays before rewarding their efforts by showing them the Olivier, Zeffirelli, or Branagh film version on the last day of class have it all backwards. These teachers should show the movie on the first day of class so their students can see why Hamlet is bent out of shape or why Lady Macbeth is having nightmares before they are parachuted into the linguistic jungle of the text.

But back to the big picture. How did our oldest written form of expression end up on the doorstep of our popular or even semi-popular culture?

The earliest sign of trouble is the novel, the first example of which is generally accepted to be Don Quixote. For the first time, readers have a sustained narrative that is in prose, not poetry. But it’s not until the nineteenth century that the novel really comes into its own, and not until the twentieth that the novel usurps the central place in our literary culture that poetry has held for thousands of years.

With this long, slow ascendance, the novel saps poetry of its primary hold on narrative, character, accessible language, and ideas. If Homer or Chaucer were alive today, they would probably be novelists. (Shakespeare would be a writer-director or working in TV, but that’s another matter and much better handled by someone like The Globe and Mail’s tv critic John Doyle than me.)

The evolution from poetry to novels is apparent on a more personal level with some of Canada’s most celebrated writers: Ondaatje, Atwood, Michaels, Urquart, all of whom started with poetry, but who with their novels reached a greater readership that transcended university courses. Leonard Cohen did one better, pole-vaulting from the dark valleys of poetry and experimental novels to the broader and brighter global horizons of a singer-songwriter. Which brings us conveniently to song.

The permeation of our culture by popular music has also stolen away much of the natural audience for poetry: the young. Our touring rock and pop stars are the twentieth century equivalent of the medieval troubadours wandering from town to town singing of love and loss.

They, to use the parlance of brand marketing, not the poets, own memorability; rhythm; language; the connections between thought, meaning and emotion, not to mention fun; and the old-fashioned art of end-rhyming that poetry has by and large left behind as antiquated or aesthetically uncomfortable.

With apologies to the pop-culture attributes of the Romantics, today’s pop stars have the mad, bad and dangerous-to-know appeal of Byron, the rebelliousness of Shelley, the morbidity and eternal-beauty fixation of Keats.

When adolescents want to identify with their emotions, or express how they feel, they turn most often to music and its accompanying lyrics. Among all our modernly-defined age groups, teenagers are those most likely to turn naturally to poetry, but most of them also eventually grow out of it, bringing to mind Picasso’s famous dictum that all children are born artists, but only a very few survive into adulthood.

As for metaphor and simile, the bread and butter of our modern poetry, our modern advertising industry has turned these trusty old tropes into a new hybrid art form. Once dismissed by a cynical wag as artists with nothing to say, makers of advertising are in fact doing some of the most creative and thought-provoking metaphoric work of our times. Why read poetry for its sub-conscious associations when you can get everything it offers in a more accessible, timely, and often more fun, format?

The compression of language that has often been associated with imagist poetry, and viewed as a differentiator from prose once the novel ended the reign of the long poem, is now owned both by song, but even more so by our politicians and pundits who perfect the sound bite, often highly dependent on visual and metaphoric language. The greatest practitioners today of the compressed image, if you judge by audience and effect, are not poets but copywriters and spin-doctors.

Film, like the novel, has also taken its toll on narrative, and even more than the novel, now occupies the dominant position in our culture as the art form that most easily bridges the gulf between high and low culture. The speed and ease with which the visual medium communicates, the raw power of its metaphors and symbols, continues the shock-and-awe assault on the written word.

What about satire, the purview of the poet since Juvenal cast his disapproving eye around Rome and picked up his quill in frustration? Documentary filmmakers like Roger Moore, but more so cartoonists and comic strip creators, are the age’s new satirists and poetic philosophers. When historians study our society, their primary sources will be Dilbert creator Scott Adams and the teams of writers behind The Simpsons and our late-night talk show hosts. Why give yourself a headache trying to extract wit and character development from poetry when you can have it on your favourite sit-coms or TV dramas?

In many ways, poetry is complicit in its own weakened position. Take journalism for instance. Notwithstanding Ezra Pound’s pronouncement that “Poetry is news that stays news,” poets today have, by and large, ceded to journalists the mission to tell us about the great events in the world, have discarded as somewhat unfashionable or cumbersome the moral imperative to tell us about, and be shocked by, good and evil in unambiguous terms.

In the last century, poetry has often turned inward, consoling itself with the thought that of all the literary forms it has the biggest claim to be “about language itself”. It’s obviously important to be about something, but if you look back to much of humankind’s earliest scribbling, it’s not about language itself, it’s about language used to tell stories, language used to tell us about our world and ourselves.

Shakespeare didn’t write about language: he wrote about people doing good and bad things and he did it in language that still speaks to us 400 years later. If poetry is foremost about language, about words themselves, then it’s not much more than a sophisticated game of Scrabble, and it’s not surprising that many people find themselves with more interesting things to do.

So what is a lover of poetry to do when faced with this sorry state of affairs? Nothing less than rescue poetry and bring it back, kicking and screaming if need be, to its place by the family hearth of our culture.

With that noble objective in mind, here is a very simple three-step self-help guide to assist poetry to become more accessible, relevant, and reclaim its position as one of our most important art forms and forms of communication.

In deference to our modern age’s propensity for quantifying and measuring everything, I call it the REM Quotient, for Readability, Enjoyability, and Memorability. (For those readers who by now have concluded I am a literature heathen, this is where I note that Quality is not listed as part of the REM quotient because it is assumed to be present, as a sort of a table stakes without which further participation is impossible.)

First, before anything else, there is readability, and the measure of success here is that the literal meaning of the poem must be understood by the average reader, that is, by you and me. Forget hidden meanings, themes, allusions, the stuff of mid-terms and essays: the poem must be understood or responded to on its basic level.

Of course, it can be a nonsense poem or one that depends not on literal meaning but mood, but the point is that the reader has to get what the poem is trying to say on his or her own, without the benefit of professional help:

The Tartar swept across the plain

In their furs and silk panties

Snub-nose monkey men with cinders for eyes

Attached to their ponies like centaurs

– From “The Tartar Swept” by August Kleinzahler

Another simple, and fun, way to measure the readability of a poem is what I call the Dictionary Test. If, while reading the poem, you have to look up more than three words in the dictionary, the poem automatically fails the Readability test.

Secondly, the poem should be enjoyable. This rather out-moded concept refers simply to how fun the poem is. We have all had the experience of picking up a book or poem, not because we want to or have any real interest, but because we believe we should read it. For me, that would include buying Ulysses. And again, that impulse is a hangover from those high school English classes.

Many poems are hard slogging, and like medicine, while they might be good for you they are not enjoyable. Poetry should be fun, exciting, surprising, pleasurable in an intellectual, sensual, linguistic, or even moral way. Good poetry should be able to compete with TV. Whatever it is, reading poetry shouldn’t feel like work. If it feels like work, it fails this second test:

When I read Shakespeare I am struck with wonder

that such trivial people should muse and thunder

in such lovely language.

– From “When I read Shakespeare” by D.H. Lawrence

Lastly, the poem should be memorable. In a nod to its origins in oral culture, every good poem should have at least a line or two that rattle around in your head after you have finished reading. If you can’t remember anything, a line, or an image, it wasn’t a poem: it was just words on the page. And life is too short to just read words on a page:

As the mist leaves no scar

On the dark green hill,

So my body leaves no scar

On you, nor ever will.

– From “As The Mist Leaves No Scar” by Leonard Cohen

There you have it: a simple method for these simple times of rescuing poetry from the margins of our culture and returning it to its rightful place where it belongs, right in the middle of our lives.

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