What Can Poetry Reveal That Matters, Part I?

by Arthur Mortensen
Copyright (c) 1997 by Arthur Mortensen & Somers Rocks Press
Part II of this essay, click here.)

On an oddly chilly July night, frustrated with a story I was working on and not terribly happy about my life, I went to the Web to page through abstracts of papers published by the Santa Fe Institute. The meeting ground since 1984 of hundreds of leading physicists, biologists, economists, business people, mathematicians, demographers, and even historians, the Institute has been called the New Athens by people as diverse as Citibank Chairman John Reed, Nobelist Murray Gel-Mann, and radical economist Brian Arthur. If it was, this new Athens didn't include poets, because not one confessed poet was on the list of abstracts. This was no surprise, and not because poets are routinely the victims of exclusion from intellectual activity, but because few poets seem interested in joining when the discussion involves our future. Why is this so?

Nobelist (1964, physics) Richard Feynman once asked a dear friend who wrote poetry, "what can poetry reveal in describing a flower that botany can't do better?" His question revealed a lot about himself as a leading physicist, and as much about a popular conception of poetry. However, Feynman was too smart to mean that poetry was nothing but precious description of nature; he was asking if poets could reveal anything but an increasingly anachronistic view of experience. He might as well have asked "what can a poem reveal of someone in love that psychology can't do better?" His thought was not new, even in 1943 when he expressed it to his friend.

Mark Twain, in Life on the Mississippi, had a similar view, declaring that he'd rather know what the light of sundown revealed in the river's flow over rocks and sandbars than read a pretty but ignorant poem about the beauty of a sunset. It might be argued that this is a "Roman" perspective, a virtuous refusal to pay attention to metaphor and beauty except in the literary marketplace. And that was certainly a part of Twain's and Feynman's view, as American as it is Roman. St. Exupery's ecstatic descriptions of flying are of little use on the flight deck of a 747 flying freight to Tahiti, and, for all of the miracle of Roethke, reading his work is, to many, like watching a man set fire to himself to prove a faith in what most no longer believe in. But the more important question suggested by Feynman (and presumed answered by Twain) is what can poetry reveal that matters in a culture that has abandoned all belief in fairies and myths, that no longer lives in villages or on the farm, exhibits its distaste for the prevailing confessionalists by refusing to buy their work, and knows too well that carelessly sensational metaphor is as common to lying politicians and bosses as to poets discipling to the Modernist or Post-Modernist aesthetic. So what's the answer?

Is it matter of utility, of being a translator of more complicated ideas and experience? Should poets engage the vocabulary of the sciences in their verse, hoping to gain their place at the table by the adoption of a diction even scientists aren't very comfortable with? This has been suggested by Frederick Turner, who notes that the increase in the lexicon from science should be a resource for poets. Certainly poets ought to know enough to recognize the words. However, the best science writers, such as the late Loren Eisley, James Gleick, the late Isaac Asimov, a variety of such in newspapers and magazines, and even the late Richard Feynman, have taken care in employing metaphor to fill in the spaces where people outside of the regimens of mathematics and science cannot see without assistance. Indeed, the reason the Santa Fe Institute exists is to provide a similar Gestalt for researchers of radically different objectives. They haven't skirted and can't avoid such difficult concepts as probability and indeterminancy, field and particle, chaos and complexity, or that which drives much of Santa Fe's work, the idea of emergent orders in nature. However, participants in conversation and papers have tried to illuminate these concepts with artful definition so that other people can understand them. At the Institute, it's for the utility of widening the discussion and for discovering the amazing commonality that exists in what used to be thought as isolated processes, from the life of the cell to that of a market economy. While utility in poetry is obviously less significant than the pleasure one gets from hearing or reading it, is there a lesson for poets to learn from the excitement and passion at Santa Fe, wonderfully reported in Complexity, by M. Mitchell Waldrop (Touchstone, 1992)?

