Thursday, January 24, 2013

Thoughts After Petri's Piece on the Post-ness of Poetry

Nota Bene: John Deming at Coldfront has more than sufficiently responded to Petri's post here. Folk far more skilled and driven than I will continue to say what must be said; consider this a collection of annotations on what poetry means to one simple little MFA student and her (me) alone.

 Nota Bene, duo: Hilarious that the same paper which published Petri's chatty little condemnation of poetry only last year featured a video interview with a poet, who made a strong case for why poetry is alive and relevant, contexting its role in DC! Vae victis. Full disclosure: signed up for my first class ever with said poet, which began last week.

WHEN Blanco began reading the inaugural poem, I swear I held my breath and waited for that moment when the words being spoken would cause a visceral reaction-- a catch in my throat, sudden pin-pricking tears, that weird warm ache in my chest I get every time I'm at the start of a really good hockey game and whoever's singing the Star Spangled Banner does a good job because fuck you, this is not about loyalty, I love my country but I personally have never heard an anthem responded to THIS strongly, this genuinely every time.

 But I digress.

 Point being, I waited the entire length of Blanco's reading, waited for something. And that something did not affect me in the deeply personal way I was hoping for. No offence to Blanco-- it can only mean great honor and inconceivable pressure to read at state events, and this particular piece was chosen by whoever was in charge of planning the festivities, who evidently deemed it appropriate enough for the moment. Twitter showed Blanco much love, and rightly so. Some said it happily reminded them of Whitman, others of Frank O' Hara. Please find the full text of Blanco's piece here, as well as a discussion of its value and Blanco's own, as a poet.

 Today, Alexandra Petri swaggered up to the community blog section of the WaPo and asked ye olde brazen question brazenly, titling her post 'Is poetry dead?'

 She isn't the first. However, poetry (and Poetry) has been succinctly (as with Deming's post earlier today) and successfully defended through the ages. Shelley famously did it, and before him Sir Philip Sidney in his 'Apologie', and since the latter suffered no compunction to adhere to even a ballpark New Yorker page length, here is an overview and outline of said Apologie (he really meant defence, as opposed to defense, the way Shelley did).

 Both white men, writing in English, belonging to England. Okay yes, now that's a problem. I've been in writing and literature classes since I was 16, and I was never directed to read a defense of poetry written by anyone other than these two gents, which meant I never got to hear from different genders, identities or ethnicities on why poetry is important, and in fact, should be defended. This of course means that I'm beyond glad Blanco was chosen, for both where he comes from, the struggle he discusses, and what he stands by in his inaugural poem, for as pointed out in the Daily Beast article,

 “While Blanco is careful not to turn the poem into a confessional act, since its purpose is largely civic, he makes it true to his own experience in referring to his mother’s sacrifices as a cashier and his father’s as a cane cutter,” said Jahan Ramazani, an editor of The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. “In doing so, he makes vivid for us the specific sacrifices that make possible his act of writing the poem as well as the multitudinous sacrifices that stand behind the shared poetry of our daily experience. We are often reminded at such public ceremonies of the hardship of previous generations, but Blanco found a way to make it real in the immediacy of his example. 

 Tangent: not that women have been absent at all from making spaces for, and thereby defending poetry-- here's a wonderful narrative of the amazing ladies behind the founding and defining of Poetry magazine's aesthetic, appropriately titled '100 Years of Poetry: 'In the Middle of Major Men'. In addition, here is a pithy statement by Harriet Monroe, founder and editor of Poetry magazine, on their/her editorial 'open door' policy-- What she has to say sheds important light on the subject of "major" and "minor" poets, and the role of popularity. 

 It is indeed impossible to dismiss the popular (possibly) perspective that Petri appears to be vocalizing: 

 But after the inaugural, after Richard Blanco’s almost seventy lines of self-reflection and the use of phrases like “plum blush” — which sounded like exactly what the phrase “poem” denotes to us now — I wonder what will become of it. 

 There are several variables at work here: poetry hasn't been televised since what, Def Jam on HBO? In fact, when was the last time a poem was given major airtime, forcing "non-MFA" folk (going by Petri's reasoning) to consider what intent its words were communicating? 

