I read a wordpress blog two days ago that gestured toward the underwhelming claim that poetry was dead. Now, why every person who has ever mastered anything more complex than the five-paragraph essay feels entitled to drive nails into this century-old coffin is beyond me. Virginia Woolf was the first, or one of the first eulogizers, who, in her disingenuous encouragement to young poets, felt the need to remind them that their poetry would never be as good as that written in the centuries before, nor would it be understood by contemporaries. Having condemned the poets of her generation to uncelebrated mediocrity, Woolf got on with the serious business of writing fiction. Since then, it’s been a funereal march down the byways of obsolescence for present-day versifiers.
The common wisdom is that we don’t like poetry now–as if teeming generations before us loved it j(literally, it seems, to extinction). The better wisdom is that we don’t like poetry now because we are no longer trained to understand it. Regardless, in terms of literary output and interest, the 20th and 21st centuries are the centuries of the novel, not the poem. I’ve always thought this curious, given our soundbite culture. You’d think that with our 30-second commercial-spot-trained brains, a 14-line sonnet would appeal more than a 350 page novel. A good friend of mine explained this modern counter-intuition thus: We crave stories, he said. After Darwin yanked us out of the spiritual womb of creation, after Nietzsche put a stake in God’s heart, after Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes looked at each other a decided that even the author needed to be rubbed out, we have a need for narratives that continue to make sense of our fragmented, unhinged existences. Or, to put it in Joan Didion’s words, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Lyric poetry only captures an instant; it is not interested in fitting that instant into a pattern larger than itself. This was and remains as good an explanation for the rise of the novel as I’ve ever heard.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I believe that. So does every person who has ever been helped by AA or another 12-step program based on the AA model. At the heart of AA recovery is (as I recently read) “the triumph of narrative over the body.” What do we do when we go to these meetings–some in brightly lit clinics, others in dingy, smoke-soaked basements–what do we do? We tell stories. We listen to stories. Endlessly. We tell our own stories of dependency and sobriety. We mostly listen to others’ stories of dependency and sobriety. And we fit those stories into the narrative frame (the plot structure, if you will) of the twelve steps and The Big Book. We use Bill W.’s story (the founder of AA) as the template for our own. But the only “cure,” as you will hear at the end of every meeting–usually spoken collectively by members and then individually as you are greeted on your way to your car–is to “keep coming back.” The only solution is to tell and hear more stories–the stories which are always only a variation on the existing, unchanging plot.
More than any other contemporary therapy, twelve-step programs illustrate the continuing power and veracity of Freud’s “talking cure.” But instead of transferring a neurosis onto a therapist, the recovered addict has substituted an addiction for meetings and twelve-step work for the physical/psychological dependence on a chemical or behavior.
Therapy and popular fiction have a lot in common, usually. One need only glance at Oprah’s Book Club selections to discover which narratives appeal most, especially to female, American audiences. Oprah herself is a self-styled counselor of sorts, or has tried to be–witness Dr. Phil, her sort of “franchise” experiment on one hand and Dark Sith on the other. We like stories to be “therapeutic” in the most reassuring sense: triumph over adversity, of spiritual awakening after soulless wandering, of someone making–finally–the right choice after all. Even Oprah’s choices for blessedly splendid, complex novels, like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, follow this comedic (in the literary sense) pattern. At the end of the novel, the protagonist Sethe breaks the cycle of her personal “haunting”: the cruel ghost of her “beloved” daughter disappears when Sethe breaks through her fog of personal history (slavery on the one hand and guilt on the other) to strike out with vicious anger at the symbol of the “real” oppressors, a white man. In the final sentences, her lover, Paul D reflects “‘Sethe . . . . me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.'” He adds, “You your best thing, Sethe. You are.” Incredulous, Sethe’s final words (and the novel’s) are “‘Me? Me?'”
A little ambivalent though some of these tremendously well-written endings may be, even Morrison’s tour de force satisfyingly reassures us that demons have been conquered, that the course of Sethe’s and her family’s life has turned in a positive direction. But take away a Nobel prize talent like Morrison’s, and similar narratives become insufferable placebos for our spiritual aches and pains. For instance, a few months I heard a fantastically scathing review of Eat, Pray, Love–now a film starring Julia Roberts, who always seems to be playing some version of herself. The reviewer was a Catholic priest (among other obtuse habits, I’m addicted to Catholic Radio), who said that from the standpoint of spiritual growth, the only time the protagonist experiences a true revelation about herself and the universe is at the very beginning of the narrative, when she falls to her knees, weeping, praying to a god she barely believes in to change her life.
