Sunday, June 28, 2020

'Manifestly Produced for a Rapid Effect'

“Coulette is good. I sometimes think about those poets who will get lost soon to the ages--Justice, Bowers, Nemerov, perhaps even Hecht and Wilbur. I suppose that’s the way of the world but they seemed so rooted at one time. . . Don’t even get me started on Lou Groza . . .”

I didn’t know Lou Groza either. He was a football player. The others were poets, some of our best, all dead in recent decades. The bearer of glad tidings is the poet and editor David Sanders in an email he sent me on Saturday. It’s a good reminder. In the abstract, all of us know we will be forgotten, as will all of the good people we admire and even the rotten ones. But when we’re young and naïve, we read the masters among our contemporaries and assume they (and we) are immortal. I have to remind myself that Hecht and Wilbur are dead. Writers without readers are dead or at least in author limbo. The sense of being bereft is exacerbated by the knowledge that good poetry, like the California condor, is an endangered species. Magazines we once anticipated with excitement – Poetry, Sewanee Review – are unreadable. Paul Valéry in Vol. 2 of his Cahiers/Notebooks (trans. Rachel Killick and Brian Stimpson, Paul Lang, 2000) might be writing about most of the poetry of  our age:

“Contemporary painting and literature – – excluding thoughtful reflection, examination of detail – Newspaper readers, window-shopper attracted by bright posters  and cunning displays, these are the superficial customers who have to be instantaneously aroused, simply aroused – not, as previously, drawn into a complete world.”

Valéry also writes: “Reading newspapers leads to reading everything as if it were a newspaper.” Granted, few read even newspapers anymore. I’m reminded of some lines in the running for the John Lennon “Imagine” Prize for the dumbest ever written by a putative poet: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”

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