 Petri references poetry taught in high school, and in a paragraph dismisses the entire process of digesting a poem in one's teenage years. She uses the word "quaint"-- this makes me sad to think of the banal poetry sessions she must have been exposed to, and yet reminds me of how much I have to be thankful for: 

  • The first time we discussed David Diop's 'Africa': still get goosebumps thinking of the power with which he dismissed those white, fading flowers at the base of the towering, terrifying tree of Africa's future, and the "bitter taste of liberty".  
  • The time we studied Dante, contrasting how he referenced the viewing of stars at the end of the Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradisio, and how it affected a much younger, far more ardently religious me with how it echoed the bits from St. Matthews gospel as I had come to know them in the protestant communion liturgy: "... that even in the mud, we are haunted by the stars" 
  • The first time we read Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The first time I heard Iron Maiden's rendition of the same, on the Powerslave album. The time we performed it for an awed group of school children (sorry, first-n-last self-aggrandizing link here, promise). 
Prosaic truth: when poetry, like all art forms, doesn't emotionally affect listeners or readers at large, it doesn't work at large. The point Petri seems to be making is much the same point made by the disaffected urban youth portrayed in 'Dangerous Minds', viz. WTF poetry?? WHY? Aside: Coolio's Gangsta's Paradise is often discussed utilizing New and Sociological Criticism, made famous by Michelle Pfeiffer's character in aforementioned movie as well as in many poetry classes across the world. Petri states, 

 All the things that poetry used to do, other things do much better. But naturally we still have government-subsidized poets. Poets are like the Postal Service — a group of people sedulously doing something that we no longer need, under the misapprehension that they are offering us a vital service. 

 First, for shame, taking down the Postal Service! Are we then to do away with grandmothers, meals made from scratch, the radio and public tv as well? #postaloutrage! (Here's the Mother Jones discussion of the same) 

Deming brings up a brilliant point when he addresses the way in which Petri loosely associates the role of poetry with revolution and political change: please read his entire response twice and share widely, because he is absofuckingutely right in quoting Vonnegut on Vietnam, Tarkovsky on art and social change, and referencing what Robert Frost said at the inauguration that he was invited to read at. 

 But did Petri truly get her idea about the role of poetry from pop culture references like 'Dangerous Minds'? She refers to the role of news agencies and media, claiming that the original role of poetry has been overtaken by these more prosaic and relevant (?) venues. Aside: totally stoked someone took the trouble to correct her on misappropriating the William Carlos Williams reference to the news. What is hilarious is that the poets Petri gives a shout out to weren't the most PC or Washington-friendly folk around: Ginsberg and William Carlos Williams were and forever will be Ginsberg and William Carlos Williams, giants of self-expression and torch bearers of speaking what no one else had the balls to vocalize. 

 Tangent: who really are our Ginsbergs and Williams today? Or do we see in poetry today more room for contemplation than provocation? 

 Petri makes an interesting point when she discusses what I can only assume she means is ivory tower poetry, saying 

 The kind of poetry they read to you at poetry readings and ladle in your direction at the Inaugural is — well, it’s all very nice, and sounds a lot like a Poem, but — it has changed nothing. No truly radical art form has such a well-established grant process. 

 Ah. Okay. Is accessibility the issue then? But what would be more accessible at the inaugural then, Kendrick Lamar? Possibly, yes, but that takes us back to political protocol and red tape and appropriateness. Would a more visceral poem, one that appealed more to my (inconsequential) instincts and those of Petri herself, have been allowed at the inaugural? What would this poem have said? Would it have made unfortunate mention of wars, economic woes, drought and the quiet terror of living in a post-hegemonic Capitalist America? 

 Maybe. And maybe it would have also viscerally discussed what is beautiful and gritty about this country I have come to know slowly, firsthand. Would it have gone down well with everyone watching and supporting this President? Does poetry ever have to go down well, or does it ever have a role as specific as what Petri seems to suggest? 

 The truth is that poetry is all pervasive, and has moved on to arenas as varied as bathroom stalls, support groups, cathartic House Music vocals, tumblrs and twitter feeds. I want to humbly suggest here that the inherent value of poetry (everything that has caused it to survive till date, its ability to be the vehicle for what would otherwise be impossible to say out loud) has proven to be so significant that popular culture itself constantly aims to achieve what successful poetry achieves, in an attempt to lay claim to authenticity, even if this claim is only fleeting. A quick sample follows--

RivesRakim. The voice of Mary J. Blige. The grace of the pied piperesque Dancing Guy, at the 2009 Sasquatch Festival. The Dylan song you remember most. What the folk behind One Giant Leap achieved. So many incredible moments of current events (the news that Petri is obsessed with) captured in photography. Something about the crowd participation at Coldplay's Glastonbury show, during the finale of Viva La Vida (hover for link). 

