On one of my community library visits as Vermont poet laureate, I was delighted to meet a certain local farmer: he was no newcomer or wannabe or refugee Wall Street broker unconvincingly duded out in barn duds. No, this fellow was the real thing – redolent of the barn itself, possessed of the wonderful old-time accent now vanishing into the world of screen culture and robotized telephone calls. I’d noticed him holding a book during the presentation, and now I asked him about it. The volume turned out to be Frost’s Mountain Interval. When I said how I prized that volume, he gently challenged me: “How many poems can you say from it?” I boasted that I could likely do three entire, to which he replied, just as gently, “I can say ‘em all.” (That’s how Frost himself always put it: to “say” a poem.)
Indeed he could, as I gathered from quizzing him, not on “The Road Not Taken” nor on “The Oven Bird” but on less famous things like “An Encounter” or “The Gum-Gatherer.”
That moment remains a joy to recall, and I got to reflecting on it lately when I came upon yet another poem from a super-prominent national publication that proved inscrutable (at least to me). At the start, and not for the first time, I worried that, having just turned seventy, I was falling into the age-old geezer’s trap: if it’s new and I don’t understand it, then there must be something wrong with it. Clearly the magazine’s poetry editor, a bright and decent guy, sees qualities in such poetry that I don’t. I try to be decent, so it’s maybe that I’m not bright – or at least not anymore. But.
But let’s consider, all but at random, a poem by Rae Armentrout, who in 2010 won the Pulitzer for poetry.
Tense and tenuous
grow from the same root
as does tender
in its several guises:
the sour grass flower;
the yellow moth.
I would not confuse
with the spurious.
is a sore thumb
while the spurious
as fish and circuses.
Ms. Armentrout is associated with a movement called Language Poetry, which sees itself as more “postmodern” than postmodernism proper, whatever that may be. Its adherents, guided in significant measure by Gallic literary theory, claim that what we call “meaning” is merely an artifice, that we’re misguided to see any direct relation between a word and what it refers to. Language controls meaning, not vice-versa.
Now part of this conviction seems accurate, but at the same time, once you get by the jargon, also pretty darned simple. Anyone who has written “creatively” for a week – or anyone, period – knows that you can’t type the word hamburger, for example, then sit down and eat the thing. Having waded through the theory, you arrive, I think, at truism.
As I say, I’m old enough as not particularly to care anymore what the professionally hip think of my opinions, so I don’t risk much when I suggest that there’s a lot of hooey involved here, or, if not hooey, at least misprision as to what poetry can and should accomplish. Would the farmer I described at the outset take time to memorize Ms. Armentrout’s poem? I’m betting not, but does that mean he is fool or Philistine? Again, I’m betting not. A lot of us poets may lament our relative dearth of readership, blaming it, say, on American consumerism, the blight of TV, video games, and, precisely, Philistinism; but too few of us turn the lens on ourselves. If we want readers, we should be readable. This means in part that we must be generous enough to invite non-specialists into our poems. When he read the most famous entry in Mountain Interval, I’m certain my farmer at least understood how the poet once stood at a fork in a woodsy road. That’s specific and clear in context. When I see a specific reference in “And,” however, I can’t contextualize it at all.
Let me quote the speculation of another prominent Language poet. Lyn Hejinian tells us that
Language is nothing but meanings, and meanings are nothing but a flow of contexts. Such contexts rarely coalesce into images, rarely come to terms.They are transitions, transmutations, the endless radiating of denotation into relation.
I once had some obligation to follow this sort of commentary, and I can still more or less do so. But would my Frost-loving farmer – or any of the other bright, book-loving folks that show up for my library talks – be enlightened to know that the experience of Mountain Interval is one of witnessing “the endless radiating of denotation into relation?” I have my doubts.
And here, for me, is a related irony. The theorists of much inscrutable contemporary poetry bill themselves as political leftists. Listen to their rhetoric, and you’ll find them dead set against elitism and traditional authority. But just as I noticed how few “progressive” professors at the local prestige college volunteered, when the economy went bust, to have their six-figure salaries reduced in the interest of retaining jobs for cooks and groundskeepers and custodians, I notice that these cutting-edge poets and their advocates seem rather indifferent to the tastes and pleasures of the very people whose dignity and rights they claim to champion.
But maybe I am just confusing the bogus with the spurious.