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Writer's Block: Poetry

Today in 1955 Allen Ginsberg read his generation-defining poem "Howl" in public for the first time. It’s hard to imagine a poem having the same widespread impact today. Is poetry irrelevant to the best minds of our generation?

How would I know who The Best Minds Of Our Generation are? How would I know who poetry is relevant to or not? Seriously. This question itself is pretentious. Most of all, Allen Ginsburg's poetry is irreverent. It's entertaining. He makes as much money as a bestseller thriller novelist or more because his poetry is fun.

I hate to say this but poetry itself is only an art form, a technique for communication. Sure, it's a genre. But this is like asking if a particular genre is Literature or if a particular genre is Relevant.

No and yes.

Poetry per se is not Relevant to ANYONE.

Poetry is a method of communication. The message is what's important. Good poetry is relevant to the people it's relevant to because it says something important and gets their attention with a lot of fantastic difficult linguistic tricks. Poetry embedded in prose can make it more powerful. Poetry set apart by itself is song, and often literally song lyrics.

So there is the YES.

All song lyrics are poetry and nearly all the Best Minds Of Our Generation are in some way experiencing music that's relevant to them, therefore poetry is relevant to them.

You're talking about different ways of marketing the same thing. You're talking about an activity done by people who entertain and create verbal arts or visual-verbal arts to reach and move people. It is not More Relevant or Less Relevant, it is more popular in this form and less popular in that form and that's -- popularity. Which is fickle and often has nothing to do with quality. Quality alone won't be enough. It has to say something worth hearing or it'll only appeal to those experts who study its structure.

Now let's deconstruct "The Best Minds Of Our Generation." Oh man. We're talking status contests with dead people here. What defines a Generation and who says who's Best? Is it the people whose thoughts and ideas were recorded in writings and poetry and painting? Or were there just as many geniuses who didn't sign a dang thing or write any of it down, or whose works got burned in this or that disaster. Or purged in this or that Inquisition? Or forgotten because they weren't popular and burned down when the barn went a generation later?

Are the military geniuses of whatever generation included? They may or may not have any interest in the arts. Are the scientific geniuses of the generation? They may be less verbal and more math oriented and struggling just to enjoy a popular magazine article let alone a poem. Are political people Best Minds Of Our Generation because they get a lot of press and a lot of quotes? You'd think so from past generations. What about people who got quoted a lot because their family was kings? Or celebrities who practice completely different arts? Models, actors, etc...

You would actually have some connection with poetry for the celebrity actors and actresses, because they are in the field of expressing lines. They know a good line when they read it. They probably love poetry and if they do any improv they're always on the lookout for a good line they can rob. So are writers. So are musicians, a poem can inspire a song and mutate into a lyric fast whether it was intended to be or not.

But hey, those are crass commercial celebrities, how can they be Best Minds of Our Generation, if they're known for being beautiful or popular on TV or in movies. There's a stereotype those people are brainless.

I get real nervous about "we" statements like Our Generation anyway. I'm not defined by when I was born and I've gone on growing and changing throughout my life. The only people it's relevant to are historians.

And we won't find out who they think were the Best Minds of Our Generation because we'll all be dead by the time they have any facts and dates to work with. The list will be skewed and changed by the tastes, mores, values and attitude of the historians' time.

Ultimately, it's a status contest with very revered dead people whose works happened to have made a huge impact on the world we know. The narrow, culturally specific, human-defined world we know, the social world of human beings who speak our language and understand our poetry.

The best minds of our generation, would that be your generation or mine? I was a teenager in the sixties and one step younger than the generation that became hippies, but precociously was one anyway. I'm also someone who would've been an iconoclastic outsider in a creative profession no matter what generation I cropped up in, so I don't see "our generation" as a good filter for sorting out how people look at things. There was a lot of talk about that when I was in high school. Don't trust anyone over 30. There was an event, a sharp divide in morality and ethics and paradigm that dramatically changed how many people in America and other Western countries looked at life.

And afterwards this got celebrated symbolically every decade by the new youngers defining themselves as separate from us and having violent conflicts with their parents over moral issues and the reasons for them. We had new waves of conservatism and greed that went to the ludicrous in the 80s and some people are still riding that wave. Some young people are still riding that wave. There are also plenty of people my age who always dressed conservative and supported the Establishment and loathed me for a good dozen reasons inherent to who I am and what I believe is right.

"Our generation" isn't a coherent cultural whole. Neither is this country. There is coherence to "our language group" and poetry in other languages is relevant only to those who can understand them or love translations.

As for "The Best Minds," it's another Top Ten or Top Hundred list, a bit of ego gratification more relevant to the living people playing status games defining themselves against historically important people ... as judged by the values and ideas of the current wave of historians.

Randomly, how many of the people make any historian's Top List that are in my age group will have a range of interest in poetry-as-such that's probably a complete gradient from "Loathe it, please do not subject me to poetry readings, as far as I'm concerned they're ALL Vogons" to "OMG I love it, poetry is the most important thing anyone can do to feed the mind and soul, please, bring on the obscure genius poetry reading in a coffeehouse in a good city or the dusty tome of ancient verse, without poetry life isn't worth living."

