"Poetry : What's Next?" (postscript)

A few afterthoughts about the panel discussion on "Poetry : What's Next?", convened last week up in Cambridge, at the Grolier Bookshop.

Listening to Archambeau's & Burt's predictions (both the serious & the not-so), I was bemused to realize that, with respect to a number of their specific forecasts about future styles & concerns, I had already been there.  In fact I'd been doing those specific things in poetry for a couple decades.

Archambeau : 1) densely-patterned rhyming; 2) obscure, allusive, cryptic idioms; 3) extended serial/narrative poems...
Burt : 1) documentary/factual poems focused on local history in out-of-the-way places; 2) baroque, playfully pleasing, extravagantly stylized poems; slangy, idiomatic (quasi-slam) styles; 3) sober, restrained "thing" poems...

All these approaches are descriptive of what I've been doing since the 1990s.  "It's hard to predict the past," noted Archambeau.  Especially if "the past" is not being read, not taken seriously.

All these works of mine are easily available, in book form or for free.   In RI is a local-factual-documentary poem, full of obscure New England historical objects & events.  It was translated into Italian by Anny Ballardini & is available in a bilingual edition.  Forth of July (consisting of Stubborn Grew, The Grassblade Light, and July) is a vast, baroque, playful, epic explosion of rhyme, assonance, off-rhyme, near-rhyme, reverse-rhyme, inside-out rhyme... along with layers of Joycean networks of oblique, allusive references.  Lanthanum is a long serial poem which morphs into a dream-vision.

But the very last thing I want to do is turn this post into another pathetic example of special pleading.  I find the contemporary matrix or juncture of the poetry business, on the one hand, with the history of literature (or literary tradition), on the other, to be more strange and disorienting as the days go by.  All three of the speakers at the Grolier tried to address this jarring dissonance.  But the reality is more strange than any of us can comprehend.

When you set yourself to write long epic poems, or you fall in love with the high wild classics of the past... or when you notice the discontinuity between what is influential, what is paradigmatic, what is necessary, what lasts in literature - over the long span of time & times - and the obliterating/scattering power of time itself - the clash of cultures, the decay of material things, the overwhelming power of time & change ...  well, if you meditate on these things, if you live with them as you write... then the pathos and absurdity, the parochial narcissism, of your average would-be poet (me, for example) becomes glaringly obvious.

This is why, in the previous post on the Grolier talks, I emphasized the impossibility of saying much with certainty on this subject.  What becomes popular, what becomes great, what becomes a classic - & how it becomes such - is a real mystery.  Partly, I guess, because how it actually happens is slightly different every time : there is no fits-all method.  All I think I can say is that what becomes important to a culture at large - and what retains lasting importance - is what is somehow necessary to that people or that culture.  The work provides some kind of guidance, light, pleasure, or nourishment over time. And it does not lose that flavor (at least not completely).  & secondly, I never forget the technology of literature, of the written word.  It has the potential to outlast the Pyramids.  In fact our literature consists of the shards & fragments of ancient cultures' hero myths, sagas, folktales, laws, proverbs... the thrilling mythical tales, the parents' words to the wise & happy endings... - all those alphabetical ruins of broken peoples (Celts, Romans, Hebrews, Greeks, Chinese...) which we inherit (like Borges, the spider in his infinite library).  These epic identity claims, these tribal testimonies, in all their sublimity and beauty, bump up against the a-historical nowness of the homogenizing global hive-mind.

The social media rough beasts of the future have yet to emerge.  We've seen nothing yet.  Meanwhile the hordes of Happy Poets & Artists flood the airwaves with their twittering selfies.  Aren't we lucky to live in America & own smartphones?  Meanwhile the established institutions for the advancement of literature have their megaphones on full blast - pre-recorded, targeted drone-wise directly at your head.  Aren't we smart?  We are the coolness of now. 

I think the ur-poem - the ursus-poem - the Artorius-poem - the epic of tomorrow - will have some lineaments outlined by Walt Whitman & James Joyce.  The "song of myself" - of any self - is an epic poem.  Bloom, the Everyman of Ulysses, is like each one of us.  Every human being lives within a wonder-world, so marvelous it cannot be expressed in words : only in broken Babel-bits.  We're waiting for that Pentecost of the Ur-story... the thing that unites all people without emulsifying away each person's fingerprint... distinctive quidditas.

Shakespeare also seemed to dwell on the uncanny technology of writing in the sense outlined here.  Think of Sonnet 65...
Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o'er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O, how shall summer's honey breath hold out
Against the wreckful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time's best jewel from Time's chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
   O, none, unless this miracle have might,
   That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

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