With an easy conscience I no longer make an effort to “keep up.” When I look at new poems, electronically or in print, almost invariably I’m bored after a line or two, and I can’t remember the last time I read a newly published piece of short fiction – not in this millennium, almost certainly. My literary center of gravity teeters around 1972 (if not 1922, 1851 or 1781). Boredom isn’t quite the right word because that implies effort at engagement – by reader, by writer – some unspoken compact between us.
When I look at a poem like this, it feels as though I’m gazing at random numbers or words written with an alphabet I don’t recognize. Grammarless, unmusical, dry, pulseless, almost verbless, it’s stillborn. A psychologist might say the poem displays a “blunted affect.” It has no chance to be memorable because anyone might have written it, and the guy who did is more interested in posing, in making a gesture toward a poem, than actually doing the difficult work of writing one (few things are more difficult). The author’s contempt for readers is palpable.
This state is peculiar because by nature I’m an enthusiast. I like to be pleased and enjoy myself, and have never shared the modern taste for camp – that is, indulgent pleasure in work so bad it’s “good.” That, I suspect, is an adolescent enjoyment, richly self-righteous, no longer available to me. In his chapter on Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Clive James writes in Cultural Amnesia (2007):
“A good writer of prose always writes to poetic standards. (One of the marks of poetry in modern times is that the advent of free verse opened the way for poets who could not write to prose standards, but that’s another issue.)”
What are “poetic standards?” Musicality, precision, concision, verbal éclat even in understatement, absence of pretension. I like J.V. Cunningham’s definition in “Poetry, Structure, and Tradition” (The Collected Essays of J.V. Cunningham, 1976):
“I mean by poetry what everyone means by it when he is not in an exalted mood, when he is not being a critic, a visionary, or a philosopher. I mean by poetry what a man means when he goes to a bookstore to buy a book of poems as a graduation gift, or when he is commissioned by a publisher to do an anthology of sixteenth-century poems. Poetry is what looks like poetry, what sounds like poetry. It is metrical composition.”
The poetic gift is rare, the one I envy most. Our age mistakes art for a democracy. Anybody can write a poem but it doesn’t logically follow that anyone can, or will, read it. Poetry, like all art, is not fair. In his chapter on Eugenio Montale, surely among the last century’s essential poets, James writes:
“In any kind of bad art, it is when the gift is gone that the experiment really does take over – the eternally cold experiment that promises to make gold out of lead, and bricks without straw. Leaving coldness aside (and we should leave it aside, because barren artistic experimentation can also be done in a white-hot frenzy), it might be useful to mention that Montale, in another essay, came up with the perfect term for a work of art that had no other subject except its own technique. He called it the seasoning without the roast.”