And that has to do with their learning style, personal habits, intellectual slant, and personal taste in entertainment and information gathering. All of the Best Minds on any Top List are just people who like some things, hate some things, value others and think them important as such and find other people's passions boring as moldy cream cheese.

Liking poetry, reading it and discussing it does not demand genius, imply genius or create it. Hating poetry, avoiding it and looking at the pictures does not mean someone's brainless. It just means that they do or don't like poetry. Many academics disagree and build entire careers on the relevance of poetry and literature analysis. Large salaries at major universities or small subsistence ones at smaller schools make the subject intensely relevant to them regardless of the actual content of the poem.

So my answer to the question is -- it depends on the individual and they can't be grouped that way. It is an unanswerable question. The knee-jerk answer is "yes" because historians and literature professors make those Top Lists and getting anywhere in their field demands poetry appreciation as such. Go to the science and math department and you'll find just as many that wish it would dry up so they'd get more funding. But street people can like it just as much and get together in coffeehouses to share it. Poetry is a medium and the message is the message.

For the record, I like poetry and enjoyed "Howl" immensely. As I am at the top of my personal Top List, being the point of consciousness at the center of my own perceptual universe reading and writing in the most relevant language to me -- the answer is Yes, of course. For the only human being I can definitively speak for: me.
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( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 7th, 2008 10:31 pm (UTC)
Good way to look at it. I'm one of those that doesn't particularly care for poetry - and now that you mention it, I think it's because I have to care about the message before I care about any other parts. I guess there are not that many messages I care about enough to want to see in poetic form when prose does the job (for me) just fine. Or, maybe it's that not all things said in poetry are actually said best in poetry. I do like poetry that have a message that can only be said in poetry.

That's just for poetry by itself, though. As song lyrics, they become part of a greater musical whole, and I do like music for a lot of reasons besides message.
Oct. 7th, 2008 11:10 pm (UTC)
Thanks. There's a sort of literary worship of Poetry and a bitter expectation that it should not actually be accessible to anyone but English majors -- leading to difficult, obscure poetry that has a thousand showoffy tricks but doesn't really say much. Or it's well crafted and easily understood, but I violently disagree with the statement or find it completely irrelevant to my life, thoughts and feelings.

Poetry is all about writing tricks to draw extreme emphasis to something.

When that something is vile, but presented as if you're supposed to worship it and think it's wonderful, this makes the class about poetry boring, the discussion of poetry excruciatingly hypocritical and thus simultaneously anxious and dull. I mean poems that state opinions I violently disagree with, like nihilism, being praised and lauded all over the place as so wonderfully expressive.

Or the ones that are just about an emotion. Yes. I know there's such a thing as love or whatever. But I find other people in love to be a bit obnoxious at times rubbing it in. Likewise the loneliness of people wishing they were in love and that sort of thing.

The least obnoxious of that sort are the ones that are just nature paintings drawing attention to a frosty sunrise or something. But then, there are all the ones that pay intense excruciating detail to the dullness and Meaninglessness Of Modern Life without actually being a call to action. Or the ones that take some banal detail of everyday life and laud that to the skies. Other people's personal problems expressed in poetry.

When someone who's got a personal problem is screaming and trying to get me to pay attention to their problems, and the story is as deadly dull familiar as the fiftieth relative-of-a-drunk with bruises, nothing new is said about that but it's real all right... then I feel imposed on. Yet a great deal of poetry gets written on these subjects because when people are in pain, poetry is a way to scream and get it out.

I guess I'm not into other people's catharsis if I'm not being made aware of something new about abuse or oppression. Political poetry can be a lot of fun and one of the things that sets Ginsberg apart in complaining about the rotten elements of society at large is that he DOES bring in new information. He does place emphasis on dramas that are really drama, not whine about not having a date on Saturday night or not being able to face another day at Dilbert's job.

Relevance is personal taste.

But in the USA, poetry is treated as Something Highbrow, Required in order to Be Educated, Good For You. Not enjoyable. Not in any way entertainment. Not something anyone would seek out if they were in their right minds let alone pay good money for once it's not required by school. It shouldn't be pleasure, it's Good For You.

While all over Europe, poetry books and readings are popular general reading and books of poetry sell as well as any other genre. People pick them up on themes and to their tastes, poets make a living even if they're not Alan Ginsberg and skill in poetry is recognized as being as important as novelwriting -- in the same ways.

This is a social expectation that's way outside school. School beats the ability to appreciate poetry right out of people in the process of Learning To Analyze It. I got that with a triple dose of brainwashing when the poems all about patriotism and dogma and so on with some violently evil ones from Puritanism thrown in, were supposed to be praised without question and agreed with as Learning The Moral Lesson Of The Poem.

I'm sure that people in Europe who don't like poetry are like people who don't like movies or whatever -- just who they are enjoying what they do. But in America it's very hard to begin to comprehend what poetry as a shared social pleasure could be like in a different context.

I think poetry is more important in music in my tastes than most people. If I don't agree with and like the lyrics, then the song is ruined even if it's musically great. But that's me, really into words.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )


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