Maybe a hint lies in the apparent lack of interest by so many poets, including some in the Expansive Movement, in the contemporary world. Among many writing program specialists who advocate those sincere, "free verse" confessionals we know so well from the journals, there is a general contempt not only for the sciences but for any wider view, supported with a philosophical outlook that suggests both scientific and authorial (rather than personal) views are only the means to exploit and dominate, the sciences through technology, authorial views through their necessary exclusion of some alternative understandings. Sadly, even among many poets who work in meter and form, there is a similar exclusion of anything recognizable from the 20th century, as if they held the familiar as opposed to beauty. Further, virtually no one writing outside of the New Narrative wing of the Expansive Movement seems to be aware of or interested in the historical developments of the last fifty to one hundred years, as if such thought intruded on the little epiphanies in sonnets and villanelles. Where, for example, are the narratives drawn from the revolutionary overthrow of the British Empire, one of the colossal events in human history? There have been films and novels about stories within that; it's not solely the province of sociologists and politicians. Why do so few poets examine the civil rights movement, not only in this country, but in similar political shifts throughout the world? There are individual stories suitable for dramatic poems as astonishing, rich and moving as any epic written in English. Where are the dramatic poems in voices we would recognize in satires or in drama? In a totalitarian state, Solzenitsyn wrote in the voice of Stalin, daring persecution. Stanislaw Lem, a science fiction writer whose work merits a Nobel Prize, has no qualms about directing fierce satires at anyone he considers foolish, hypocritical or an enemy, whether Russians, Americans or Poles. He was very good at beating censors and was the best-selling author in the Soviet Union for twenty years. What is to prevent American poets from doing such things, whether in satire or in stories we recognize as being of our time?

The bureaucrats and lawyers might threaten lawsuits, and one has to take care -- now, as ever. Shakespeare's theater was closed down several times on accusations of slander, immorality and insults against the nobility, accusations not very different from those of personal affront or political incorrectness. But there are tactics for writing in a society where everyone feels free to comment on everyone else, and yet sue anyone who comments on them. The use of an historical figure to illuminate something of our own time is a method as old as Aristophanes and as new as Ishmael Reed. That and similar approaches permit writing about anything, and novelists and scenarists do that. Why have poets surrendered all of this? Dom DeLillo wouldn't think of it. Thomas Pynchon wouldn't either. Detective story writers wouldn't think of ignoring contemporary criminology and police procedures. And it is hard to imagine Joyce Carol Oates surrendering to anything. So why don't poets seem to care if what they reveal in their work matters to an audience other than themselves?

One place to cast blame, chosen by a critic whose essay is posted on this page, is on the marvelous placidity of creative writing programs, where poets sit together and criticize this line or that, and whose aim is to satisfy the seminar leader well enough to be granted credit for an MFA. While it can't be proven, it looks from results as if the reward is granted to those who write exactly the way the master does. Having no audience but hiring and tenure committees to worry about, and few cares about the future work published in journals with circulation so small few people have ever heard of them, these writers can preserve equanimity in the face of a wider world that has no concern for the work produced. After all, a few other poets, friends and relatives have read it. One has been hired or not. That's mattering enough; certainly for tenure at some universities. And even those outside of the academic scene can bathe warmly in the praise of small groups of friends and relatives. I do it myself. However, the Expansive Movement's leaders have claimed for twenty years that they're countering this with poetry that matters, but is this so?

If the product is less exalted than the propaganda, another place to cast blame might be on the Expansive movement itself, whose leading publisher seems to wish, in the marketing of a pretty good anthology, to forget the audience outside of universities in order to sell the book to students. The rationalization offered for this is that since poetry doesn't sell anywhere else, and that the press has to move books to pay for publishing other work, there was no choice but design and pitch the book for a college audience. The argument is hard to counter. The marketing studies show who buys, and who would doubt such hard evidence?

But, there's a problem in this "resignation to reality," the same problem that plagued General Motors for twenty years as they lost market share to the Japanese. The problem is as follows: judging the future of a market solely on the basis of who bought the product last year excludes the possibility that something better might be sold to either an untapped market or one excluded by their distaste for the current offering. In the mundane world of automobile production, the Japanese one-upped those clever GM marketing numerologists by asking if we have something that our customers want, based on our research, and that in the strong opinion of our engineers and designers is better than what GM is selling, will GM's customers buy it?

The one hundred billion dollar answer was "yes, we would." The great revelation at GM, that what its customers wanted, and what it's engineers and designers could offer, were at least as important as what customers bought last year, took twenty years, the release of fifty thousand workers and managers, and the loss of tens of billions of dollars. It is that way with institutions; big ones are sometimes slow. Perhaps it is crass to use commercial examples for discussing a high art, but what did this leading publisher choose but precisely the same approach that nearly sank GM? Maybe one of the new executives at GM might ask, "if this press can't put out what it promises and what other venues and research indicates is desired, but can only sell to an audience that it abhors, is it the right press, or properly organized, to do the job?"

