August 31, 2010

On the Laurels of the Laureates

A few years ago, I opened my literature classes with the question, "Who is the current Poet Laureate of the United States?" Almost uniformly, I was answered with, "What's a Poet Laureate?" A few enterprising students responded with the names of poets they knew, Emily Dickinson or Robert Frost. It was easy for me to supply the correct who to my question because I'd cheated and looked it up, but it was much more difficult for me to answer the what of their response.

The Poet Laureate is chosen by the Librarian of the Congress, presumably after consulting a few back issues of the New Yorker. The Laureate collects a modest annual salary of $35,000 and for this wage, is required to present their lyrical mastery once over the course of the year. The Laureate often elects to do some civic laboring to promote the value and humanity of Capital-P-Poetry, but they aren't required to do much more than pursue their work, and that at their leisure.

The first Poet Laureate wasn't called a laureate but a "Consultant in Poetry," a post that was first filled in 1937 by Joseph "Saturday Evening Post" Auslander. "Consultant" sounds both bureaucratic and inconsequential, sort of like the "Assistant Producer" designation of movies, but it was a title held by some lauded poets; Bishop, Williams, Frost, and Lowell all sported the modest "Consultant" moniker. This fame of personage, however, has not always been the norm for the post. Most of the Consultants appear to have been elected by a process of spinning a bottle at a New York party. I'm looking at you, Leonie.

Then in 1986 the Consultant became the "Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress," a title which not even a Laureate's mother could deliver without smirking. For means of comparison, the first British Poet Laureate was appointed in the late fifteenth century by Henry VII, and he, Bernard Andre, wrote mostly in Latin. I don't mean to suggest that we Yanks should feel insecure about the length of our laurels.

It's hard to argue that the Laureate is the most prestigious or gifted or productive of poets. It's hard to argue for their cultural relevance as poetry continues to be a kind of cultural charity supported by grants, prizes, benefactors, and academies. The Laureate isn't required to write poems for inaugurations or ceremonies, though they sometimes have, so it's hard to argue that they act as a formal poetic voice to the country. What, then, is the Laureate? How are they chosen? Do we need one? Does having a Laureate do poets any favors, or are we performing an autocoronation without a kingdom? Why is our current Laureate an 82 year old who lives on top of a dead volcano in Hawaii?

Quick now: who is it? Who is the Laureate?

I have many questions, many suspicions, and one or two prejudices, but only piddling experience on the subject of Laureates. So I'm going to look into it. I'm going to read every one of the Laureates, starting at the beginning with Joseph "Precious Moments" Auslander, and I'm going to log my findings here as crooked proof. I have no intention of producing a fair or entire portrait of these men and women, but I will give them a reasonable read, and I will place all of my remarks in the cowardly brackets of irony to stave off any earnest or academic discourse.

August 23, 2010

Clique to Enlarge

Pretentiousness is the religion of cliques; it is forceful and insensitive, formal and slow to change. The closer we cling to a clique, the more we must denounce our own proclivities, our strangeness, our tastes.

Pretension allows for many sins but few virtues. We denounce ourselves, and the denouncement makes us fierce advocates of the church of our clique. A shared pretension gives distinction and security to clique members, but it is a uniform distinction and a restrictive security. No one in a clique has any real respect for anyone else in the clique because it is well known that all players are frauds to some degree, and besides, membership doesn't rid anyone of the competitive urge. We still crave distinction within our sphere of distinction. This is the nature of the Pharisee: to be alone at the center of devotion, to ascend upon a faith that is shared but not real.

The common element of all cliques is that from even a modest distance they seem absurd to an outside observer. The observer will see a delirious mob of people all pretending to be unique and alone.

August 9, 2010

The Music in the Skipping Record

I’m not a fan of biographies, especially when the subject of such navel unravelling is a poet. I am not interested in being the article that eclipses the noun. And that is what a poet is: an article. A particle. The poem on the other hand, if it’s any good and fantastically lucky, is the immortal spirit. It is not, after all, the thought of Keats coughing blood onto his pillow that make me buzz. It is his poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

Much as I have never taken to biographies, I often shudder at the autobiographical poem. For me, a poem which explicitly makes the author known has always had a waft of advertisement to it. Autobiography is exaggeration, and a poem that exaggerates only ever wins half the reader’s confidence.

There is nothing wrong with writing about yourself, but it is so much more interesting when you don’t. When we write about ourselves slantways, we entice folks nearer to our little campfires. We have to write about the world and strangers directly because we are more responsible when we do. We exaggerate the lives of others less because telling their story requires imagination, and imagination has an evener hand than confession.

Though I do not think of Keats very often, his poems have put their fingerprints all over me. I think of his poems because they are helpful: their order, their language, their sentiment, their humanity. They help me think straight and feel straight. His poems are little preserves of his way of thinking, the connections he drew, the preferences he held. Preservation is, of course, the soul of autobiography; the poem is a kind of syntactical autobiography.

Some folks think in the forms, rhythms, and language of a poem. We call it poetry because if we called it, “pretty thoughts that I organized for others,” who would be interested? We act like poetry is a calling; we treat our poets like priests or we hope to be treated like priests. But it isn’t a calling; it is the residue of internal patterns. Which I find endlessly more charming and encouraging than any mystical mutterance.

All biographies are autobiographies. It is the biographer’s ethic and penchant and history that is the final revelation. Biographical criticism, in particular, would be improved if critics included in their works pictures of their father and mother. If they want to play Freud, let them play Freud nudely.

August 3, 2010

Poetica Exotica

Sometime in the last century, poetic language changed. It went from being sermonic, florid, and familiar, to being obscure, petty, and obtuse. Poets, especially those serving the canon, shifted meaning from the poem to the individual words.

Chalk it up to the Modernists, if you like; I tend to point the finger at Yeats because he made language a religious experience, but the esoteric poetic has lost little of its prestige in recent decades.

The result of this shift has been a homogenization of lyric, a messy divorce from readers, and an explosion of crossword puzzles posing as poems. And still, ask a poet to define poetry, and almost uniformly they will begin by ruminating on the distillation of language and the righteousness of every word. The pompousness of this definition is infectious: young poet logophiles pour out erudite absurdities, while established poets seek out unused and unusual words to make turgid sentiments seem new.

The subtext of this preference for exotic language is that poetry does not exist in the vernacular, the cultural, the relational. Rather, poetry lives in the academy, the Hermetic, the dead. The chief amusement that poetry offers readers now is a linguistic faddism. Observing the vogue-cycles of poetic words is good sport. "Sepulcher" is out, "moxibustion" is in.

When a sophomore writes an essay that is furious with arcane synonyms and academic jargon but which signifies nothing, I am sad because they have mistaken intellectualism for thought. When an amateur guitarist buys a $3,000 Les Paul so he can play a three-chord Eagles song for his girlfriend, I am sad because he has mistaken the tool for the effort. When parents name their child Archibald Marzipan Dewlap the Third, I am sad because the kid is going to be kicked around the playground.

Poets worry that a critique of the current poetic will necessitate a dumbing-down of their work, but let me be the first to assure you that the current poetic can't get much dumber.