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Saturday, December 28, 2013

The new poetry?

Decades ago people stopped reading poetry. Perhaps it was because it was too esoteric, too irrelevant, or just too silly sounding. Maybe it was because there was a lot of bad poetry being written. In any case, beyond a few university presses and micro-journals there is very little print being devoted to poetry these days.

But writers of poetry abound. There is no small demand at creative writer workshops and MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) programs. Everybody wants to be the next Eliot, but no one wants to actually read Eliot.

The same fate, I fear, is due other arts. Local theater is dying. On a recent Saturday afternoon, the seats were empty at a pretty decent production of a Neil Simon play. Most of those present had come on a bus from a senior citizen home. I saw one person who might have been under thirty. Probably the driver of the bus.

If you are a painter, then you know how poets feel. Everybody wants to paint and draw; no one wants to pay for your work of genius.

Are you a ballet dancer? Then your fate is most likely--"So you think you can dance" aside--that of a teacher.

When was the last time you read a short story? A novel? Maybe a novel. For some reason novels, though way more time intensive than stories, still hang in there. Barely. I give it another ten years.

Dance, theater, art, poetry, writing. Doomed. But doomed in a quite interesting way. No one is buying, but there sure are a lot of participants. If you had a hundred people in a room you'd find a lot of people who love to dance, act, and write. Just that you'd also find no one who actually paid for someone else's art, and I think that is the key to the problem.

We still love entertainment. Harry Potter, anyone? Spider Man? Movies are more popular than ever. We love movies. Now, reading a story takes about as much time as looking at a film. Why the big discrepancy in audience? Maybe it is because people can write a story themselves--not that they all do, but it is conceivable to them that they could do so in theory. They can't picture themselves making a movie. Movies are grand things, like operas, that take an army of workers to produce. A story is a small affair, intimate, something that anyone might make oneself.

Perhaps what is happening is that if something can be done by ourselves, then it can't possibly be much good, or at least very important. Truly useful.

Are we suffering from a grand case of societal inferiority complex? If it is something we could produce ourselves, individually, then maybe it isn't worth consuming. We can all see ourselves act out parts from our vast experience watching TV and film, so we don't make that ticket reservation for the theater. It doesn't seem relevant to us. Why not instead go see that vacuous film about some superhero? "Why," we say to ourselves about the play or musical, "we could do that!"

And so it must not be that good. That entertaining. That important.

This is likely to be linked to the modern notion that things don't need work to be good. Just inborn talent. Genius. We don't need to struggle to learn an art for years and years. Turn up at "America's Got Talent" or "American Idol" or any of a dozen other like-minded shows and you will see performer after performer who is untrained and undisciplined. Just like us.

We want our artists to be born genius's fully formed. We want that to be ourselves too. But secretly we know, deep down, that true value in the arts is hard work. Worthy practitioners practice their craft hour after hour, laboring, sweating, panting.

But the effort seems so effortless on the big screen. On the page. On the stage. That's what we want: that effortlessness that comes from lazy genius.

The truth and the lie

A while back an acquaintance said that he only read nonfiction, as he was interested in the truth. Feeling like I needed to chime in, I said I read fiction for the same reason. I added that poetry was even more true than fiction (stories, novels, plays). Puzzled by this, I tried to explain it but I'm afraid I wasn't successful. I made the comparison that historical books (here I mean nonfiction, not historical period pieces) are like map-making. The author researches his topic like the geographer, then picks and chooses certain geographical data to include. To see that he needs to pick some and discard others is obvious: to include all data points, a map-maker would make a map as large as the earth (if that's what he's mapping). But we put too much weight here on "data points." The truth is so much more than "Mr Lincoln arrived at his law practice early on the morning of June 7th, 1837." The reader wants to know motives, reactions, emotions. These are often lost to history. The biographer can guess, of course, but then we enter the drama, the stagecraft of authors. We begin to encroach on the territory of fiction. Fiction gives us something that the historical data points cannot give us: the motivations of humans everywhere, the Everyman. What we don't have in data points is made up for in the truth of what we actually are. The truth of why we do things, the truth that inhabits our souls. You will find more truth in one paragraph of an Alice Munro story than you will find in an entire hagiography by Peggy Noonan. When the writing is unflinching, unblinking, fleshing out the human character at the core of all of us, then you can recognize truth and its rarity. Rare, since to write truthfully is to condemn yourself to its excesses, deviancies and joyful elevations both. It is to inhabit whatever it is--call it Truth--that is the same in all of us, amorphous souls that we are. The Syrians have a saying (so I have read) that goes something like this: There is nothing more beautiful than a well-constructed lie. (And we all have been told that beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is an Alice Munro story, but also it is true of any great writer of fiction, but not so of even the greatest of the writings of history, even Grant, and Churchill. Only a lie, it seems, can tell the truth.