The Blog Bog

                               ...Table of Contents                      ...Home                                  
The Blog Bog

                     By Matthew Paris


  Poetry In Search Of A Public 

As I look at the varies online blogs featuring poetry or poets in the late autumn of 2016 I wonder what could be on the minds of those who run these chamber enterprises or those who contribute to them. One offers "submission strategies", a turn of language which implies they are a cabal of analytical masochists. Another presents prose dressed up to look like poetry about political causes whose gravitational banalities have the leaden chicken-fat sentiment if not the skill of the late Edgar Guest.

A third group writes about the Homeless. One of them, Daniel Canada, writes very well. I certainly have personal charity for the Homeless; can one say any of them are stalwarts of a community life that we all hope to embrace? Would we call upon them to defend us all from barbarians at the gates? Is this focus on misfortune and collapse of some people really what attracts anyone to poetry, poetry or a public? If we all practiced genteel schadenfreude it might have an audience.     It's worth asking why poetry every had a public. One can see in Homer who much a public might resonate to stories in which life is veer difficult, fortune sometimes out of one's hands. My father was very much a fan of Swinburne. Swinburne was alive in my father's childhood. My own involvement with padre began as an adolescent when I admired not just the wisdom and talent of Milton or Shakespeare but their courage in having onions that sometimes offended a more conventional assembly of people. "Us he devours" is still a pretty disturbing prose. 

Sometimes since the triumph of any successful audacity it to become a banality the lines of what takes bravery to embrace aren't clear. I still admire Shelley, Keats and Byron for their freethinking spirits. For the same reasons I love Schiller and on another level, Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Lautreamont.

I would say that all of us including Marlowe and Shakespeare to the present have been on some side of a populist revolution in the West that has my lifetime giving some lawful franchise here and three to the common people. As much as we might praise the firebrands of the Italian Renaissance

like Bruno and Pico della Mirandola the first waves of such commoner revolutionaries were Protestants who had read the Bible and realized it was a revolutionary tome about freedom from autocrats. There might be five folks named Hapsburg who have not been part of this attempt at social elevation.

Whether I like it or not I am part of this populist revolution. Luckily, I like it. I have never pretended to be a gentleman. My grandparents were artisans and small businessmen but they started as street peddlers. My great grandfather sold knishes. As Al Smith put it, I am the rabble. I am even worse than the rabble; I am a direct descendent of the ancient Hebrew leaders of the most famous rabble in history. Admittedly my parents were professionals; they were also connected with the Socialist Party. My father ran for state Assemblyman for the Socialist Parity in the late 20s. He was much more of a nihilist and later a Bergsonian than he was ever a socialist but those distinctions didn't matter in a world in which he was one of the common people. The populace always shares the same antagonists. We could give many names to the diverse and Hydra-headed actions of the populist revolution in the West but it all led after some bloody centuries to our current imperfect and rough social equality.     My great grandparents and grandparents were part of the political revolution that has led to this relative equality in this country today compared to a hundred and forty years ago. They didn't look to specious healers to improve their self image for being able to do nothing. They proved their case in the mean and large world of Nature.

My great grandparents were the best bakers in Williamsburg. Even in the 21st century I was able to pay off my son's college loans with the money my grandfather had left his daughter and then me. His son, my father, wrote poetry either comically or in the nihilistic manner of Swinburne. He was our first poet. That side of my family exemplified John Adams' epigram that his generation became generals so that the next one could be philosophers. My other grandfather was equally one who elevated himself as a resident polymath after starting as a peddler on Orchard Street.

Nobody patronized or helped any of these people. Nobody tried on salary to elevate their self image or protect them from stress. They had plenty of stress. These generations remade America on the ground level. We are the public for poetry.

My great grandparents were the best bakers in Williamsburg. Even in the 21st century I was able to pay off my son's college loans with the money my grandfather had left his daughter and then me. His son, my father, wrote poetry either comically or in the nihilistic manner of Swinburne. He was our first poet. That side of my family exemplified John Adams' epigram that his generation became generals so that the next one could be philosophers. My other grandfather was equally one who elevated himself as a resident polymath after starting as a peddler on Orchard Street.

Nobody patronized or helped any of these people. Nobody tried on salary to elevate their self image or protect them from stress. They had plenty of stress. These generations remade America on the ground level. We are the public for poetry.

John Adams' epigram might remind us that the past was spent by nearly all life forms, not only humanity, desperately growing old fast but not quite starving to death. Any intermezzo such as this one that give us time for reflection and poetry is not a luxury the species is prearmed for.     Yet this public is the core American audience for poetry. One should know the difference between a small coterie of the fey who talk to each other and an audience. As Milton says, Pandemonium is field with parodies of heavenly life, "darkens made visible". 

The public of Marlowe and Shakespeare had been an English London audience who felt they would benefit by attending public assemblies at which these freethinking geniuses offered their vertiginous meditations on freedom and power. Cromwell banned theatre because theatre was his rival.

The Blog Bog Cont...




