But not actually weary, of the same old fight. Much poetry debate bores me recently – has for years. I think this is because I’ve fallen so off the map, or so completely through the map, that I find myself reading good poems for my own pleasure and edification and largely ignoring the rest. Will the sun fail to rise if I don’t read all the lit-mags? Will I myself no longer be able to write or read if I am not abreast of the latest pundit’s terms of the month?
Take for example the recent anti-absorbtive/absorbtive debate (mentioned by Brian Campbell).
As Brian (and others) point out, this is an old debate, not a new one. Which is amazing. I mean, this is exactly the same argument that we’ve been hearing, in different form, since High Modernism decided to take its tea and cookies and go play elsewhere. You’d hope that someone witnessing the current debate would clear their throat, point to any numerous essays and arguments that defined these issues in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s, and say, “Well, yes. Now how about a significantly new idea instead of a new term?” (And actually, chronically good read Robert Archambeau does just that.)
As to the motivation of what animates these debates (apart from the actual positions taken by the debates) I think Brian is right in that the reanimation of these arguments must come from an underpinning of insecurity, a fear of irrelevance, which comes not only from the elitists/fascists/anti-absorbitves but from the populists/luddites/absorbitves as well. Being of the second camp, I admit to hoping the first would just shut up and stop intimidating/infecting young readers. But that’s probably not an accurate picture as to what’s actually going on, so I tend not to engage that dynamic all that much any more.
I will engage enough to point out that what strikes me about the scope and framing of these debates is their removal from the common human experience. "The Reader," if thought of at all, is alternately visioned as a mid-life university professor who does nothing but read increasingly difficult texts, or a slightly ditzy elementary school teacher who only reads Billy Collins. The "Dear Reader" of old has gone on to populate the Borders and Barnes and Nobles of the world, where, unsuprisingly, they're reading up a strorm of almost everything but contemporary poetry.
By saying this, I don’t mean to categorically suggest that one end of the spectrum ought to be verboten for poets, that we become good socialist realists or platonists of the Republic, but as I wend my unplanned way though a week in the greater NE, I’ve encountered a number of heartbreaking stories: real people, trapped in bad situations, who know, in fact, what they need to do to align themselves with society, with their own requirements for lasting happiness, with the advice they’d give others located similarly. And they just can’t do it. There’s a veritable laundry list of financial pressures, politics, illnesses, drug-addictions, loneliness, legal problems, and so on, which are counterbalanced by an equal number of births, marriages, kindnesses, successful doings and joy.
And where does poetry fit into this human drama? Where does an anti-absorbtive/absorbtive debate fit into it? Are people in fact getting their intellectual stimulation and consolation (as the debate would have it) from poetry at all?
On a different tack, we can also ask, “Is this debate more humanly relevant than deciding whether or not to visit your ailing neighbor and say “hello?”” Probably not. But potentially, it could shape the poetries of tomorrow and make them (hopefully) more relevant to the lives that we actually lead. So debate forward. (But save yourself some time and read backwards.)