by Norman Ball
A wise person once remarked that nothing good ever happens after two a.m. The same can be said for poetry after 1922*. On behalf of poets, I acknowledge the playwright's greater fealty to 'the present condition' because his genre can silence an actor in the first-order sense of Pinter's definition. Sometimes the repertory goes on strike and the problem is completely averted. But even when the show goes on, language and its many attendant pauses - the interminable, the inflective, the awkward, the pregnant, the nonsensical, the inexplicable, the menacing, the neurotic - offer themselves to the playwright as they can no other. Playwrights are friends of the people. Idiomatic speech, cliché, the vernacular and the multivariate pause are the profession's stock and trade. Modern poets by contrast inhabit what Ortega y Gasset refers to as an "anti-popular terrain." The poetry guild has a euphemism for this: inventiveness - a fancy term for hiding the best china from regular company. Poets anticipate their rejection by pretending to become aloof first.
The butt of too many articulated dead-ends, modernity has little time for the poet's claim of evoking magic through word-incantation. No authentic resolution ever arrives. Because poems are streaming monologues, Pinter's "first" silence never finds its poetic voice. As modern poetry delves ever deepening wells of solipsism, it attracts anthropologists and drives away communicants. Viewers are asked to coo from a roped-off distance before proceeding to the Cretaceous exhibit. Because regular folks are increasingly skeptical of the illuminative powers of poetry, poets are left to parrot amongst themselves, a practice banned in many municipalities due to the horrendous deformities exhibited in the offspring. Another blunting tactic is to round up aspiring poets a series of mirrors at one another.
The hope for the rest of us is that this endless self-referentializing will prove exhausting to the participants: "I'm sea-sick from seeing you seeing me seesaw." Generally, poets are no more interested in otherpeoples' poetry than are non-poets. Forget art. Protocol is the first order of business. Poets delight in seating one another at the just-so seat, contextually mapping their peers to his or her indigenous haunt. This 'identifying the corpse' is a compulsion born of advanced academic rigor mortis. The last thing a sausage maker needs is more sausage. But if you insist, he will find a spot in the pantry for it. So who gets to go first? Literary journals sift through torrents of poetry submissions, while bemoaning a drought of subscribers. Like the politician who extols the public school system while sending his own children to private school, there is something suspicious about an art colony that holds its own ceramic pots in such low regard. People routinely lie about what they endorse. So it pays to watch where they attend PTA meetings.
Billy Collins, certainly one of poetry's friendlier ambassadors, chides his poetic predecessors for their willful and repeated "sins of difficulty." But by willfully and repeatedly committing the sin of accessibility, Collins may have sealed his fate with posterity. Professional poets routinely excoriate people's poets. Fifty years hence when Collins' contemporaries can't partake of his rainmaking prowess, anthologists will ensure he doesn't share space with, for example, the cryptically gifted, willfully cryptic Wallace Stevens. Perhaps in a hurry to seal their immortality, poets die with great alacrity.
But in the interim, they must eat. Because Collins enlarges the tent, he receives tepid applause from his fellow eaters. Dead poets, by contrast, are held to an entirely different standard. Art, when deprived of its greatest booster, the artist himself, must stand on its own solitary merit. Paying bills simply won't do. So the great poets are in full retreat while the lesser ones are merely irritable. Here we have a group pushed to the limits of relevancy, but still needing to put food on the table. Market forces are at work. On the supply- side, poets retreat into tighter and tighter enclaves, pretending to find rarefaction in claustrophobia. Membership is jealousy guarded as though the land can sustain but a few. I am reminded of doctors who wrestle chiropractors for every inch of restorative primacy. These are classic market share battles with all the attendant characteristics: product differentiation, barriers to entry and restraint of trade. Naturally, 'established poets' resist further incursions and are not interested in an all-encompassing vista - because they know a cultivated scarcity of anointees enhances their market position. After all, the nation's MFA programs are minting approximately 20,000 ostensible artists annually. So there is a careerist overhang that orders itself into a caste system: the manna-dispensers and the manna-consumers. No wonder so many poets have eyes like daggers, particularly for newcomers. Each time an artist has his Peniel moment, wrestling his bi-polarity to a draw or a non-artist earns sufficient credits, a fresh new dust jacket appears, jostling for right of place on the Titanic's leeward side: formal vs. free, rhyme vs. syllabic, concrete vs. submerged, hay vs. brick. Led on by the usual ego accouterments, these poets "with a voice that must be heard" continue to publish which, at this late juncture, is a sort of unadorned excremental process: shit dropped to mark a territory long since given up. At least bar-tending, even journalism, has a social utility. And so among poets today, there are two predominant camps: the mute and the moot. Neither obliges a deftly cocked ear. Though some mix an excellent martini.
The current clutter begs for a champion of the blank page. With a culture literally panting from rhetorical exhaustion, the poet expresses himself most eloquently by leaving poetry to itself. As Emerson said, "poetry was always there"; so we might quit poking at it with pointy sticks. A modern poet's talent is thus commensurable with his aversion to the page. I cannot prove a negative. But I suspect our greatest contemporary poets are in a huff at their post-post-postism. Better to risk going postal than to give voice to the interior hum. I applaud their silence, even as I realize I will never meet them on the written page much less at a professionally sanctioned industrial event. Rimbaud stopped. Abruptly. Which is perhaps the most eloquent reason why most of us should never get started. As critic George Steiner noted recently "the true masters are those who relinquish their vocation." Eliot would have kept better to himself. But he spoke to erase, ublimating his natural poetic reticence to the crucial task of upsetting the Romantics from their ridiculous promontory. To his credit, Eliot left behind treatises disguised as poems and so re-burnished his poetic credentials. Wisely too, he was not exceedingly prolific.
Shakespeare was the perfect confluence of prodigious talent and portentous place, not to mention the perfect marriage of poetry and stagecraft. For him, there was no burden of belatedness (a Harold Bloom term). Shakespeare's supreme achievement became his predecessors' cul de sac. Slowly the playwrights dug out. But poetry still rages with rhetorical debates using rhetorical devices. Beckett is Shakespeare in exhalation, the soliloquy unraveled. Then Pinter arrives injecting silence with nuclear-age neuroses; the tongue as nervous tic alternating between fluttering eyelid and frozen shutter. I squirm when Pinter is referred to as a radical poet, and I ignore those wistful days when he falters into lyricism. At its best, modern poetic voice serenades half the landscape like a sing-along on an intermittent channel. When a culture ends, there is only impassable terrain. Singing becomes the least of an artist's troubles.
Then there are the weaklings and nostalgists who simply enjoy the sedative of paper. Too small for the great poets and their trailed-off conclusions, they write in a sort of narcist defiance of all 1922 hoped to silence. Denial is the voice behind all voices. The hum that cannot be papered over.
*1922 - the publication date of T. S. Eliot's Wasteland and, since there are no coincidences, the year of publication for James Joyce's Ulysses.
Norman Ball: Thereabouts