KUT, the station LI listens to, has been gamely interspersing its usual fare of music and news this month with short bursts of poetry reading. This is in honor of national poetry month. They have ranged through at least thirty contemporary American poets, and LI has grown weary of getting up and turning off the radio when the poetry starts.
One thing has been proven conclusively: contemporary American poetry is worse than you can ever imagine.
It is worse than the personal essay, which is bad enough. Mostly, it is the personal essay chopped up into lines that the readers know enough, from grade school, not to linger at the ends of -- which would be pointless, anyway, as the lines are almost uniformly alien to sound. They have abandoned the theater of the voice, these latter day puritans, and they are very righteous about it. They have even abandoned the sound of the American voice, which is a morass, generally, of vocables, a moving pudding of universal stickiness.
We wish that the station had thought to include some, well, real poems. There is, after all, a lot there -- from Chaucer to Yeats. It is interesting how detached the contemporary poems are from memory -- from offering themselves to being memorized -- in comparison to the program of songs into which they are occassionally snuck. Generally, I can sing along, if I want to, to Dylan, or Joni Mitchell, or Radiohead, or whatever, because I know those songs -- I haven't memorized them so much as they have attached themselves to my memory. The same is true for the poems of Eliot -- or for large sections of Pound, or for Wallace Stevens. The same is true for Rimbaud's prose poems. But has any reader ever memorized the lines of, say, Lisel Muller? Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1997, this is the beginning of When I am asked, which was read on KUT:
When I am asked
how I began writing poems,
I talk about the indifference of nature.
It was soon after my mother died,
a brilliant June day,
And so on. Now, compare these lines to a similar use of the divine 'I" in Yeats, in one of his truly minor poems.
On being asked for a War Poem
I THINK it better that in times like these
A poet keep his mouth shut, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of meddling who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth, 5
Or an old man upon a winter�s night.
That's all. The Yeats is all trickery, and parades a thought I disagree with in terms of a stereotype that has grown stale in the Oeuvre. He does these themes better in other poems, and the lines are not any less essayistic than Van Mussel's. Yet even as a toss off, you can't read them two or three times, just to read them, without the words settling in your mind. Compare "We have no gift to set the statesman right" to "I talk about the indifference of nature." Muller's line is not only unmemorable, it is vaguely reminiscent of some bad essay written by a mediocre student about Emerson .. or something. It has no sovereignity. Poetry that divests itself of its own power to this extent is poetry well on the way to extinction.