It's no less true about American poets later including Whitman and Carl Sandberg. They ran virtual publici assemblies. The public for poetry isn't a coterie of seekers of hermetic ideas or sentimental party lines. This audience wants the audacious, the unthinkable, the disturbing, to chew upon. It puts the burden on the poets themselves to be the sort of talents and thinkers who can produce that kind of fare.

It's hardly a common standard for acceptability in human beings. We don't want to hear the unthinkable from a plumber.

If the English were defeated militarily in the American revolution they still dominated the United State culturally into the 20th century and beyond. They are good at what they do. I really don't want to trash English couture. If perhaps the world could have done without its empire it's predicate some of the best poets in the world. It's tradition of low Protestant freethinking is all by itself admirable. Given the other empires, a dreadful bunch, one might like Edward Gibbon even praise the British one.

In our country, a departure form England, Whitman forged his populist style from two sources: the King James Bible and McPhereson's Ossian. They both were books about subjugated people's revolting in another time and place from some kind of fashionable Egypt.

If Whitman's heros were common people Walt Whitman didn't have a public among them in his lifetime. He was valued first by the English and French. That is equally true of Poe. Neither of them could make a living n America. My friend, Norman Rosten, would put up Carl Sandberg when he came to Brooklyn. They were both men who were expert house guests since it was the cheapest form of travel. Sandberg was canny enough to write a biography of Abraham Lincoln and retire to a goat farm in North Carolina. Somehow the value of goats became part of his run of shibboleths. During Sandberg's day poetry had a public. Sandberg, an old anarchist, used to go out with his guitar and sing American ditties to promote it. I was one of his public. I saw him do it.

Many other poeots after 1945 or so were working for the collage system, an instrument of promoting oligarchy that to put it politely had no agendas that include American populism. If somebody even mentioned they were interested in life in American in those days one was viewed by the colleges as some sort of sheathed Bolshevik. Yet there was always a few poets like Kenneth Fearing who talk the street parlance of Americanese into verses that had the sound of American boulevards. I'm glad I never mentions Kenneth Fearing in college. Son of a gun, I might have been bounced. As it was I read Henry Miller's effusions in editing that were passed around dormitories as if they were pornography. That's how I read Allen Ginsberg's Howl. Allen had a natural public.

I was first attracted to the poetry scene in the early 60s because the ones I took in like Paul Blackburn, Ed Sanders or Tuli Kupferbeg were comfortable thinking the unthinkable. A few of them took the route we associate with Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, the Fugs and Lou Reed. Obviously pop music had a public.

The decision of those 60s poets and bards to embrace the public wasn't at the time valued much even by rock promoters. Tuli told me the Fugs could not get gigs. I heard as much later from Lou Reed about his early days in the Velvet Underground. If it hadn't been for John Hammond, Andy Warhol, George Avakian and other such people of power they never would have reached their audience. One of the advantages rock music has over peaty is that its patrons, some of them Mafiosi, are just as scruffy and socially rebellious as its performers. What kills poetry partially is the empty genteel character of its managers. I hope in this admittedly very sketchy reminisce that I've suggested inferentially some of the ways poets and poetry could reach a public in the present. In a popular republic the audience is going to be vulgar in the old Roman sense. That doesn't mean they are coarse; it rather notes that they are often blue collar survivalist, sons of them, or one step from such actions that one can take anywhere and thrive in the wilderness or near-wilderness.

In Europe many poets like Garcia-Lorca forged a style that came from an amalgam of folk materials, Greek myths and imploded surrealistic imagery. Lorca at least had a short hand in his weaponry in how common people in Spain or rather citizens of Grenada talked in the streets. He was the ambassador of Grenada populism to Madrid. We don't have comparable models in the United States for a poetic a career. Some people in the suburbs come from nowhere. Other people in our inner cities would have liked to have come from nowehre. It would be a step up.

London was once somewhere. Bertrand Russell had an old aunt who was still angry at Shelley. She hated him but she read him. Shelley had a public.

If one goes right at the public one deserves as Whitman and Sandberg did one then has to face a disdainful delivery system not interested in promoting them, their verses or the sense of honoring the local reality of an America audience. They are still marginalized as Reds, pornographers, louts, whatever. They in fact are liable to die unknown and broke. Unknown is okay in America; broke is not so good. Yet our delivery systems for anteing from poetry to politics would rather go broke and sell hot dogs on the street than honor the mere physical existence of our populace. One can make of that disdain what one pleases.

London was once somewhere. Bertrand Russell had an old aunt who was still angry at Shelley. She hated him but she read him. Shelley had a public.

If one goes right at the public one deserves as Whitman and Sandberg did one then has to face a disdainful delivery system not interested in promoting them, their verses or the sense of honoring the local reality of an America audience. They are still marginalized as Reds, pornographers, louts, whatever. They in fact are liable to die unknown and broke. Unknown is okay in America; broke is not so good. Yet our delivery systems for anteing from poetry to politics would rather go broke and sell hot dogs on the street than honor the mere physical existence of our populace. One can make of that disdain what one pleases.

