Poet Robert Pinsky has written a book about the plight of modern poets, Singing School, which must be pretty good, because it inspired a brilliant piece — a manifesto, even — by Daniel Bosch in the Daily Beast.
Time was, a poem stood the test of time because one person after another stood up and spoke that poem aloud, and their speaking gave him or her pleasure, or terror, or grief, or wonder. Nowadays people stand for timed tests on a poem and are compelled to establish that they have “understood” it, but they are rarely asked to account for what and how that poem made them feel physically, while and just after it was coordinating their breath and the movements of their lips and tongues. Nowadays almost any talk about a poem begins naming its topic: people love to tell you what a poem is “about.” Many readers today evaluate a poet according to whether or not his or her body of work can or cannot be said to be “about” an idea which is of interest aside from the quality of their experience of saying it aloud. Perhaps these relatively new ways of regarding poetry have not cost it too dearly. But if its relationship with the academy has come with perks—nice real estate, the chance of employment, a (contested) degree of respectability—it can seem, taking a long view, that the public life of poetry today is “about” the needs of the academy, and not the experience of poetry.
Complaining about poetry’s “academy”, of course, is neither original nor noteworthy. Indeed, the famed Robert Pinsky is a part of the establishment, whether he likes it or not, since he teaches at Boston University and basks frequently in awards and honorifics. As for Daniel Bosch, who I’ve never heard of before reading his good article in the Daily Beast, he’s probably a part of the establishment too, since he writes about poetry in the Daily Beast.
The fact that the poetry establishment may deaden our poetic souls cannot be taken seriously as an indictment of this or any actual poetry establishment. Rather, the fact is simply important as a reminder that we as poets or as readers of poets must always fight against this deadening effect, this natural human impulse to conform. The academy does not need to be overthrown; instead, we should always remember to think beyond it, and find personal practices that help us to do so, as Bosch’s article encourages:
The Greek roots of the word “anthology” are anthos, meaning “flower,” and legein, meaning “to gather,” and the simplicity and directness of this metaphor compel us to remember that anybody can pick flowers. Back in the days before and just after print publishing was invented, it seemed that every reader of poetry was an anthologist, the compiler of a fat commonplace book and folders stuffed with hand-copied verses. Pinsky gets this: practically the first thing he tells the reader to do is to get busy picking their own favorite blooms.
I particularly like the part of this article in which Bosch quotes Pinsky’s translation of Dante’s Inferno and pretends to mistake Dante’s description of an encounter with Bertran de Born (the damned sinner who must follow blindly the lead of his own disembodied head, which he swings lantern-like as he walks) for a description of a corridor between sessions at the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. (However, Bosch unwittingly reveals the extent to which he is himself a member of the academy when he refers to this conference only by its abbreviation, AWP, as if everybody who reads the Daily Beast would know what AWP is).
Indeed, we as poets or as lovers of poetry do often walk blindly behind our heads, failing to connect our bodies to our brains at all moments of our lives — and, again, this is not because we are bad or corrupt or dishonest poets or lovers of poetry, but simply because we are human beings and this is human nature.
The plight of poetry in modern times is a topic on my mind these days because, I’m happy to announce, I’m finally preparing to relaunch Action Poetry, the open poetry sharing space that has been running on Litkicks in one form or another since 2001, in a bold new presentation, with several new features including a distinct domain name and Facebook/Twitter integration. I’ve been working on this for weeks (in a larger sense, I’ve been working on it for years) and I’m hoping to relaunch the new site this coming weekend.
So, please stay tuned! Hopefully the long-awaited, long-threatened new version of Litkicks Action Poetry will do the same thing that Daniel Bosch’s article does, that Robert Pinksy does: remind those of us who feel a momentary need for poetic inspiration (myself included, always) to temporarily position our poetic heads back on our poetic shoulders, so that we may see and hear and feel in whole, at least for the duration of a few verses at a time.