Here's where I feel Petri missed the point: it isn't that poetry and poems have been upstaged by the news (also since when did epic tradition = news? Even for a cheeky blog post, a stretch). The more primal function of poems has always been something more than simply recounting a story (see her examples of Gilgamesh and the Iliad, even). This "more than simply recounting" has been elbowed aside by our public, enhanced access to streaming media, which allows us to share a complex emotion or thought now via a share button or link, instead of pouring over a page or reading (out loud?) a troubling-in-its-intensity line. 

 Doesn't help either that it's incredibly hard to always know how to talk about poetry. And here perhaps there's a kernel of truth to Petri's sly challenges to Poetry, and all types of MFA and grant-funded poetry activities-- have we made it uncool, unmanly, un-PC, un-hip to talk poetry in public? Is talking or sharing poetry considered presumptuous? Too high-brow for Joe Shmoe? And when did this happen, considering (accessible!) poetry everywhere in the world (except from pre-WWI Empire-minded nations) has most always come from working men and women? 

 John Deming has it on the nose, I believe-- there's something that smacks of smugness in Petri's post. Yes, it is a BLOGpost, as this is, but it is about POETRY, which is kinda like a stranger coming into your home and poking fun at all the albums you inherited from your mother, hence it is not, at the same time, JUST a blog post. Aside: One hopes WaPo's SEO folk are happy with their cups that are verily running over. This was solid, mid-level case of trolling. 

 There is poetry everywhere today, on the insides of buses in this country, shared at popular public events back home in mine-- I hope you all at some point in your life attend an evening of ghazals or Qawalli where it isn't seen as esoteric entertainment. Why? Jeff Buckley on the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, here

 Look, I wish Blanco's poem turned up the heat even more than it did. I wish it issued more of a gentle challenge than give thanks and speak of hope the way it did. But this was a DC event, ladies and gents! And in the teeth of the remaining guff Petri seems to have leveled at poetry, all I can say is this-- 

 A) A poem "should not mean, but be". 

 B) If you think Poetry cannot say anything that (journalistic or otherwise) prose can, I offer the following poem by Lyubomir Levchev as proof:


Once I reproached my son
because he did not know
where to buy bread.
And now...
now he is selling bread
in America.
In Washington.
In his daytime routine
he teaches at the university.
At night he writes poetry.
But on Saturdays and Sundays
he sells bread
on the corner of Nebraska and Connecticut.

The fields of Bulgaria are empty.
Those women of the earth who used to
reap the crops to feed the generations,
are fading away like the notes of a dying song.
Politicians set up the melodrama:
“Who filched the wheat of the motherland?!”
But what lies between bread and man remains
hidden behind the several names,
different in taste and different in price.

My son sells bread for sandwiches,
rosemary buns, olive rolls,
“Zaatar” loaves, Spanish sesame “Semolina,”
walnut bread, wheat bread, sprinkled with raisins,
Italian “Pane Bello.”
“Palladin,” kneaded with olive oil, with yeast and milk,
corn bread, pumpkin seed bread,
Turkish bread, bread made of clouds…
Only Bulgarian bread is not available,
nor the leftover bread from yesterday!

“Some bread remains unsold
every day,” my son says.
“We are given a loaf for dinner.
The rest is wrapped in plastic bags
and dumped…”

Weariness weighs on my son.
The bread has handed him an American dream
(And this, too, means The American Dream)
Oh God, don’t you hear? My son is praying for something!
Danger encircles him like an aura.

Give me the answer, Lord, to one single prayer—
to one last wish,
then do, please, whatever my son asks of you.
And sure, you might as well adopt him!

In Sofia
the shades of old women
scour the dark.
Ransacking the rubbish bins they collect bread.
Pointing at one of them, a teacher
of history and Bulgarian language, they say:

“Don’t jump to conclusions, take it easy!
She’s not taking the bread for herself. She feeds
stray dogs
and birds.”

And my words too are food for dogs
and birds.

Oh God!
Why am I alive?
Why do I wander alone in the Rhodopes?
Why do I gaze down abandoned wells?
Why do I dig into caves where people lie?
And pass the night in sacred places, renounced by you?

I am seeking the way
to the last magician’s hideout,
he who forgot to die
but has not forgotten the secret of bread.
Not today’s bread, which is for sale,
not yesterday’s bread which has been dumped…
I must know the secret of tomorrow’s bread.
The bread our lips will touch in awe.
The bread that takes our children by the hand
and leads them all back home.
Translated into English by Jack Harte


AKM said...

Yet to read, but you're still around ? Ahhh.