“Now, of course, it is the responsibility of literature to be interesting. No one talks about it much, but it is the first duty of poetry to entertain. After that, it can instruct, enlighten, ennoble, and perform all the high-minded feats of intellectual and moral gymnastics that it ever has a yearning to perform.”
A writer writes with an audience in mind. That audience might constitute one person (even himself) or all of humanity. If you spend seventeen years writing Finnegans Wake and expect crowds of hair stylists and pipefitters (or Nobel Laureates) to read it, you’re a deluded fool. What does Chappell mean in “Chronicling the Culture?” (Plow Naked: Selected Writings on Poetry, 1993)? It comes down to “interesting” and “entertaining.” I find all the writers thus far mentioned in this post to possess those qualities to varying degrees. Others would disagree. As a young reader, I was obsessed with Edgar Rice Burroughs and Doc Savage, briefly and without permanent damage. Slowly and without quite realizing it, I put away childish things. I lost something when that happened – the ability to ask of a book only that it thrill me with plot and character, at the same level as popular movies and television. That quality in isolation, without aesthetic interest, is null in this reader’s life. Mandelstam is a “good read,” vulgar as that may sound. What others read and find interesting (William H. Gass, Danielle Steele) is their business.
Chappell echoes something Henry James wrote in 1884 in “The Art of Fiction”: “The only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel without incurring the accusation of being arbitrary, is that it be interesting.” For some, The Golden Bowl is forbiddingly uninteresting. Others find it compulsively rereadable. Among poets, Chappell finds another example:
“I am perfectly aware that Hart Crane’s impressionistic American epic poem, The Bridge, does not flag the attentions and capture the emotions of everyone who reads it—and that it hasn’t acquired milling hordes of faithful readers in the first place. I know that there are many people for whom a phrase like ‘O Thou Hand of Fire’ is less thrilling than ‘O Thou Pan of Pizza.’”
Chappell is right to make it a joke. Crane was a poet I came to early. He may be fundamentally a young person’s poet. A friend and I turned a pub crawl into a pilgrimage, drinking at Crane’s favorite watering holes in Cleveland. But I feigned devotion to his poems long after they had lost their charm, mostly for snobbish reasons. Today, his work no longer interests me, but that’s not the same as saying he is a lousy poet. He is for others to enjoy.
Elsewhere in Plow Naked, Chappell tells an interviewer his favorite poem of all time is The Iliad. In the essay quoted above he writes: “Poetry, and especially epic poetry, is supposed to be more durable stuff than pizza; whether it can ever be as entertaining is a doubtful point.”