Our Poetic Future, Global Province Letter, March 30, 2011

“One of the jobs of poetry is to make the unbearable bearable, not by falsehood but by clear, precise confrontation.” --Richard Wilbur in the Paris Review, 1977

Mount Holyoke College, 1960s.  Mount Holyoke, a college for women not much remarked on, is remarkable for inviting poets into its halls to utter refrains and put their imprimatur on South Hadley.  Many of the finest poets have served on poetry juries for competitions staged by the college. None of these poetic gatherings would qualify as slams, but rather as meditations in which civilization becomes more civilized. We listened to one such featuring Louise Bogan, Richard Wilbur, and one other poet who has flown out of our memory. This was academia at its best, and twas an atmosphere in which the somewhat soft-spoken Wilbur thrives.

Richard Woodward in the Wall Street Journal puts forward the contradiction Wilbur presents. “Richard Wilbur turns 90 on Tuesday, but it's unlikely that many Americans will stop to pay tribute to our finest living poet. Despite having earned almost every literary award this country has to offer, including a pair of Pulitzers and Bollingens, as well as the title of U.S. Poet Laureate in 1987-88, he has never enjoyed a rapt general following.”  He is a little gentle, certainly wry, someone who flows beneath the surface.  Wilbur may be out best, but we hardly know he is here.

Wilbur annoints the world with the sparkling dust of poetry, puttting a glow on the ordinary as in his “Loves Calls Us to the Things of This World,” from which we cite a few words:

    Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,   
The soul descends once more in bitter love   
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,   
    “Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;   
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,   
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating   
Of dark habits, keeping their difficult balance.”

While reciting this poem, Wilbur lumbers on a bit, such that we may miss his drift--
that poetry and emotion can transform the commonplace.

Billy's Beat, Billy Rap. Billy Collins rhymes closer to the street, and it is no wonder that he honors Lawrence Ferlinghetti of the Beats whose Coney Island of the Mind uses very familiar places to take us into elusive states of consciousness.  These words, stolen from Billy’s The Trouble with Poetry, make him more of the American street fighter, ready to do battle to get his message heard:

Poetry fills me with joy
and I rise like a feather in the wind.
Poetry fills me with sorrow
and I sink like a chain flung from a bridge.

But mostly poetry fills me
with the urge to write poetry,
to sit in the dark and wait for a little flame
to appear at the tip of my pencil.

And along with that, the longing to steal,
to break into the poems of others
with a flashlight and a ski mask.

And what an unmerry band of thieves we are,
cut-purses, common shoplifters,
I thought to myself
as a cold wave swirled around my feet
and the lighthouse moved its megaphone over the sea,
which is an image I stole directly
from Lawrence Ferlinghetti --
to be perfectly honest for a moment --

the bicycling poet of San Francisco
whose little amusement park of a book
I carried in a side pocket of my uniform
up and down the treacherous halls of high school

His kinetic poetry, as in his reading, speaks of America’s restlessness and compulsiveness.

What does it all matter?  Wilbur.  Billy Collins. What do they matter to themselves or America?  In modern times, this is what we all ask about poetry.  Is it easy enough to read or listen to, so that Tom, Dick, and Harry may make something out of it?  Does it speak to our concerns? Does it move the world?  Andrew Wessels of Istanbul and Las Vegas happily theorizes that it is a very detached from a world of rampant materialism and global capitalism, thinking this a good thing.  Its value arises, in his eyes, because it is a rejection of a world askew.

Eugene Schlanger, also known as the Wall Street Poet, thinks the poet has a responsibility to be engaged with his world, focusing his work on the key issues of our society and the events of our past. In this view, the poet in part is a historian.

This could be rather confusing.  There’s an argument for being elusive and not too much of this world. Another for being more in touch with one’s society.  Billy Collins says he has to write poetry in any event, no matter his audience, no matter his impact.  But does he not have a place in the sun?

Particularity.  Indeed, now, much more than ever, there’s a need for poetic voices.  We have said elsewhere that the survival of our economy depends on our ability to create totally unique products and services, unique experiences that cannot be duplicated by low cost imitators.  Poetry can play a part. Poetry has the ability to stamp something with one-of-a-kind, unique-to-this-place, special- to-this-time plumage.  As Wilbur has grasped, it can transform the commonplace, overcoming the sameness and mass-market cookie cutter aspect that flows out of a global economy. Poetry might become the language of our commerce as we reckon with globalism.  As we struggle to get to work again and get on with our future, we require a different language that blots out the lingo of mass-market thinking and calls for a patois of uniqueness.

P.S.  Nicolai Ouroussoff’s “Eccentricity Gives Way to Uniformity in Museums” is a very astute reading of how museums are swimming in the wrong direction. Many—the Getty, the Gardner, the Barnes, and more—are going through palatial expansions, expensive but pedestrian.  The whimsical and original have been cast aside. In other words, they are rejecting the particularity which we and some others think is the key to the future.




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