Thursday, February 12, 2009

Poetry as Cultural Touchstone?

Skimming the LA Times's "Calendar" section the other day at breakfast, I note that poetry has now become synonymous not with high art, per se, but with an even more amorphous cultural currency: authenticity. To be a poet--or, in the least, to appreciate poetry--is apparently to plumb the depths of one's authentic core. Despite having been relegated to the dusty half of bookshelves everywhere, poetry nonetheless acquires cultural valence as having--or, rather, as denoting--substance:
In the end, the big reveal of ["The Real Housewives of Orange County" (Bravo)] is that there is no big reveal, beyond the news flash that money does not make you happy or nice or even very interesting. This is 2009. There is no poetry in the suburbs, no art to be gleaned from the battle between society and the individual. Society won, pal, and what's wrong with that?
No one in these suburbs is secretly yearning to live in Paris or be a painter, and if there is any self-doubt, it's buried under the silt of professionally prescribed pharmaceuticals and the belief that looking straight at the camera makes you seem more serious. Hedda Gabler left the building years ago; these heroines are tragic only in their lack of conciousness . . .
It's hard not to worry, just a little, that given the tanking economy, the wives and their gated communities may soon be stormed by disgruntled O.C. peasants bearing pitchforks and tiki torches. But even if "Real Housewives" does make it through the lean times, these women will no doubt remain right where we all want them to be: trapped in the fabulous shabbiness of their lives, having conversations that run back and forth like trained rats along dim and narrow mazes of the mundane.
Which is precisely why we will always need our poets. Now more than ever, no one more so than those housewives down in the O.C.
("Decay at play in the O.C.," Critic's Notebook, Mary McNamara, 2-10-09)
While I appreciate the endorsement, I am suspicious. If what we've set up is a continuum of lived experience and of understanding that imagines rote laboratory experiments at one extreme and an appreciation of poetry at the other, haven't we just basically tapped the last nail into poetry's coffin?

By the way, I have been known to watch an episode or two of Real Housewives. Not that I'm in any way endorsing it.


  1. Interesting, but I don't think you should be suspicious, if only because I'm convinced that Mary McNamara is the smartest person over at the LA Times these days. She is always fun to read, and she is always smart.

  2. Yeah, I love reading her, and it's not her I'm necessarily suspect of. I think she's buffeted by the same cultural winds as we all are.

  3. The article is fun, but, surely, MacNamera is Woolf's perfect middlebrow! Let's label your continuum "the Plath fallacy."

  4. Those who believe poetry is dead and buried will find the coffin is empty.

  5. I've been trying to leave a comment on your site, but it's next to impossible. This is my last attempt:

    for those who think poetry is dead and buried, open the coffin. You'll find it's empty.

  6. Impatience makes me quite bitchy. (That's poetry, co)

  7. But, when you think about it, isn't this a pretty good description of human life since prehominid times? I suspect that not everyone painted on the cave walls, not everyone composed the ballads and songs, danced the ceremonial dances, went to the Paris Opera back in 1650, read Byron and Dickenson rather then Ye Olde Crimmes and Weynches Broadsheet...

    To say that poetry is a subset of Art, and that Art is a subset of the human experience is one thing, and probably true. Many people have little or no patience with the classical arts and take their inspiration from other places. But to look at popular culture and, from it's lack of poetry, to generalize that poetry is dead seems like a bit of a stretch. I suspect that a bird's-eye view of popular culture in 1067, or 1867, would have found that poetry was just as much a province of a relatively small group - perhaps even smaller than today's, given our greater accessibility to the printed word.

    So perhaps sometimes "Real Housewives" is just a cigar, and the reports of poetry's demise are greatly exaggerated?

  8. I actually think poets were once highly regarded. Now, at best, they are quaint. (Try telling the guy sitting next to you in the plane that you're a publishing poet and see what happens. ! )

    Anyone trying to make a living this way knows the score. Especially now.

  9. I would say, rather, that once poets and poetry was considered an essential attribute of High Art and attracted patrons from the wealthy and well-born who regarded them highly. And those less-well-to-do or less-well-born, seeing the patronage of poets by the rich, well-bred and able, cultivated a taste for poetry themselves. There was then, as there is now, a great mass of people who knew or cared nothing...but the mass opinion was less regarded itself back in the day.

    Now the common or pop culture is All. Many people treat art, music and poetry as affectations, or irrelevancies. So I would agree that in an age of Top 40 and grafitti art and movies, the classical High Arts ARE considered quaint by the vast majority, and may never return to the status that had in the pre-Electronic Age.

  10. Or - to moderate the last comment - perhaps I should say that poetry will continue to have a place as a niche element of modern culture. Perhaps a smaller niche than in previous times...but, then, everyone's niche is a bit smaller to accomodate the increased options.

    But because of the Rise of Pop Culture and the relative decline of Elite Culture, things like classical music and poetry will be less highly regarded in relative terms - although still loved by the smaller portion of the population that has always loved them - than in the past.


  11. Chief,

    I guess I think it's more complex than high-low...especially in the age of rap, slam, and electronic media (so many poets now publish exclusively on the web, either on blogs, or in electronic journals/media, or by simply hanging up their electronic press's hard to call poetry now "High Art" and get away with it.

    Conversely, those Orange County housewives are among the top 0.0000111% of wealth in America. They are FILTHY rich...and have "high art" gracing their walls...just not poetry on their shelves.

    But my point originally wasn't about the demise of poetry. We can debate that another time, I figure. I was rather commenting on the interesting connection of poetry/art with the term "authenticity"...with the sense of being an "authentic" individual, which frankly is a term--like "hero" or "love"--that is incredibly OVERUSED and OVERHYPED. My point is I'd like to know WTF "authentic" really is?