Poetry’s Decline and Irrelevance

Jeremy Paxman says poets must start engaging with ordinary people

 
I came across this report in The Guardian, a British newspaper I hold in great esteem, because they do actual investigative journalism.

This June 1, 2014 article features statements made by broadcast journalist Jeremy Paxton, known for his provocative interviewing style. Because I live in the U.S., I don’t know who he is, but he seems well-known in the U.K. (I watched entertaining YouTube clips of him tenaciously hammering away at his evasive guests. He is rather persistent.) It  is with pleasure that I learned of his call for poets to be held to account.

At Man Verses Poetry, my staff and myself respond to modern poetry with indifference, if not outright hostility. Correction: I don’t have a staff. I also make no claims to be an authority on poetry, but like Paxman, I believe all artists should be held accountable for their work.
Yes, sometimes art is not appreciated because the common people are Philistines — I get that. But then again, sometimes a form of expression is justifiably marginalized because it is no longer relevant, and its existing practitioners are feeble and inept. The limited encounters I’ve had with modern poetry have convinced me that most of it lacks power and vitality — or even discipline in its creation.
 

                                        If it weren’t for its tell-tale layout
                                        on the printed page, a reader might not even be aware
                                        that what they’re reading
                                        is poetry.
                                        There are no rules anymore,
                                                    and
                                        artistic expression
                                        without limits and
                                        without structure
                                        invites
                                        laxity.

 
The reasons for poetry’s decline merit further investigation. But to speculate: for one thing, every form of art has its heyday. It arrives, it flourishes, it declines. Sure, it might linger, settling into senescence, but the enthusiasm and tradition that sustained it has faded. Classical music peaked, and so did jazz.  Television, video games, animation and comic books, on the other hand, are forms of cultural expression on the ascendancy. Where readers once became lost in a novel, viewers now binge on a season of television episodes over a weekend. And while I maintain that TV shows rely heavily on titillating sex and/or violence to attract viewers, their plot structures and characters have become more complex and compelling. (And of course, you can argue that sex and violence have always had a place in the arts.) Cartoons and comic books, once only considered suitable fare for children, have graduated to a higher level. Fifty years ago, no one predicted the “graphic novel.” And finally, video games have come a long way since Pong, and they are evolving beyond providing mere adrenaline thrills.
 
This brings me to my next bit of speculation (which owes a debt to Neil Postman),  and that is this: visual language is becoming more important than the written word. The written word, in turn, is responsible for poetry’s decline, for it displaced a previous oral tradition in which poetry flourished. Rhymes, chants, stories and proverbs are helpful to memory in a world where there are no books to consult. And books lose primacy when you can simply google or watch a YouTube video. Again, the visual is pushing aside the written, which replaced the oral. Of course, all three will remain with us, but the visual predominates. People don’t quote poems anymore, they quote lines from movies. Visual images form our cultural frame of reference: even if you don’t watch television shows, you are familiar with their names and main characters.
 
Another example: A coworker of mine, over 10 years younger than myself, liberally infuses her blog posts with GIF files. She’s employing visual references to popular movies to make her points. If she was a writer from 100 years ago, she might make passing references to Greek myths, with the assumption that her audience is familiar with them. This is no longer the case. If Americans know about Greek myths at all, its likely due to watching Clash of the Titans.
 
None of this is necessarily cause for despair. The Internet will become faster; pixel density will increase. Myths will be forgotten. The children will stop learning cursive, just as they have stopped learning Greek and Latin. In lieu of this, however, they will be fluent in computer code, design apps in middle school, and change the world in their own way.
 
I also believe they will return to poetry. Just as the Romantic movement reacted against the dehumanizing aspects of the Industrial Revolution, I do believe another movement will emerge to counter and resist the dominance of technology in the digital era. People will want to break free from their screens, and return to things that matter —  it’s already happening.
 
We  just need leaders to show the way. And we need the modern poetasters to try harder.

 

 

The Curse of the Great Omar

The Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, has one of the largest collections of Rubaiyat-related materials in the world. But there is one book it doesn’t have: The Great Omar, a specially crafted edition whose covers are embedded with 1,050 jewels. This dryly informative video delivers quite a jolt when the fate of  this unique book and the man who made it are revealed.

rubaiyat - vedder

Elihu Vedder, an American artist, was the first illustrator of the Rubaiyat.

Oft-Quoted lines from the Rubaiyat

willy pogany rubaiyat

 

 

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,

A flask of Wine, a Book of Verse — and Thou

Beside me singing in the Wilderness —

And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

 

enow — an archaic word; it means “enough”

If you encounter any discussion of the Rubaiyat, it’s almost inevitable that this stanza will be quoted, because it nicely sums up the good life — the here and now — that Khayyam urges us to enjoy. This translation is from Edward Fitzgerald (1st edition), and the illustration is by Willy Pogany.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Men are Violent

An extraterrestrial visitor observing our species would likely be horrified at how violent human males are, in all societies, past and present.

