Poetry, the Ordinary Reader,
and the War
the Clever and the Gifted
by Alana K. Asby
This essay was first conceived as an answer to the question, "Do professional poets look down on rhyming poetry?" While it is not a complete answer, it is intended to provide an introductory picture to the struggles of would-be poets in our time who want to write traditionally-defined poetry. Further essays will explicate the deeper history of philosophical and political struggle behind this "war."
I’d like to answer this question in two parts. First, I want to answer the question as it was actually asked, and touch briefly on the difficulty of being a professional poet, with a quote from Coleridge strongly advising young people to avoid the attempt.
Secondly, I’d like to answer the question as if it had been asked, not of professional poets, but rather of poetic professionals.
Here is the quote from Coleridge. “…for the beginning, middle, and end converge to one charge: never pursue literature as a trade. With the exception of one extraordinary man, I have never known an individual, least of all an individual of genius, healthy or happy without a profession, that is, some regular employment, which does not depend on the will of the moment, and which can be carried on so far mechanically that an average quantum only of health, spirits, and intellectual exertion are requisite to its faithful discharge.
Three hours of leisure, unannoyed by any alien anxiety, and looked forward to with delight as a change and recreation, will suffice to realize in literature a larger product of what is truly genial, than weeks of compulsion.
Money, and immediate reputation form only an arbitrary and accidental end of literary labour. The hope of increasing them by any given exertion will often prove a stimulant to industry; but the necessity of acquiring them will in all works of genius convert the stimulant into a narcotic. Motives by excess reverse their very nature, and instead of exciting, stun and stupify the mind.
For it is one contradistinction of genius from talent, that its predominant end is always comprised in the means; and this is one of the many points, which establish an analogy between genius and virtue. Now though talents may exist without genius, yet as genius cannot exist, certainly not manifest itself, without talents, I would advise every scholar, who feels the genial power working within him, so far to make a division between the two, as that he should devote his talents to the acquirement of competence in some known trade or profession, and his genius to objects of his tranquil and unbiassed choice; while the consciousness of being actuated in both alike by the sincere desire to perform his duty, will alike ennoble both.”
Now to the second. By “poetic professionals” I refer to educators, critics and editors – those who determine and establish the criteria by which actual poets are trained, judged, and published.
It is my conviction that the undeniable and fundamental divide between the poetry of our time, and every kind of poetry that has ever gone before, is the manifestation of a cultural war between clever people and gifted people. Coleridge would have referred to these two as “men of talent and men of genius.”
This war concerns both the scope of poetry itself – and, less intuitively, the role of the ordinary reader (the common man) in determining that scope.
Who are these people?
Clever people run things and make money. Their talent makes them capable and so they are able, without much trouble, to bend themselves to whatever work, by whatever parameters, will make them successful. They are indispensable to human prosperity and societal stability. They are also adept at the kind of thinking that, when you have smashed your antique watch, shows you it was “just” a bunch of springs and gears all along.
Gifted people, on the other hand, see gears and springs and create a classical watch. They are actuated by an experience which has never been satisfactorily described except by the term “inspiration” – an inner source of information, motivation, and vision which compels them to bend their efforts toward some end, whether it will bring them success or not, which justifies itself by its intrinsic virtue.
Coleridge says the waterfall is sublime, and is immoveable on the point when others suggest “pretty” or “beautiful.”
When Coleridge says the waterfall is sublime, clever people share amused glances and say things like “overexcitable.”
It is not simple envy; the clever people really don’t believe that Coleridge (I am really speaking of his modern-day counterparts) is actually experiencing the transport of mind and affection he says he is. His language is “purple” because it is all a pretense. Why do they conclude this? Because they are incapable of that state of transport themselves. They are managers – and we know what managers are.
Or, if Coleridge actually experiences that state of transport, he probably needs to be medicated. He is disruptive. He is argumentative. He is chemically imbalanced - because everything is all just gears and springs, and nothing is ever a watch.
Right now, clever people are running poetry and making money at it. No, they aren’t making money off readers, because poetry has no readers to speak of. But they are making money off the poets.
