Perhaps Yeats was right, and beggary and poetry appear and disappear together. The argument for their deep connection can be divined in Daniel Tiffany’s argument for the form and function of obscurity in poetry, made in Infidel Poetics (see review here). Or at least I can borrow certain of his images and arguments to support the Yeatsian intuition.

First, however, one has to concede that poetry does something – it in fact does something about the way one thinks about doing things, what that activity if for, the matrix of exchanges in which it is enmeshed. To switch to Hegel-ese for a moment, beggary, outside of traditional society – the ancien regime stretching back to the paleolithic – loses its form, not its substance. It loses its hobo honor. Poetry, another artifact of that regime, is rivaled in modernity by journalism (under which I would include novels) and driven into a corner, where to save its form it has to resort to dodges that begin to displace its substance. Like the beggar, the poet doesn’t do anything for money. Money does something for the beggar and the poet – reward honors their rewarders. All of which collapses for the usual reasons given by the big thinkers.

Climbing down from these often scaled heights – I was struck by this riff on the rhapsode in Tiffany, which provoked the above thought:.

“The submerged affi nities of the rhapsode reach still further into the
well of the anonymous and indigent poet, touching the most ancient
artifact of poetic obscurity, the riddle: Sophocles called the Sphinx a rhapsode,
while Euripides and other commentators called her deadly riddle
a “song.” The Sphinx, who has no proper name, is called a rhapsode
because she was said to wander the streets of Thebes, homeless, reciting
her queer “demaunde” to strangers—habits recalling the vocation of Presocratic
thinkers such as Parmenides, who made his living as an itinerant
philosopher and composed his baffl ing treatise on Being in epic hexameters,
thereby adopting practices associated with the rhapsode.”

What a marvelous hybrid image – this Sphinx! I can definitely see the Sphinx sniffing around the streets not only of Thebes, but of where I currently live in Santa Monica, California.  Santa Monica needs a sphinx: with its definite edge that ocean – and its box of jigsaw puzzle pieces gathered from different puzzles and thrown all together. Here we have the rich, the aspiring techie, the screenwriter, the leisured, the shoppers, the tourists, the aged – often wheeled about with their heads at a disturbing cant and their mouths open, jaws too weak now to resist gravity – and the hobos everywhere – bums under trees in the park, mumbling to themselves on the steps of office buildings, amazingly weathered women sprawled by curbs under some vagary of palm shadow, sign welding white beards, many clothed in their entire wardrobe – I run into them every day as I wheel Adam about in his stroller. The tribe of the sphinx, except that rhapsody had definitely been downshifted, and the Sphinx can no longer riddle even the mere toddler of privilegem much less his pa.

But I do not write off the possibility that chthonic forces will one day emerge again – to put it in Yeatsian terms, the Great Year will not be gainsaid, neither will time stop.