Perhaps one day humans will encounter an alien civilization with a reproductive scheme consisting of one, two — (or more?) — genders that live in perfect harmony. Instead of learning from them, however, I’m certain we will attempt to subjugate and kill their species. (A suitable pretext will be provided, of course.)

Violence is destructive, morally wrong, and mostly indefensible. Men most often commit it, and they victimize everyone: women, children, and mostly other men. Its cause is biological — murder and rape are extreme manifestations of male aggression, which in turn is a product of evolution. And evolution doesn’t care about human happiness.

The tribe that conquers the neighboring tribe wins. Consider that one in 200 men are direct descendants of Genghis Khan — a Darwinian success story.

Aggression can be sublimated and channeled in positive ways, however: through competitiveness, risk-taking, restless ambition. Even if you could dampen the aggressive tendencies of humans (through, say, genetic engineering) you would likely remove an element that is essential for survival — an element which is also present in females.

Am I fatalistic? Yes I am. Violence may be minimized; but it will never be eliminated. Some societies are indeed peaceful and seldom in the grip of strife and war, but they seem the exceptions. Norway comes to mind, for example. Aren’t they progressive? Well, sure — but they are also the descendants of Vikings, whose very name means “go raid your neighbors.”

—————————-

Anyway, this entry is straying off the path of my normal content.

Here is an early poetic effort of mine, which like all my poems, I’m not satisfied with. I decided to address a seemingly unsuitable topic. I thought that even if I didn’t succeed, I’d at least be the first person to write a poem about ancestral rape. It’s a perverse observation: if it weren’t for the rapists lurking in the branches of your family tree, you wouldn’t be here right now, reading this…

 

Genealogy

The intermingled tangle of all our family trees
Forms a forest ancient, grown from soiled seeds
To undo all the crimes our myriad mothers faced
Would erase the very lines we cannot hope to trace
My kinship with the monkey bothers not the least
He is merely animal, man is truly beast.

 

 

 

Lord Byron documentary

I found this 2009 Lord Byron documentary on YouTube, aptly titled “The Scandalous Adventures of Lord Byron.”

Actor Rupert Everitt is the host. To Americans he is probably most familiar for his role as “George” in My Best Friend’s Wedding, starring Julia Roberts.

I found him off-putting at first. He’s a bit enamored with himself, his jokes fall flat, and his crass comments on Byron’s sex life can be jarring in the context of a BBC documentary. He also enjoys taking his clothes off for the camera, but I suppose that’s intended to titillate viewers. But at least he’s having fun, and even if he’s not a Byron scholar, his enthusiasm is sincere. Considering that the major premise of the show is to draw parallels between a celebrity-actor host and his admittedly narcissistic subject, you can’t fault him for succeeding.

A highlight for me was his strolling amid the ruins of a castle in Albania, where Byron visited the region’s powerful ruler, Ali Pasha. After walking past graffiti that read “Tupac 2008” and descending through a passage awash with trash bags, Everitt and his guide stepped beneath the same gateway Byron did 200 years earlier, to behold a beautiful vista of the surrounding mountains and valley below.

A few Quatrains

khayyam

An illustration by Edmund Dulac of Old Khayyam in one of his moods. I hate to see him like this.

My two regular readers know that I’m a fan of the Persian poet, Omar Khayyám, original author of the Rubáiyát. He lived from 1048 – 1141, but achieved new fame in the Western world when some of his quatrains were freely translated into English by Edward Fitzgerald. Here’s a sample (From Fitzgerald’s First Edition, published in 1859, quatrains 26-32):

 

Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise

To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;

One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;

The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.

 

Myself when young did eagerly frequent

Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument

About it and about: but evermore

Came out by the same Door as in I went.

 

With them the Seed of Wisdom did I sow,

And with my own hand labor’d it to grow:

And this was all the Harvest that I reap’d —

“I came like Water, and like Wind I go.”

 

Into this Universe, and why not knowing,

Nor Whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing:

And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,

I know not whither, willy-nilly blowing.

 

What, without asking, hither hurried whence?

And, without asking, whither hurried hence!

Another and another Cup to drown

The Memory of this Impertinence!

 

Up from Earth’s Centre through the Seventh Gate

I rose, and on the Throne of Saturn sate,

And many Knots unravel’d by the Road;

But not the Knot of Human Death and Fate.

 

There was a Door to which I found no Key:

There was a Veil past which I could not see:

Some little Talk awhile of Me and Thee;

There seem’d — and then no more of Thee, and Me.

 

 

Mick Jagger reads Shelley

I stumbled upon this on YouTube.

“On July 3, 1969, two days before the Rolling Stones were to headline a free music festival in Hyde Park, their former guitarist Brian Jones drowned in his swimming pool. What was supposed to have been a party became, instead, a memorial.