They are training the poets and selling them the journals they crave to see their names printed in. Meanwhile, gifted people have been effectively banished from the whole business. If they cannot be trained to work against all their poetic instincts (which, for reasons we will see, they must do in order to gain success) they are simply ignored. Poetry is all workmanlike now; please show up promptly at nine.
Here are some particular observations to support the general one.
1. Despite frequent use of the word “progress” in defense of the new poetry, the change from the old poetry has been accomplished exclusively by subtraction. The people who made the new poetry never added anything to the tradition. They simply, steadily took things away from it.
They subtracted poetic diction; poetry must now sound like the most quotidian, contemporary conversation ever affected by a monologizing half-sober environmental studies student at a party. To where, then, did poetic diction flee? To fantasy movies and pop songs, where its reputation languishes, and people enjoy it daily.
They subtracted all musicality; even if poetry rhymes, the reader must not notice the rhymes. They must not sound in his ear. The right sort of reader or editor should be able to detect the little sound-effects in poems by his cleverness; he should not need to actually hear them. (How unsubtle would that be!)
They subtracted all flexibility of syntax. Any sentence following a pattern other than the common Subject-Verb-Object “literally grates on the ear.” Of course, the ear can be trained to be grated upon, and nothing is so grating to the managerial type as anything which stands out a little.
They subtracted the expectation that poetry be enjoyable. This, too, mitigates against the gifted, who have an enormous capacity for aesthetic enjoyment which cannot be satisfied by the tiny dollops that are plenty for the clever.
They subtracted almost the entire breadth of subject matter. Poetry should not be about anything; it should only be. And because that is actually impossible, the approved poet synthesizes the effect by writing about almost nothing – that is to say, about the most unremarkable things an equalizing socialist ever went into paroxysms of approval over.
They subtracted sense and reason. If a poem is rationally strong, it lacks that certain wandering, mindless tinge by which alone clever people distinguish poetry from unpunctuated blog comments.
Above all, they have subtracted the authority contained intrinsically within authorship. Poets are restrained most precisely at that point where “genius” might prompt them to the unusual.
2. Intensity is deeply suspect; you will not find it in 99% of published poetry. You will not find heightened language, fantastical images, or gloriously outlandish feeling. If you try to send it in, your writing will be identified as “purple” and “bathetic.” Yet intensity is above all things the primary characteristic of the gifted. So it seems clear that everything has been set up to ensure that no gifted poet will ever be published again, and no gifted reader will ever read published poetry.
3. Despite the residual reputation of the free verse status quo as avante garde and experimentally friendly, its defenders are deeply resistant to change. It seems they will say and do anything to keep poetic standards as they are. Whole impenetrable walls of theory rise around it in Universities; editorial walls rise around it in journals. This, too, is a banishing of giftedness. There is nothing so likely to result from the work of gifted people as change, renewal, and invention.
4. This last point is pretty obvious but it deserves to be said. The very fact that toady’s poetry is unrecognizable as such is a reaction against all the gifted poets of history who made poetry what it was in the first place – and it consequently blocks the appreciation of those kindred souls who, today, look back and feel that in reading historic poetry, at last, they are in the company of their own kind.
How did all this come about, one might very well wonder? Well, actually, it was not the fault of the clevers of a 120 years ago or so, who were perfectly content with the status quo of their own day. Sadly, it began when a bunch of gifted artists got depressed about society falling apart, idiotically decided to hasten the process, and shot themselves and one another in the poetic feet. When they had laid waste to everything, and there was very little left to destroy, the clevers marched in, stabilized everything, compromised with the devastation, completed and monumentalized the reduction of poetry to everyday conversation broken into lines, and have been holding that line ever since.
Not all gifted poets were on board then, and they are even less on board now. And something has got to give.
Where is the ordinary reader in all this - the person whose intellectual status has no dog in this fight?
The banishing of the gifted by the clever might seem to some a triumph of democratic ideals; it is the opposite.
