Poetry is dead TV tells our tales

December 07, 1997|By Glenn McNatt

ON THE LONG drive back from Grandma's last weekend, our 15-year-old spent the entire trip in the back seat memorizing rap lyrics off her Walkman.

It was, I'm afraid, a sad but telling commentary on the status of poetry today. The great works have already been written, and they are still worth reading. But the rest is dross.

As practiced by our contemporary bards, poetry is a literary form that simply has outlived its usefulness.

Before you call me a philistine, just ask yourself: "How often do I curl up by the fireside with a slender volume of verse?"

Now be honest. The answer is: "Never."

In fact, nobody reads poetry anymore except those earnest but misguided souls laboring away in university creative writing programs, who are made to read each other's stuff in order to reap the meager psychic rewards of a ludicrous degree.

Even their teachers don't have the heart to tell them they are wasting their time -- "useless mouths," as Mao would say.

The truth is, whatever they write is utterly irrelevant because the traditional functions of poetry -- to transmit myths, celebrate gods and honor the transcendent and exceptional via the spoken word -- have all been taken over by the electronic mass media.

It is the electronic media, not our poets, who now tell us who we are, if not why we're here.

Novels and the theater bravely soldier on, mainly to provide narrative fodder for the voracious maw of TV, movies and music videos, which may be the last miserable refuge of rhymed verse.

But poetry in the traditional sense, as epic narrative or lyrical expression of the murmuring heart, is dead. What's left is a rotting corpse waiting to be burned.

Recall that the origins of poetry lie in anamnesis. Poetic language was the media of preliterate, tribal society, in which the values, beliefs and history of the group were transmitted orally from generation to generation.

The multifarious devices of poetic speech -- rhythm, meter, rhyme, simile and metaphor, synecdoche and onomatopoeia -- are all in their origins aids to memory.

Homer reminds us a hundred times of "cunning Odysseus" and "fair Helen," lest their attributes be forgotten over a thousand years of telling and retelling.

Dante wrote triple rhymes mainly to help listeners recall the high points of his verses. Shakespeare's dramatic couplets served double duty as pithy aphorisms and as prompts for his actors' entrances and exits.

The rise of the novel in the 18th century began the long process of poetry's displacement as the preeminent form of "serious" literature.

The novel's ascendancy was made possible by a new technology, the printing press, and a new medium, the printed book, which were themselves responses to the spread of literacy among a rising middle class.

Aside from sentimental throwbacks like Tennyson, epic verse disappeared in the 19th century. But there remained a vestigial place for lyric poetry, which recorded the individual artist's private, often anguished response to the overwhelming forces of industrialization and urbanization that were transforming Europe and America.

Lyric verse heralded the advent of modernism at the turn of the 20th century, and up until the 1960s, at least, serious-minded young people were still reading Yeats, Eliot, Auden and Pound to comprehend the world into which they had been born.

No more. Poetry is an anachronism in the postmodern era, though legions of would-be bards continue to scribble slender volumes no one will ever read.

The other night I watched Ken Burns' epic documentary "The Civil War" for the umpteenth time on public TV, and it struck me that this magnificent history is for all practical purposes the "Iliad" and "Odyssey" of our time.

After the program was over, I picked up a volume of verse by a respected contemporary poet and read a short piece about a shooting in a nightclub bathroom.

It was not a bad poem, and it might even have been considered important if it had been written 50 years ago.

But it seemed irrelevant today, when the poet's ear for streetwise patter is more forcefully realized on a rap CD and her story so much better told on an episode of "Homicide."

Poetry today seems to be in a crisis comparable to that which afflicted painting in the mid-19th century after the invention of photography. Then, the camera's ability to reproduce reality mechanically drove painting to embrace abstraction.

Likewise, the electronic media's appropriation of poetry's mythic and lyric function ought to inspire today's poets to push their art in a new direction, toward its own unique realm. But that's not happening.

Instead, what we have are barely literate rappers, coffeehouse slammers dishing up warmed-over drivel from the '60s, corps of soulless aesthetes offering imitation angst to the human-potential set, and legions of studious poet manques churning out mediocre verses in obscure publications whose impact on the cultural life of the nation is exactly zero.

And you wonder why I think poetry is dead? Open your nostrils and inhale the stench of decomposition.

Pub Date: 12/07/97

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