Some time ago, I lectured at my daughter's humanities class. I met there a student whose type is known well across the pedagogical landscape: the overly earnest, self-consciously sincere, socially handicapped and semi-bright intellect who has adopted a Bohemian identity, who feels, thus, that he should be reading and writing poetry.
I am nothing but a dilettante when it comes to enjoying poetry. But I do like to talk about it whenever I can, so when I heard this young man announce himself as a poet, I made my way to his spot and tried to strike up a friendly, “poet-to-poet” conversation. It turns out that my attempt was feeble, replete with clichés and conversation-starters that shriveled in the air: "What kind of poetry do you like? ... Who is your favorite poet? ... What do you like about free verse?"
These questions were feeble mainly because they were predicated on the assumption that this young poet must have read poetry by other people. It turns out that he lay claim to Erato's sponsorship solely because he wrote stuff -- and much of it -- that he liberally called "poetry."
I am not mean-spirited ... at least, I am trying not to be. I understand that in today's education culture, "poetry" is defined as anything that is not arranged on the printed page as "prose" -- that is, in block paragraph form, where the lines of the paragraph body stretch continuously from left margin to right.
That culture also leads students, especially in the “creative writing” idiom, to believe that poetry is even better if one goes about a lot of intimate disclosure of feelings. Anger, ennui (you expected this word, didn’t you?), despondency, bravado and, mostly, fear populated his thick, furry stack of bulging spiral-ring notebooks, chock full of free verse.
So the boy really thought he was writing poetry -- good poetry, even, and I witnessed the teacher of the class in question ladling out generous portions of praise for his efforts. Here is a boy, in her view, who is “processing” his emotions and ought to be reinforced. Never mind the relatively unimportant matter of his being misled about the matter of “good poetry,” it is more important, thinks the teacher, to pursue the psychotherapeutic issue of assisting this self-absorbed misfit in the attainment of self-esteem ("salvation," in today's world of meanings).
I am not opposed to free verse, but free verse is exploited as a screen for the absence of hard work, talent, and vision. Free verse is thus abused much as abstraction is abused in the visual arts. One might not be able to draw, but that doesn’t matter, because drawing is unimportant in abstract painting and sculpture. Likewise, one cannot rhyme or rhythm, but that, too, doesn’t matter, because free verse doesn’t require these things.
Of course, that last point is weak, as the other notions are also open to attack. The ability to draw is crucial in visual art, even abstract art. The presence or absence of craftsmanship is plain even in the modern idioms. That is one of many reasons why I will never be a visual artist. I cannot draw. I haven’t got the genes or the fine motor skills. I appreciate, however, the abilities and vision of others to do what I cannot – but that sort of appreciation is not shared by many contemporary critics. I am sure that my works will never reach the MOMA or the Guggenheim for many reasons. That itself is not the tragedy. The tragedy is that my dearth of craftsmanship is not one of those reasons.
There was definitely the presence of dearth in these shabby notebooks. There were stuttering attempts at crude metaphor and, of course, “stream-of-consciousness” (thank you very much, Dujardin). There was structure, but dictated only by the horizontal blue lines and the vertical pink one running down the left margin. The meaning of the poems, their sound and sense, had little to do with their structure. Worse, the poetry had little cohesive meaning. Under the rubric of “stream of consciousness,” this poet straggled through a series of blurred images, ambiguous mutterings, and stillborn motifs.
Why, you might ask, am I being so mordant? Why am I picking on such a harmless, untalented struggling youth and his well-meaning teacher?
For starters, I do not doubt that the teacher means well, but the fact remains that she does ill. What is more, I am not sure that this boy poet is so harmless. He and his alma mater have colluded – meaning well, I’m sure, as is usually true of American education, but wreaking damage unawares – in the tiresome “How do you like it? … Oh, Biffy, it’s simply mah-va-lous!” nitwit pas de deux.
The damage done is the production of one more overly self-conscious post-modern feral child, hell-bent on sturm und drang. He has thoughts, some of them intense, but no efficient means to express them. Worse, he has no intention to modify them into something that can be understood, into something that is worthy of being said in the first place.
When he graduates from creative writing, he will be practiced at complaining about everything, but building nothing on nothing. He will rail against the old and dishonor the dead, simply because these mediating structures delay his gratifications.
This would-be poet is untalented because he is an uneducated youth, to be sure. But the melancholy fact is that he will remain uneducated in this anti-traditionalist milieu. Who is teaching him that his inner life needs relating to the life outside, for love, and the life beyond, for meaning? Who is teaching him the craftsman tricks of putting one’s best foot forward? Of rhyming and time? Of sound echoing sense? Of a prophet masquerading as harlequin and jongleur?
No one. For the art business has decayed into the Balkans of equally valid quanta of self-expression, and thus are all equally dismissed.
I happen to think that while the boy is harmful, he is not untalented. Better yet, he is not without vocation. It takes a call to poetry to recognize that poetry must be read, and poetry must be said. This boy knows, feral that he is, that poetry is his way to grasp the other side of appearances. He is called for Beauty. He must learn the ways of myth, and the formulae that invokes it.
He could be reciting Dante and Shakespeare, Cervantes, Blake, Herbert and Marlowe. He could be pondering Eliot and Auden, Hopkins and even Wilbur.
And for some reason, he is being kept from this knowledge, and is being utterly mystified, his mind tussled and brains disheveled. I’d like to know why.
Perhaps, I suspect, it is one way to make us forget about Easter.