Poetry and Cultural Relevance

September 25, 2016

“Poetry and the Silencing of Art” by Hilton Kramer in the New Criterion, recently dug up from 1993 on the _New Criterion’s _Twitter, is a helpful article about tendencies in contemporary poetry I’ve been thinking about for a while. I have two observations.

Firstly, the book, which the article describes by a certain Dana Gioia, has an excellent point: that poetry has been enervated by a subculture of its own creation. It doesn’t speak to everyday people anymore, the failure of most of the talk of the universities. He wisely observes, “The modern movement, which began this century in bohemia, is now ending it in the university, an institution dedicated at least as much to the specialization of knowledge as to its propagation. Ultimately the mission of the university has little to do with the mission of the arts, and this long cohabitation has had an enervating effect on all the arts but especially on poetry and music.”

Secondly, the end of the article dismisses popular culture and its effect on the heart and the mind with, I think, too much readiness: “High culture cannot compete with its lethal effects on the minds and bodies of the young—and not only the young, of course—and neither can serious education, not as it is now conducted, anyway. And as long as the juggernaut of pop culture continues to swamp everything in its path, not only will poetry remain confined “to the private world that is the poet’s mind” but so will all of high art—whatever remains of it —be confined to the private world of its subculture.”

Much of popular culture, no doubt, hurts the cause of high art, and the souls of those who absorb themselves in it with the wrong motivations. But I do not believe one can safely ignore the simple fact that people turn to much in popular culture, as resonating with their actual experience, in a way which they do not and cannot turn to ‘high art’. As long as poetry remains absorbed in its own high and academic subculture, it will fail to speak to individual lives in the same powerful way of the best of ‘popular music.’

I would propose a question to contemporary poetry: why do most people identify with the sentiments of the better sort of our popular singers and musicians, far more than they do with the subculture of written poetry?

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Michael Helvey

Just want to talk? Feel free to tweet @helvetici.