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Zachary Jean Chartkoff
Mining the Peaks and Digging the Slopes:
the Mountainous State of American Poetry

I think that what poets do is decipher silence.” — Ekiwah Adler Beléndez

I. Poetry: The Opposite of Silence?

In 1952, the experimental American musician John Cage produced the achievement for which he remains most famous: the composition 4′33″, an entire performance in which not a single note was played. This was, in short, a piece which compelled the audience to focus on their internal and surrounding environments — all the small noises of the audience, the silences, the fidgeting, the murmuring and talking, their own reactions and anxieties – rather than any sounds or actions emanating from the stage. That was the performance: all four minutes and thirty-three seconds of it.

It might seem odd to look to one pivotal moment in another art form in order to understand American poetry's own path. However, Cage's performance that night — or, rather, his lack of performance — presents a concise focal point for understanding the artistic arc that American poetry has followed for the past several decades, the “state” of American poetry as it stands now, and the trajectory that I might hope it takes into the future. What Cage accomplished with this performance was to launch an aesthetic in which the act of simply putting a work forward was rendered more important than any artistic merit the work might or might not contain. In this mode of artistic interpretation, one could even go so far as to say that judging art on any aesthetic criteria was missing the point. The question of the artist and his or her skills (or lack thereof) was removed from the equation. Instead, the entire responsibility for appreciation fell directly on the shoulders of the viewer.

A similar philosophy took hold in the poetry world by poets championing the move away from the tenets of modernism in the 1970’s. Whilst Cage created experimental silences and soundscapes against which listeners could project their moods and interpretations, these experimental and postmodern poets sought to create wordscapes that played with the tones, appearance, and qualities of language. Along with these new poetic priorities, an emphasis on “freedom” over form emerged; in the same way that modernism became a reaction to the 19th century’s love of construct and rules, so too did postmodern poetry become a reaction to the very long shadow modernism had cast. And, if the linguistic texture didn’t resonate, if the viewer, the reader or the critic didn't “get” what postmodern poets were trying to do – well, one could always say that was due to his or her short-comings, not the artist or material presented.

Where has this led us? I have heard that we live in an age of “anything goes” in our poetry; however, the results have been far from liberating and refreshing. In recent years our poetry journals and anthologies have been filled with verse that is simultaneously amorphous and rather incomprehensible to anyone other than the poet writing it. This is not, of course, an isolated American phenomenon; Lord Byron wrote as much in the opening pages of Don Juan: “... Coleridge, too, has lately taken wing,/ ... Explaining metaphysics to the nation —/ I wish he would explain his Explanation.” Or, in a slightly more earthy tone, we keep producing poetry that is, as Garrison Keillor once put it, “like a used condom on the beach; evidence that somebody was here once and had an experience but not of great interest to the passerby.”

Ironically, the views of the 1960s and '70s that were once experimental, countercultural, and marginal have now moved into the halls of academe and our literary journals. And thus views that were once seen as edgy thirty or forty years ago now get far too much time in the editorials and letters to the editors, in the pages of Poetry and The American Poetry Review, in the endlessly snip and squabble over such topics as “Have We Seen The Death of Form?” (which is about as useful an argument as two auto mechanics bickering over whether the A-frame of a car is really all that necessary or not) and “Is _________ [fill in the blank with poet of choice] Controversial Enough?” and “What Is Truly Indicative of Individuality and Personal Freedoms In _________ [fill in the blank with poem of choice]?” In short, the former avant-garde is now the new Old Guard, “king of the mountain” of academic poetry.

II. American Poetry: A View From the Road

It is about 8 am on a morning in October, 2006, and my wife and I are in a department store on the road that leads from the motel where we stayed to the restored colonial Waterloo Village in Stanhope, New Jersey; the home of the Geraldine R. Dodge poetry festival. Apparently we are not very good at packing for the autumn weather: it was much colder at night than we expected, and much damper overall, and we found ourselves searching for warmer hats, gloves, scarves, and fleecy blankets that would help ward off the chill that even 17,000 other poetry fans packed into various performance tents could not.