The Blog Bog Cont...



We can all make a list of causes and carnal tastes of the last century that poets have attached themselves to; each of them has in common with the others that they never had any more at most than a very small public for their enthusiasms or no poetry audience at all. I won't offer my own list since I am a polite man and don't want to offend anybody. I will suggest that any reader of this essay make that list for themselves and gently weep.

One can't impose on Americans any set of ideas or actions that at best have a small decadent fashion among parlor revolutionaries and various epicurean folks on the Upper West Side. European notions of reality tend to be wafted out from some clubhouse of nobles, monetary inhabitants or demimonde decadents. One can't do that in America. Accepting that check, then one might ask: what might enthuse an audience in our time to be a public if somehow one could et past the lack of a delivery system?

America now is not the country that Whitman and Sandberg were writing about. We are an oligarchy who had passed working class labor on to Asia; we hire Mexican workers as much as possible. We do best as Gibbon said as rogues in a weak empire. We are altered moral by what our politicks does as much as what we do. There are a few prose authors who have taken them up: James Ellroy, Tracy Letts. Someone even made a movie starring Sam Shepard out of Letts' excoriating and incendiary Osage Country play.

Does it make a difference to our world in the way we could say Homer or Shelley did? Tracy Letts has a nice life in Chicago. He is still working at IO in Improv. His pals include the Steppenwolf theatre in Chicago. Ellroy goes around places like Oxford where he is appreciated saying, no, no, no, he was never influenced by Dostoyevsky.

What did our predecessors in poetry in this situation do? Wait for an Egyptian interment? James Whitecomb Riley joined the circus. His readings were part of the sideshow. Joaquin Miller went to England where they admired him. George Sterling was no stranger to a tavern. Allen Ginsberg lived very furgally to put it politely. His apartment didn't even have heat. They kept the stove on all the time in the winter. The toilets in the hall were stuffed. It was a career move worthy of Diogenes. I think one might begin by asking whom the public for poetry might be. The populace has always been since George Washington's time a group not unhappy with violence as the great equalizer, rather narrow in whom they value as their kindred, not apical troubled by moving into realms beyond good and evil when good hasn't made a case for itself. One should aspect as much in a nation of escapees. This is a country manned by a prison break. If we want as poets to wear the laurels of Milton and Shelley how do we speak to this public?

We might go at it directly like Letts and Ellroy. Both these prose warders focus on the alterations of character that occur when we buy into an empire. It's a very similar view to Ginsberg's Howl and USA, the famous 1930s trilogy by Dos Passons. To write that kind of poetry we have to be able to understand that level of debarment ourselves along with the rage it invokes in the soul.

Sometimes one's own legacy helps one to embrace such stances. Dos Passons and Ellroy are bastards. Ellroy's mother was a prostitue. Letts whom I've met briefly is careful to protect his survivalist Chicago world. Ginsberg's mother was nuts. It didn't help him if he wanted to be a weapons manufacturer or Wall Street broker to be Jewish, homosexual and a leonine fellow somewhere between a libertarian and a Red. Sometimes our fortune has a neutrality about it we may not immediately recognize.

For a poet to have a public, to regain his place and value in our society he has to make his way through all the mendacities that our Pandemoniums have offered gulls in the last century. Poetry cannot be written by everybody. It is a lot more than "exprsssing one's feelings". It isn't about Therapy either, whatever that might be.

Poeots aren't city hospital outpatients. Even if they are Jack Micheline, an amusing dilettante bum, they are the most intelligent and courageous people in the community. They also have been blessed with tlaent.

Poetry isn't about one objective style. A well crafted poet can write in any style. My Captain, My Captian is Whitman not writing in his signature manner but it is a great poem.

Writing poetry at this level involves a severe craft of discovering one's voice and using fresh language singular to oneself that is one's real legacy in one's cognition. We can all recognize the style of Shakespeare, Milton, Whitman and Shelley because they had that craft. We can even in hindsight analyze and objectify the mechanics of some of their executions.

Yet none of us on the evidence ever thought of making such poetry before these innovators arrived on the scene. Our means of creating verse of their standard doesn't go any further than imitating what these geniuses have done with sources of originality we currently know nothing about. One can't teach anybody to take up that element of craft.

It isn't elitism to say that one of the reasons poetry needs a public is that it is fashioned by the few for the many. To say that anyone can produce poetry is a levelling falsification of what it takes to produce even acceptable verse of a standard we have inherited from History. Nobody asks us to pay attention to mediocre or merely competent writing from the past.

My guess is that were we to take up the classical purposes of poetry as Whitman, Sandberg and Ginsberg did and could reach our natural audience we would find some large public among the vast number of people who this year have expressed their dissatisfaction with the current oligarchy by either voting for Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders or not voting at all. It shows such a public exists. Sometimes the right message comes from the wrong messenger. Sometimes we can't make sense of the verse from the Pythian Oracle. It's the job of poets to articulate that current dissent.