Auld Lang Syne

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Age of Disappointment and Disenfranchisement: repost of 2010 article I wrote

What good is poetry in this age of disappointment and disenfranchisement?

Life is hard right now, perhaps harder over a wider scope than at any time in history. People are out of work, out of options, out of patience. One bookstore owner on deciding to close her store said recently about reading "times are tough' reading is a luxury." It is no surprise to this writer that her store was closing. But reading is what we are doing, in record numbers. My favorite second-hand shop is busy every day, and books are being bought & exchanged there, or being borrowed from libraries. No matter that eBooks are flourishing as the nouveau-techno trend of the day, people are still READING. But what is selling is nonfiction and Romance and the latest hottest tell-all by politicians with NO skills at writing (you ghost writers out there take heart, your niche may be "in" enough to carve our a bit of a career now). I ask the serious question here though: (not co-opting Dana Gioia's original question TOO much) Can Poetry Matter? Good question and one that needs revisiting now more perhaps than when Gioia posed it in the early 90s.

It's true that poetry could be simply swept away as any leaf fallen from a tree. It could lie on the front mat lifeless and forgotten. It somehow seems to many rather "artsy" and has a reputation for being on the fringe of or completely out of touch with contemporary readers and publishing. However, I insist that poetry is perhaps never more important in modern times than it is right now.

In the days when communication was not accomplished with a pair of opposable thumbs on a tiny keyboard, messages and information reaching its intended in a matter of seconds, poets were engaged (yes, I mean PAID or otherwise materially supported) to roam the streets or to sit at court and inform, explain, analyze current events. Poets were generally considered both politician and polis itself, making sense of the confusing, the contrary, the controversial. Societies depended upon their poets to be the centre of most anything of import. Poets were revered and listened to in light of decisions and direction. Then we got "practical" and poetry fell into the realm of the over-educated, the elite, and it became something only high society or academia continued to embrace. It slid into the back rooms and smoky coffee houses as "subversive protest" and over the top fringe activity during the 60s. Free verse replaced (in large part) formalism and even then, it could not compete with dime novels and sleazy shock literature. We wanted to know about Hannibal Lector, not read 32 rhymed couplets on the American experience. We eschewed poetry for B-grade fiction, even for stories about vampires.

For those of us who find the structure and passion of poetry compelling, it was grim news. We could count on the mild amusement to outright recoil by other humanoids at the mere mention of what we write. Say you are a writer and there is great interest in your work, UNTIL you mention that your genre is poetry. You are seen as the kook in the room, the person without REAL work or worth, as a hobbyist whose work ought to be given away or bartered for a few copies of the journal that is charitable enough to publish one or two of your poems. But we keep on writing. We keep on tackling the tough issues in verse. We keep on finding new and fresh ways to make a heart attack a beautiful experience. Why, you ask, why? Why not just give in and be a real writer, with a novel every other year in the drawer waiting for discovery.

The answer is simple really: this crazy world needs dissecting and resurrecting. We need poets to do this hard work.

In this overblown, overfed, overhyped world we need poets to step up again and make sense of the frenzy. We need structured passion, a jaded but engaged eye on the landscapes of our lives. When there is war (have you read the papers? it's been on the news) we need poets to celebrate the gory glory and decry its very existence and morality. When oil gushes forth unchecked by man's best and worst efforts, we need poets to step into the gap and bemoan. When all seems helpless, hopeless, hapless we need poets' humor to distract, if just momentarily. We need the limerick, the sonnet, the aubade. We need the ballade, the rondelle, the haiku and ghazal. We need poets working into the night to wag their collective fingers (ink-stained as they may appear if only figuratively). We desperately need to read poems that say "we are all in this together and damn the obstructionists in Washington" and we need to read poems that keep us from killing ourselves and others.

So be it. I am a poet. I don't want to be anyone else. It's in my DNA. My ancestor, William Dunbar was a poet of the Court of St James. He criticized (and cajoled in ironic tones) royalty and its foolish ways. He described the society of his day in verse that made sense of it all. I proudly carry his blood and his bravado. I would not change that.

Keep on poets, don't stop showing the world to itself in all its glorious warts and wobbles. Keep the notebooks filled and the ink flowing. Try to keep your heart healthy and your blood pressure just short of blowing. We need you alive and engaged.