To attend such a gathering, to be part of such a large mass of people all there to enjoy poetry, says something entirely different about the state of American poetry than what we might glean from the endless dissection and go-nowhere conversations in our academic poetry journals. While the array of poetry on display here is not free of the cryptic, the intellectual, or the narcissistic, I am also confronted with poetic voices reminding me of the power of poetry to confront immediate human experience, to uplift, and to inspire — and, when done well, to do so without resorting to romanticism and egotistical self-indulgence. My poet-friend Ruelaine says she goes to the Dodge because it helps rejuvenate her, helps her to fall in love with poetry all over again. I can see why; tent after tent crowded with people eager to listen, to learn, to cheer and delight; it becomes very infectious.

What I find the most inspiring about such events and gatherings is that people other than poets are willing to sit in the rain and cold, shell out hard-earned cash for books and tickets and return again and again all because they share a single common interest: they love poetry. Furthermore, the Dodge isn't something that happened one or two hundred years ago, an event that we must look back at with nostalgia. This, and events like it, are happening right now. If you can judge a nation by the way they treat their poets, then perhaps America isn't doing too badly, all considered.


III. American Poetry: Back at Home

As we wind our way down the “mountain” that is American poetry, from the scholars and critics on high down to its very base, we come finally to the ways in which poetry is produced and experienced in our everyday lives in our own communities. And here is where we find remedy to the consumerism, hyper-analysis, and compulsive labeling of mainstream poetry in the form of open mic poetry readings found in almost every city in America, large and small.

The German artist Kathe Kollwitz has said that we exist in a time when art is so highly marketed that we start to believe that art and artists are something that come from afar, totally devoid of anything we might recognize in our daily lives. Once we begin making poetry at a grassroots level, however, we realize that poetry belongs just as much to us than it does to the distant halls of academia.

My hometown of Lansing, Michigan, has been nurturing such open mic poetry readings since the late 1960s and 1970s. Economically Lansing is in ruins – closed factories, high unemployment – and yet, like the Dodge festival, we have a loyal population of people who return again and again to listen to what their poets have to say. Why is this? In a nut shell, I believe, open mics work because they are small town democracy at its best; they are totally inclusive, not only do they operate under the premise that everyone can write poetry but also that everyone deserves the opportunity to share it with others. It is not that certain poetry styles are destined to go the way of the Dodo; rather, we are seeing a population that is tired of the silence that isolates the poet from criticism, isolates the audience from the poem. We are seeing a resurgence of people who believe that poetry really does matter, that it does change lives, that it does speak for everyone and they want to be connected to it.

IV. New Antidotes for Silence?

John Cage's experiment on letting silence do the talking for an artist was just that: an experiment and one that stopped being interesting years ago. I am sure that as time moves on, American poetry will head in ways I can't even fathom now. However, the idea that inaccessibility somehow equates with depth and skill has, I hope, run its course. Poets can no longer claim that it is a challenge to be cryptic, or to create clever word salad, or to break free of form. Instead, the challenge that should be set before us is to become more lucid, more relevant, more connected to the reader.

Billy Collins echoes this in his introduction to The Best American Poetry 2006 when he explains what makes bad poetry: “Often, I fail to hear a human voice speaking to me. Too many poems seem oblivious to my presence and not the least interested in my participation as a reader.” This is rather ironic if you consider that according to Cage's dictum it is up to the reader alone to give meaning to the poet's chaos.

Personally, I delight in the idea that public poetry readings have the ability to put a human face on an art form that continually runs the danger of being elitist; as if poetry was a secret code only the poet understands. From where I stand, the poetry movement that seems to be thriving and growing in America right now is the one that is slowly being taken out of the hands of academic poets and the publishing elite who see poetry as a means to an end in their little lives and back into the hands of those who still delight in why we write, read and share poetry – our wild exhilaration with words and sound and form.

 

 

 

 

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