by Arthur Mortensen
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
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
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
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?
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.