Such harsh questions bruise the delicate sensibilities required to produce poetry and it would be foolish to punch them too hard. Even in the good times, when poets were referred to by ordinary citizens as having something important to say, poetry never went out to five million customers. But it is unreasonable to expect sales to even five thousand readers if the publisher rejects new audience development as unprofitable. And this publisher is desperately needed, because it has provided a forum for poets whose efforts are directed at revealing a vision of the wider world, both in narrative and in lyric collections. Perhaps things will work out there; and there are others striving to perform similar service. But is this the proper place to fix blame? After all, this press's executives and board were only trying to meet fiduciary responsibilities; a company, nonprofit or no, has that obligation. What about journals?

It is a sad commentary, but despite the fact that there are more good narrative poets writing today than America has ever produced, few of Expansive Poetry's most supportive journals will publish their work, preferring the "democratic" display of dozens of authors an issue to the dominance of a few writing narratives, a practice that devalues authors by making each one work a footnote to a larger commentary on poetry as means to express a vision of a wider world. Such work requires space. Little epiphanies in a 14-line sonnet or 22-line prose poem are pleasant, and it's nice that everybody gets a chance, but in the end the practice is somewhat akin to everyone having their say in kindergarten. To call this meaningful publishing of poetry is to debase adult intentions and capabilities in both storytelling and in lyric poetry; and all but a few, such as Edge City Review, have pursued this policy to the point of devaluing poetry itself. Without a vision of a wider world, poetry can reveal little that matters beyond the poet's view of navel architecture. And isn't it possible that such thinking informed Feynman's question to his friend?

After all, it isn't the precise description of a flower that reveals something important in a poem; what engages a listener is why the flower has been selected by the poet, whether to stand in for something else, to mirror a larger process, or to allow a sudden shift in tone, as from angry to ironic. When poets work this way, and when audiences expect it, we get astonishing conjunctions between predictable stories and larger issues. Look at the bonding of Montaigne to the soliloquies in Shakespeare, or the integration of neo-Platonic philosophy in Wordsworth, the subtle mixing of Newtonian science in Paradise Lost, or the elaborate mixture of story and futurist speculation in epics by Frederick Turner. In the best of science fiction, such as Lem's His Master's Voice, Solaris, Pirx the Pilot, or The Investigation, without the introduction of philosophical, scientific, mathematical and sociological discussion, all brought in as aspects of the characters and of their professions; as parts of the story, the writer probably wouldn't have been interested in doing the work, nor his audience in reading it. Instead, Lem has always assumed intelligence and experience in his readers. Further, Lem's plot macchinations and wordplay pull together everything from sex to communications theory, sometimes in the same phrase, making him as one with Voltaire and other great satirists in the delight of play, without which most such work is tiresome. Where is this in American poetry today? And is it plausible to lay such absences entirely at the feet of professors, publishers and journals? What productive answer did the Expansive Poetry movement offer to these questions?

In Dick Allen's essays, in the criticism of Frederick Feirstein, in the wide-ranging offerings of Frederick Turner, the thoughts of Kelly Cherry, and in the best of the work itself, they said that poetry is the conveyance of a vigorous, passionate and enlightened vision of the world we live in, which is conveyed best using means tested in dozens of cultures and languages over thousands of years of human history. Tell the story out there; draw conclusions from it; use the full palette that generations of poets have devised and it is possible that someone will pay attention. Who could argue with that?

Further, the constraints of professors, publishers and presses don't seem to bother rap poets. And who would say they don' t have an audience? Is the Expansive Movement missing something? It has no more of an audience than the poets its critics complain about. Is it just the heavy beat and the sexy talk, the macho posturing and the strong hint of violence?

From what I've heard, that's not what all or even most rap is about. A great deal of it, and some of that with language richer than anything in a journal, and as bawdy as anything in Shakepeare, is about life in the city in a day like the day that you or I are living. Yes, it is intense, erotic, angry, and oftentimes vividly describes violence and its consequences. And, yes, it offends many, including most academics and Senators looking for a mandate, as one supposes were offended by Chaucer's Wife of Bath tale, written in the same measure in the 14th century as rap is improvised today. But one thing is absolutely clear: rap poets are willing to convey the time and place they live with a fervor and conviction that should inspire or at least startle other poets into asking themselves some serious questions. Why?

Rap poets presume that the audience matters, and in that assumption is the idea that the world in which the audience lives matters. People come to because they want to hear - call it ritual, call it communitas --narratives of their own time spoken or chanted by someone who has taken the time to learn how and to investigate well enough to provide details, plot, perceptions, metaphor, and sound that engage the people they're speaking to. Further, rap audiences are not addressed as consumers, but as participants in a dialogue that can be as big as the world. And this I think speaks to the heart of Richard Feynman's question about poetry, which intimated that poets were only willing to express private views of things, not acknowledging what is known not only by science but by a general public. It can be different; it need not be an anachronistic flower poem masquerading as pseudo-Biblical mystery.