For while there is nothing so detestable to a clever, accomplished, successful person as another who is more brilliant than he, the common, ordinary fellow adores his gods, heroes, and geniuses. He depends on them; more importantly, he finds himself in them.
The aesthetically gifted will always be urged from within to fulfill their natural function as go-betweens, connecting the gods and the people through the medium of art and the indeconstructible experience of inspiration.
Thus there will always remain an unbreakable natural fellowship between the great and the common, into the secret of which managers and clever folk can never come. Why, it’s they who have so interpreted science to us that the gods are banished from serious consideration forever!
Clever people have not just subtracted everything which gifted people love about traditional poetry – that is to say, poetry actually. They have subtracted everything which ordinary people love about poetry, too.*
Hidden in this act of subtraction is a history of contempt and elitism. In the 1880's, when Jules Hures asked Catulle Mendes whether the French symbolists were wrong to write with such obscurity, he replied frankly, “By no means. Pure art is becoming more and more the possession of an elite in this age of democracy, the possession of a bizarre, charming and morbid aristocracy. It is right that its level should be upheld and that it should be surrounded by a secret.” This of course is in the aftermath of the French revolutions; the trauma of a society whose aristocracy had been ripped away by violence.
Still, it was the temper of the times. Progressism was at its height. E. M. Forrest said several decades later, of writing novels, that the actual story part of the novel was like a spine, or better yet, tapeworm. One could not quite get rid of it – this was regrettable because the ordinary person loved the story part best and, ugh, how unevolved. (I’m paraphrasing.) But one could minimize it as much as possible. That was the way to be as much like Gertrude Stein and James Joyce as was prudent.
Today, however, it is not the heightened, mystical, and impenetrable which keeps the masses out of poetry. Dear my lord, if we could only have some of that written again it would be a step! Instead it is the dullness of contemporary poetry – the sheer unpoeticness of it – the unmitigated pointlessness of it – that keeps ordinary people out. If you like the stuff despite its giving you no reason to do so, you are in on the secret. You have uttered your shibboleth. Welcome to the staid and stable club. No transports of delight necessary – you just need to be handy with a checklist.
If any rejected poet sees this, he ought to check out online lists of magazines that accept formal poetry. If he is particularly old-fashioned in his sensibilities, let him send something to the Author’s Journal of Inventive Literature. He might very well, of course, be actually bad at poetry, and if so he will be told. But if anyone feels in himself that something is there, give us a try. At the very least, if he writes imperfect rhyming poetry, they will attempt, through free workshops, to show him how to write good rhyming poetry.
My little daughter is five years old. The first time she tried to wash a dish, she broke it. I have known many parents who react to such a failure by forbidding a child to attempt the failed activity again, lest another failure ensue. I had already decided not to follow that plan. If wanting to learn how to wash dishes is good, it must be pursued despite occasional failures. I kept her going and she did fine afterward, all the better because of her newfound caution.
I responded this way because I love my daughter and I want her to succeed at growing into the competent person she wants to be. I do not think that poetic professionals, by and large, want would-be poets to grow into "rhyming poets" - that is to say, musical, formal, and traditional poets.
It is the fact that teachers and editors react to bad rhyming poetry by blaming and all but forbidding the rhyme, instead of trying to remedy the inexperience of the poet while helping them do the thing they are actually impelled to do, which convinces me more than anything that, yes – poetic professionals do despise, contemn, and look down upon rhyming poets and their poetry.
To turn it around, why do they not constantly hold up the abundant examples of bad non-musical poetry as an argument against free verse?
Isn’t it possible, even likely, that most of them do not belong in poetry at all, but are simply human placeholders?
If so, it is time that the poetically gifted return and turn again and take their ancient places.
*If anyone doubts the true tastes of the ordinary reader, let him go to Amazon and pick up an out-of-print book called ‘The Best-Loved Poems of the American People.’ It is enormous, and it was compiled by a poetry editor on a national newspaper, and its content was determined simply by including those poems most requested and inquired about by readers. Our Thomas will never doubt again.