About half a million people saw the Stones perform, including Mick Jagger’s girlfriend at the time, Marianne Faithfull. Before they played, Jagger read out Shelley’s poem Adonais, and 3,500 white butterflies were released. …”

— from The Times Magazine.

Here are the stanzas from the actual poem:

 39

  Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep —

  He hath awakened from the dream of life —

  ‘Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep

  With phantoms an unprofitable strife,

  And in mad trance, strike with our spirit’s knife

  Invulnerable nothings. — We decay

  Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief

  Convulse us and consume us day by day,

And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.

52

  The One remains, the many change and pass;

  Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly;

  Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,

  Stains the white radiance of Eternity,

  Until Death tramples it to fragments. — Die,

  If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek!

  Follow where all is fled! ……..

Sexy Rubaiyat – Illustrations by Ronald Balfour

Here are some beautiful illustrations by Ronald Balfour, featured in a 1920 edition of the Rubáiyát.

For more, here’s a post by John Coulthart, an artist and designer with an online journal that I enjoy visiting:

Ronald Balfour’s Rubáiyát
balfour 1

 

 

balfour 8

 

 

balfour 4

 

 

 

balfour 6

 

 

 

balfour 2

 

 

balfour 5

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry, Pop Culture, and some thoughts on Television.

In the future, I might share more posts about the intersection of the worlds of poetry and pop culture, although I fear it could dilute my content. The integrity of my blog could be threatened, if, in an ingratiating attempt to rope in more viewers, I feature too many instances in which television and movies make passing references to poetry. On the other hand, the fact that these references are made at all serves to legitimize poetry’s relevance in the popular consciousness.

If Bryan Cranston from Breaking Bad does a dramatic reading of Ozymandias, it hauls a romantic poet a few fathoms up from the depths of obscurity. A viewer, recalling the poem from high school, might be inclined to dust off Shelley’s work.  Ack, who am I kidding! A Shelley cameo doesn’t benefit Shelley — it benefits Breaking Bad. Inserting poetry helps elevate a mere TV crime drama into a grand tragedy. Even people who don’t especially like poetry can be impressed by the aura of class it bestows. And why not introduce an episode in a compelling and original way? I can’t fault the writers for that; in fact, it earns my respect.

I enjoyed Breaking Bad. And speaking of poets, Shelley had a minor role in comparison to Walt Whitman. It was a volume of Leaves of Grass, with an inscription by “W.W.”, that served as a key plot point.

But that said, this illustrates the role poetry has been reduced to. In the landscape of popular culture that’s as empty and barren as the New Mexico desert, poetry is like an undergound aquifer that occasionally gets tapped into by better screenwriters for the sake of inspiration and novelty. Other than that, it doesn’t serve much of a purpose.

I don’t oppose television. I like it. But I do object to its prominence in our lives. One of the reasons I’m even writing this blog is because my immediate neighbor had his driveway resurfaced. The construction work somehow inadvertently severed the wires carrying free cable TV to my home (this after having unsubscribed months before).

Television, like alcohol, is a socially approved drug whose abuse is consistently under-reported by those who consume it.  At most, abusers admit to occasional weekend binges, and justify their addiction with their superior taste. It’s okay in our society to be addicted to great television shows. It’s even something to brag about.

In considering our culture, it is important never to neglect this fact: if it’s not on TV or in a  movie, it might as well not exist. This applies not only to a neglected form of expression like poetry — it applies to everything of value that doesn’t get ratings. Consider knowledge of history: Americans dwell in a bizarre, ahistorical world, vaguely aware of current events, forgetful of the recent events, and almost completely oblivious of past. For many Americans, their entire knowledge of Roman civilization is limited to having seen Gladiator.

Again, I’m not against all television content. Like any technology, it can serve good and bad ends. I just wish it wasn’t the end-all and be-all of our culture. In the food pyramid of the American cultural diet, there is one main food group, and it has a recommended serving of over three hours a day. For the most part, it is devoid of nutrition.

Television’s job is to entertain. That’s its first job. It doesn’t want to elighten you, it doesn’t want to motivate you, it doesn’t want to inspire you. It wants your eyeballs, not your mind. It doesn’t want you to be happy, it wants you to consume. It doesn’t speak to your soul; it speaks to the gawking voyeur vulture that lurks in us all.

Great poetry can last well over a hundred years — but in a hundred years, who will be talking about the television shows we watch now?  The shallow ponds of popular entertainment evaporate quickly, but poetry runs deep.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beautiful Editions of the Rubaiyat

I hate the Kindle — and all eReaders — for a number of reasons, but the primary is one of aesthetics. A digital screen will never match the beauty of a well-made, finely illustrated book.

Here are some images of Rubaiyat covers I have gleaned from Pinterest. In the future I might expand and revise this post to include more details about the various editions. It would bring me great joy to own one of my own.
rubaiyat 2

 

 

”’rubaiyat book 1

 

 

rubaiyat 4

 

 

rubaiyat 5