Since the time of T.S. Eliot, and even more so in the settling of the poet's profession at university, the perception of audience has narrowed for most poets to conferences and readings in which poets present to one another. Some, such as Eliot's disciples, accept this as a mark that poetry has become as complicated as quantum mechanics, a point that is frankly absurd. A performance art that excludes an audience as unknowledgable scorns the greatest strength of poetry as communication, and expresses its contempt for all but the elite who write it. A rapper who acted like that would be booed off the stage. Nor, as mentioned, have real complexities, such as physics or biology of the 1990's, prevented science writers and scientists from trying very hard to make new concepts available to a wider public. The view that the audience is contemptible is also held by many outside of academia, who take the desolate position that there's not a chance to reach a wider audience, and so write only for a few friends, relatives and other poets. Sometimes, this thinking includes the idea that the culture itself is nothing but bread and circuses, from action movies to restaurants where favored customers get to sit in the best light. While these complaints have some truth, in the end, it is hard not to ask how much, if anything, poets have done to countervail this, not only in spreading the word, but in wording up so people give a damn about what the poet is saying. The answer, all too often, is nothing at all. But, why bother?

After all, for "folk poetry," as rap is sometimes called, there's an audience. Why should poets who work in more "refined" territory worry about CD sales and raucous audiences? I think the reason why is because there are enormous gaps in the cultural narrative in America. The only stories in verse being told to large audiences are those that affect a narrow class of young and frequently disaffected people. There is nothing wrong with this in and of itself. Nor is it likely that narrative poets working other material and in other arenas will draw the same audience. But the need is great, because our history, politics, even the structure of our daily lives are vanishing from public view. The media, often claimed to be the source of the ongoing narrative in our society, have come to prefer hiding behind slogans and images that presume to dictate truth about life in the city in the 1990's, presenters of signs marking "STOP," "DANGER," or "OKAY" without offering a clue as to why. And such slogans, as Nathan R. Kolodney has noted time and again in writings and presentations at the many "tribunals" of American politics, do nothing but draw lines in the sand, across which enemies glare, but where the only communication is in accusations and in lists of who's excluded. The alternative to this is a movie and television diet of either saccharine or violent fantasies, which bear no more resemblance to life and society in America than a Campbell's soup can bears comparison to a painting by Hopper. The success of rappers suggests that there might be an audience for other kinds of poetry that reveals something that matters to an audience. And there are a lot of them out there. Poets such as Miles David Moore, M.A. Schaffner, Andrejika Hough, Charlotte Fleck, Denise Duhamel, Frederick Feirstein, Johanna Keller, Robert McDowell, Dick Allen and Frederick Turner, and this writer, in our own material and approach, are trying to do just that. While the audience for such work is still small, it is worth noting that narrative poetry in England has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years that has seen Craig Raine command advances that only novelists used to get, with nearly half a million copies sold of his last two books. The writer doesn't suggest that popularity is proof that poetry reveals anything that matters; after all, there are millions of copies of forgettable cookbooks and romances sold every year. But, in a performance art, as poetry had been since it's beginning, the audience is the only proof that what the poet reveals is of importance.

And so, maybe it's time for such poets, and they are legion, to step out of the shadows of the academic and small readings world, and put their stuff in front of wider audiences. There are many venues. For those not used to performance, they can be daunting. But, slams are heavily attended; so why not present there? With the same high polish on performance as the other participants offer, I have heard brilliant poetry read in such settings, where audiences didn't boo because it contained ideas more difficult than usual.. What I've noticed, most of all, in such presentations, is that where the poet cares to communicate, and cares also to deliver the work (or find someone who can), audiences take this respect as a sign that they should listen; and they often applaud.

Perhaps then Feynman's question can be answered with a surprise. Maybe one could say "botany can describe a flower and all the reasons that it grows; and yes, we need that in order to shape and manage the world we live in. But poets can describe why a dead love affair is a wilted flower in a dry vase, and sometimes, and for the same reason, we need to hear that too because poetic metaphor provides a context that science rarely or never can provide." Whether comparing a lover to a sunny day, or illustrating a life in a society drifting between destruction and revival, we need that powerful and paradoxical fusion of familiar image and idea, a gestalt that science is only beginning to offer, but which has been poetry's strength since the beginning of language. And we need to put it out there where people are willing to listen. Such places exist. Poets can do this; the best always have, but the struggle is their own, not a tenure committee's, not a publisher's, and not a journal's.

	Arthur Mortensen

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