Movie rights to a sonnet
Meg Sorick wrote on my blog yesterday and suggested that poetry had flown out of our world. Here are her words: “Poets used to be rock stars. And not that I feel like poetry has fallen from popularity, because Lord knows it’s all over the place in social media and the blogging world. But I cannot think of one famous contemporary poet. And I’m not talking about famous people who also write poetry. How did that happen?”
Meg’s is a very acute observation. My reply follows. I have changed it slightly from my reply on yesterday’s blog, expanding and annotating it.
“You raise a series of major questions, Meg, ones I have been thinking about for a long time. What is poetry? Has it vanished from our contemporary world? Is poetry as important as it was? If not, why not?”
I will begin with one of my favorite jokes. I made it as an author and a poet: ‘I cannot wait to be offered the movie rights for one of my sonnets.’ Movie rights to a sonnet: beautiful. I love it.
Baltasar Gracián, writing in Seventeenth Century Spain, penned the following: “Lo bueno, breve, dos veces bueno.” What is good and brief is twice as good.
I quote Baltasar Gracián for several reasons. Above all, what he wrote in the 1600’s is still true today. Perhaps, in this age of tweets, twitter, and sound bytes, it is more relevant than ever. Poetry: keep it short. Keep it brief. I would add one more piece of advice: make it memorable.
The rhetorical tools of poetry have never really changed. Reduced to their minima, they are metaphor, witticisms, snappy word plays, repetition, rhyme, rhythm, brevity, and cutting, memorable discourse.
Today, this is the language of advertisement, sound byte, twitter, tweets, labeling. Poetry hasn’t vanished: it has descended to its lowest common rhetorical denominators and today it serves a different purpose.
Trump, for example, is a magnificent poet. He relabels and reclassifies the world in oh-so-memorable epithets according to his own world-view and self-interpretation. As a destroyer and re-creator of language, he is magnificent. We may not like him. We may not always understand him, but we doubt and mock, to our peril, his poetic abilities and his abilities to create narrative and myth in sharp, memorable language.
Rap and hip-hop have also revitalized and politicized language. Poetry is not dead: it has taken to the street where it blends with twitter and tweet. Poetry is not dead: it is regenerating.
Poetry, in our contemporary world, has lost many things. Above all it has lost what the academic critics call The Grand Myth or the Grand Narrative. In The Great Code, Northrop Frye’s book on literature and the bible, the Canadian critic shows how English literature is dependent on the bible. The bible: a code, a poetic language spoken by all great poets. I would suggest that we have now lost that great code and we are no longer bound, in poetry at least, by biblical conventions.
We can say the same of other great codes, The Elizabethan World Picture, The Great Chain of Being, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Courtly Love … codes come and go. They wander the hillsides like lost sheep. They migrate like people.
Migrate like people: a lucky phrase, plucked from the air, yet oh so true. Migrants, emigrants, immigrants: displaced people, we wander the physical world, each with our own set of cultural baggage. Dissatisfied people: we have left one place to travel to another and are unhappy in both. And remember, there are regional migrants, workplace migrants, weather migrants … wanderers all, they have no time to put down roots, to settle into a code of culture.
Ut populi, poesis / as people, so poetry: fragmented poetry, poetry linked to the intensely personal, poetry that reaches out to friend and family but does not extend to a universal code of language, culture, or being … in our current world, how could it?
We few, we happy few, we band of siblings, we cultured poets … we are the forgotten voices of the ivory tower, of an ivy-league academia. We have become immersed in the past, in our own navel-gazing, in the never-never land of things that probably never were and definitely will never again be.
Sitting at our computers, at our desks, at our kitchen tables, we will never connect with the rhythms of the street, of the soup kitchen, of poverty, of bag-ladies, of old men sitting outside the supermarket, their Tim Hortons cups in their hands, hoping for, begging for money. Migrants we may be, but migrating from where, to where, and why? Is my migration similar to your migration? I very much doubt it. Yet, in one way or another, each of us is a migrant. And all migrants pack their own bags carrying with them their memories, their myths, and all too often their native language.
You want poetry? Get out among the gente perduta, the lost people, the garbage cans, the back alleys, the panhandlers. Mix with the migrants. Stand for an hour at the traffic lights with your hand held out to stopped cars whose drivers roll up the windows, lock all the doors, hold their noses, and look the other way.
The nymphs and shepherds of our inner cities wear garbage bags to keep out the rain. They panhandle. They sleep at night in cardboard castles. They lodge in shop doorways. They sleep, poor shepherds and shepherdesses, on park benches. They shoot themselves full of dope with shared, blunt needles. They smoke dope. Drink alcohol from shared bottles. They fight so as not to share that one remaining bottle that they call their own.
Poetry is the voice of the deprived, of the indigenous, of the migrant, of the once-rich toppled from their jobs and left to drown in the gutter. Poetry is the voice of the left out, the abandoned, the depressed, the oppressed. It is the rust of the rust belt, the grind of locked gears, the language of muddled, mixed-up fears.
Poetry uses the same devices as it always did. As it always will. Like water, it flows. It seeks its own levels. It wears away stone. It rises to drown us. It carries our verbal arks, our cultural arks, our Noah’s arks, and it bears us, each and every one of us, into our dreams, out of our dreams, into our realities, into the worlds it creates for us, into the dreams it allows us to dream, into the realities of our everyday nightmares.
Poetry is the rediscovery of ourselves, our voices, our language. Poetry is what gives meaning to our lives, all of our lives. It is what makes us, even now, sit up, and listen, and learn, and live.