On National Public Radio yesterday, a letter was read from a listener in California, who took issue with some attitudes of Poet Laureate Ted Kooser (featured in an earlier show).
The listener questioned Kooser's populist, accessible, Hallmark greeting-card approach, driven by the wish to make everybody comfortable.
He said poetry was still the "K-2" (near Mt. Everest) : the summit of precision in language, thought, feeling. Said something like, "if you take away the mountains, there will be no more mountain-climbers."
Well put, I thought...
The popularizing impulse - whether well-meant or self-serving - is a characteristic of publicists, middlemen, spokespeople, fundraisers, educators everywhere. It's not limited to the "mainstream".
Its opposite, though, is not necessarily "difficulty" (in any simple sense!!!).
Shakespeare usually shows up in debates about difficulty. Precise & expansive; popular & deep.
Yeats really wanted that, too. He wanted it so badly, & maybe he partially achieved it. Irish folksingers still set his poems to music.
And Eliot's polemics, and Pound's. Either the "dissociation of sensibility" (Eliot) or the tyranny of bad empires & economics (Pound) is blamed for poetry's internal dessications & external humiliations.
I was intrigued by a certain moment in Carol Christ's study mentioned here earlier (Victorian and Modern Poetics), when the Victorians felt it necessary to turn away from the "classic" Romantics (Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, etc.) :
because the Romantic mind, shadowed by solipsism & egoism, no longer seemed capable of authenticity in the face of science & industrialism & various intellectual orthodoxies - the Victorians had to find ways of distancing themselves from that Romantic unity. & thus turned to a new poetics of sensation, irony, dramatic masks & personae - foreshadowing the Modernists.
What I'm groping toward here is a relationship between precision & complexity in poetry, and this notion of a "lost unity" of poetic expression (which some found in the Romantics, some found in the Metaphysicals & Shakespeare, some found in Antiquity, etc.).
& it seems that the 20th century experiments with abstraction and self-contained symbolic structures no longer fully satisfy us as a response to this crisis. Postmodernism is the register of that dissatisfaction : but further irony, and further engagements with aleatory, dissociated aesthetic modes, don't seem to resolve anything either (a register of dissatisfaction is not an affirmation).
I don't have the answer(s) at the moment; but anyway, that NPR listener's comments rang some bells for me. Poetry is rare - mountainous - because it seeks both precision and wholeness.
Poetry's serious side opens up a certain space for its aesthetic reception, for real enjoyment with understanding (these are intellectual exercises). Attention, everybody.
Better shut up now & get out the hiking boots.