Wednesday, November 27, 2002

Pharmaceuticals heiress Ruth Lilly has donated $100 million to Poetry Magazine, but Meghan O'Rourke, in Slate, and Eric Gibson, in the Wall Street Journal, both express their doubts about the gift's potential to rejuvenate the muse, described by poet Dana Gioia (whom Gibson quotes) as "the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group". It should come as no surprise, though, that both articles, in bemoaning the obscurity and unpopularity of poetry, somehow failed to mention the one word that would have given the lie to their effete lugubriousness. That word, of course, is "rap"; and compared to its multibillion-dollar market, Ms. Lilly's paltry nine-figure bequest is a tiny irrelevancy in the world of poetry.

Now, I don't mean to claim that the major hiphop artists of our day are all creating poetic masterpieces. But then, neither were the greats of English-language poetry all living in a pristine world, blissfully free of the plague of mediocre doggerel. On the contrary, their work stood out precisely because it existed in the context of a living, even popular art form whose typical examples were, in retrospect, unmemorable or worse. Many of the giants achieved acclaim in their own day; some toiled in obscurity, only to be appreciated much later. But until Matthew Arnold popularized the idea of art as something that an audience needed to be taught to appreciate--setting the stage for the devastating schism between popular and "high" art that has left forms like poetry in such a sorry state today--none of the greats would have shied away from comparisons of their work with that of their most fashionable, most popular (and, they would confidently have asserted, self-evidently inferior) contemporaries.

But today's poets don't want to face such comparisons; rather, they consider themselves to be doing something entirely different from their pop counterparts--even as they reject any restrictions or boundaries on the form or content of their own work. They hide behind their illustrious claimed predecessors because they are naked. They tartly note the cavernous gap in artistic mastery that separates P. Shelley from P. Diddy--glossing over their own conspicuous inability to bridge that gap themselves. They may not be as popular as rap performers, they sniff, but, more importantly, they are appreciated by--who? The 12,000-odd readers of Poetry Magazine?

Perhaps what poetry needs is an equivalent to jazz music: a popular form that intellectuals can respect, that shows up classical music's supposed descendants, the practitioners of "modern serious music", for the masturbatory noisemakers they are, and that isn't afraid to interact with, influence and be influenced by a mass audience and its cacophony of overlapping mass tastes. Rap may be empty drivel, after all, but the next Tennyson is far more likely to arise from its crowd-pleasing dynamism than from a few insular scribblers publishing obscurantist verses for tiny audiences and pathetically imagining themselves to be writing for the ages.

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