EP&M Online Essay

Things Obvious
    by Arthur Mortensen

Culture ain’t worth a heap of beans
If it can’t propagate the genes
But if not fortified by culture
The genes are doomed to quick sepulture….
    Robin Fox
    from “Coming of Age In Just About Everywhere”

The trouble with things obvious is that the smart set feels condescended to and the rest of us are embarrassed.   The smart set tilts heads and jaws toward the ceiling and begins a lengthy conversation on alternative possibilities, paying little attention to another thing obvious, that nonexistent, alternate possibilities are science fiction at best and pigeon dropping readings by a seer at worst.  (Feel free to substitute “computer scenarios taken as scientific evidence”.)   The rest of us, shy, cheeks hot,  wonder could it be that easy?  Alexander steps up with his sword, splits the Gordian knot, and you have to admit that the guy has a point about the meaning of any knot described as impossible to untie. 

But you can’t miss it.  The Shakers were wonderful carpenters, but they didn’t allow sex.  In a generation or two, the last of them were gone.   Except as an artifact, their culture died.  Culture could not overcome nature.   And it doesn’t get easier.

Without the hope that culture provides, including its given faith, people often elect to dissipate, refuse to mate, become beggars, throw themselves off bridges, come to enjoy suicidal sports, and write deconstructive criticism, bashing other people’s work and the authors themselves into a despairing pudding of jargon and cant.  The culture dies.  Culture cannot overcome its own nature; it fits the life that makes it.

For a century, poets tried to deny the nature of that part of the culture they provided.  Not surprisingly, hardly anyone reads their stuff anymore.  People who don’t consider themselves poets, except after a few drinks, a ton of appreciative praise, or with a red face, are the only ones willing to let nature and culture play together in poetry nowadays.  Who are they?  In another century, if you ask about poetry in the early 21st century, you are more likely to hear the name Bonnie Raitt than Jorie Graham.  It’s not very hard to see why.  You don’t have to be indoctrinated into acknowledging Raitt’s lines as poetic, as structuralists might claim.  Why is that?

We beat on this drum a lot.  Those with sore ears can turn away.  But it’s because the country lyricist uses the stuff that audiences respond to: meter; plausible story; beginning, middle and end; recognizable setting; knowable voices; figures of speech we can see, hear, taste, touch, and feel.  It’s so old and so insufferably human.   Since the time before writing, when poetry was entertainment at harvest time around threshing floors, and solemn chanting in ritual ceremonies around fires, audiences have kept in mind poetic work that follows such simple structural, storytelling, figurative and prosodic standards.   Like the river that carries a boat from a pier to the sea, these underlying elements were probably not much discussed.   Why bother engaging in a lot of talk about what any poet is supposed to know?

It would a bit like looking at the Eiffel Tower and finding nothing to discuss but how the iron was cast, or the rivets driven.  Engineers will do that, but they’re a distinct minority of those attracted to gazing at this aging, utterly superfluous (in utilitarian terms), object of architectural beauty.  The engineers have to know; it’s their trade.   Audiences assume that the original engineer knew, because the thing is still standing over one hundred years later.  Why, Maggie and Steve Jones took a video from the elevator going up just last Tuesday!  Did you see it?

It’s true that it’s an audience habit to try to uncover the magician’s tricks after the show is over.  That’s older than the top hat the rabbit pops out of.  Such study can give a temporary sense of superiority, of being in the know, but may not be a posture much loved, except by the cynic.  For, even if we know, at showtime most would rather not.  In case you haven’t noticed movie grosses recently, it looks as though that’s the way we are. And it is one of the magician’s jobs to keep us guessing.  Why?

If we weren’t fooled, if we didn’t want to believe that Hamlet talked that way, or that a woman could talk with such searing clarity about men, if we didn't desire to be fooled, why would we show up at all?  And in order to be fooled, the magician has to know the deep stuff, from the trap door briefly concealed by a puff of smoke, to a silver hoop with an invisible gap that slides over the invisible wires suspending the levitated subject, to the embarrassing truth buried in palatial wit or strutting through the slum of a one-liner. 

The part of culture provided by poetry, when poets care to do the work, is the magic.  We can play at uncovering how they did it, but when it’s done, and we listen, most of us still want to be transported.  If poets fail to do this, we turn to football or a video game.  In recent decades, this has become the norm insofar as poetry is concerned.  What happened?  Isn’t there magic in playing with the fundamentals?

Of course there can be, but the old adage that less is more might obtain with poets.  When we aren’t conscious of the workings, when poetic lines are so supple that we spend most of our time enjoying the senses the poet tickles, the memories invoked, the associations and comparisons that surprise us, and the story that we never guessed would turn out that way, though it is an old, old story, poetry becomes as transparent as music.  That’s the magic, one guesses, that readers are looking for.   How can it be served by making how it’s done all that matters?

                                                                               Arthur Mortensen

As we sat in the dark murmurs of the Algonquin’s bar, we wondered if there were a poetic equivalent to Robin Fox’s nature/culture credo, his “Render under Caesar…” statement about an obvious but frequently ignored truth.  What was immediately clear was that such a credo,  for poets or for anyone else, would have to entail one factor that could not be ignored, argued with, or dismissed, and another, perhaps more conscious, would have something to do with the poet’s artistic choices.   We were a qualified group.  Two doctors,  Dr. Struthers, of a psychoanalytic bent, with his well-known flare for dramatic verse, and Dr. Van Riebeck, engaged in the life sciences, and noteworthy for skills in epic, were there was was yours truly. 

forthcoming on the subject.  Struthers:

Poetry’s cast in poor cement
If it lacks for meaning and content.

Dr. Van Riebeck immediately added:

When casting about for meter and rhyme
One ought to consider mortality’s time.

Finally able to separate my lips from my glass, I added:

What’s content? I so often hear the shout.
And my reply: it’s what the poem’s about.

However, even then we were all conscious that the three of us were in that drinking state when the lyrical phrase attains a sacred melodic tone, if unheard by sober passersby, and the prose sentence a magisterial dignity usually associated with Learned Hand, though later reports did not reflect this.