The Long, Hard Slog of Poetry November 20, 2011Posted by Mark Folse in Toulouse Street.
“As long as I’ve been publishing poetry it has been seen as difficult and private though I never meant for it to be,” John Ashbery told the National Book Awards audience last Wednesday. “I wanted the difficulty to reflect the difficulty of reading, any kind of reading, which is both a pleasant and painful experience since we are temporarily giving ourselves to something which may change us.”
– Lifted from HTML Giant, part two of that long review of a review
Yes, there’s a clear conflict withing that statement, lamenting the difficulty he created himself, and with the performance I saw last night as part of Fringe Festival, a performance poetry presentation titled Writing from the Edge. The poets I saw mostly were not writing from the literary edge, were not intentionally obscure in the best elliptical Master of Fine Arts way. At their best they were visceral. They were vernacular. They spoke to the audience, made of poetry what it was in the time of Shakespeare, a lyric and metaphoric language meant to speak to the people. All the people, not just the readers of literary blogs or enrollees in college wirting program. They were as much performers as poets, although the only one I identify with the formalized Spoken Word scene was Micheal “Quess?” Moore.
Why write poetry when it’s largely lost it audience, outside the narrow culture of Hip-Hop related Spoken Word. There’s no place I know where they can get away with charging a cover to hear a middle aged white guy, no matter how good. Successful poetry books sell in the hundreds, mostly to other poets. Why bother? “When are you going to write that best seller so we can retire?” she once asked. I think Valentine Pierce answered that last night when she opened the performance with a frequently performed poem of hers with the line ““I was never meant to be a poet/Never chose poetry/Poetry chose me…”
The only real choice is: do we write poetry that can have an audience larger than ourselves or do we dive like Narcissus deeper into the self-referential reflecting pool of Dead White Poetry? I’m not talking about Rod McKuen here or even Rumi. I’m talking about solid, well written work; work anthologists might consider (if they are not academic anthologists), poetry that speaks to the heavens but is accessible by the cheap seats, poetry that has some relevance to a world where the written word itself seem to be vanishing into formulaic fiction and books about dogs, all to be read on your Kindle or Nook, corporatist literature.
Somewhere between the Chair of the Creative Writing Program and the CEO of Bertelsmann AG (the media conglomerate owners of Random House) there has to be a space for the sort of poets I saw last night, venues for their performance that will capture the casual passer by, or make the reader of an online newspaper’s listing say, “hey, lets go check, this out tonight.” It was only forty years ago, the span of a generation, when Allen Ginsberg spoke to a large audience he helped create with Howl! with the authority of a senator or a rock stare.To get there, you have to start with poetry that is accessible without surrendering craft and art. It’s out there. It was upstairs at the Maison for two shows last night but unlike last year’s performance it was not SRO. And that not so much saddens me as drives me deeper into my own path down this weird road, confirms my conviction that a vernacular yet craftful poetry is the only worthwhile path because, somewhere at the end of this road, is a world much like that outside America, a world where mega-award winning poet Niyi Osundare writes a weekly column for a major Nigerian newspaper and is a revered figure yet sits in an office at the proletarian University of New Orleans teaching the children of the people, a world where poets still matter as Ginsberg mattered once, are listened to by the people, are in some rare cases elected president because I would vote for Osundare or Quess? without hesitation.
Bury me in that warm country.