Recovering alcoholics would agree. The rest of Eat, Pray, Love’s narrative seems to be an ego-focused romp through various poses of spiritual awakening: first satisfy the body, then satisfy the spirit, then apply these lessons to relationships. Voila: here’s your growth! That’ll be $12.95 plus tax at your Barnes and Noble. Keep coming back. The slenderness of the novel’s spirituality is expressed best at the end of the heroine’s experience in the Ashram, when, after six weeks of meditating (see, Buddha… you didn’t have to take all those years!), she comes to the ego-salving conclusion that “God is me.” Every serious religious thinker from Augustine to Mohammed to Martin Luther King would be scandalized by this self-serving conclusion.
It seems to me that the best contemporary fiction–the narratives that resonate most powerfully with me, anyway–do explore our spiritual need to break out of the miasma of self, but usually wind up showing us that we fail, and that we fail because we don’t want to.
I had another drinking dream last night. This one was not the typical dream, accompanied with anxiety during the dream itself and afterward, followed finally by the waking sense of relief that it was, indeed, a fiction. No, this was pleasure upon pleasure: a pornographic recreation of my past dalliance with drink. The ritual uncorking. The odor of crisp, apple- and oak-scented wine. The first taste; and then the slow, hot explosion of alcohol inside my soft belly. And an almost Roman brutality in the pleasure I took doing it alone, in secret, as some “universal hubbub” went on outside the four walls of my dream–preparations for a battle? a celebration of something? Who knows? and who cared? Not me.
Kazuo Ishiguro (of Remains of the Day fame) is perhaps the present-day author who best addresses the psychology of that drinking dream. His protagonists almost consciously avoid the real truths of their reality, especially when those truths reveal that they themselves have been complicit in their own torture and/or the torture of others. We prefer the fog of self-deception, says Ishiguro, the hush of living in the past and future, rather than the horror of the present. We tell ourselves stories in order to live, he adds, because in order to live, we need lies–soothing, reassuring plots that have a beginning, a middle, and a satisfying ending. We prefer to drink the liquor of those lies in our secret, solitary places, rather than face the commotion outside ourselves.
Narratives are handy: most plots provide guideposts that we remember when traversing our own unfamiliar trails; their heroes and villains show us whom to emulate and whom to distrust along the way. But they live in the past and future: they are the lie of order applied to chaos, of sense applied to mystery. Only poetry–the art of the instant–can give us the present.
Of the things about which recovering addicts complain, the incapability of living truly “present tense” is constantly cited. “I wasn’t ever there,” you will hear again and again, with regard to the days of drinking or drugging. If anything, the addict more than anyone lives in the past and the future: the past is torturous (thus the addiction, and then torturous because of the addiction) and the future is the obsession (the next drink, the next fix). William Wordsworth was the great poet of this universal malady. He knew all of us, addicts or not, live only in the past and the future. Perhaps he saw in his opium-addicted friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a magnification of this truth. Of the present, of the moment, Wordsworth could only say (succinctly and ironically, for a change): “It moves us not.”
One reason to avoid the present, of course, is that it is Gawd Awful much of the time. (Sorry, William, it’s not just a field of daffodils.) Who hasn’t turned off the news in disgust from time to time? Or, as Samuel Beckett put it, “Humans can only take so much reality.” Indeed. If this is so often the case, what’s the point of living in the present? Better to stay in my anesthetized cocoon of booze or, if sober, just the lies a like to spin for myself.
There’s no “satisfying” answer to that question and the cowardly solution it presents. Poets only famously record the negative consequences of living wrapped in the smothering goose-down of self-deceptive egotism:
I was the God and the creation at once:
creator. I looked at my creation;
created, I looked at myself, the creator;
it was a maniacal horror in the end.
When we tell stories about ourselves, are we not indeed, as D.H. Lawrence says, “God and the creation at once”? The author and the protagonist? Frustratingly, the poem “New Heaven and Earth” does not tell us what is at the other end of the poet’s spiritual journey away from this repetitious narrative form: “Ah no, I cannot tell you what it is, the new world.” Perhaps this is because it is the reality of the instant and “not the old world, the old, changeless I, the old life.” We like the solidity of our known identities–no matter how cobbled together with half-truths and misremembered histories. There’s a reason most people say, for instance, that they hate surprises.
The other day I read a poem by a writer I’d never heard of before. “Death, Is All” by Ana Bozicevic. At the title alone, I winced. Take on death as your subject? Really? A few dozen poems from decades and centuries before came to mind. And I thought, I have read this before, this is nothing new–before scanning even the first stanza. But it was new, spectacularly so, and deceptively simple. Just a transcription of a poet trying to pin death down, her catching glimpses of it, its flying away, morphing into something else, teasing at the edges of her rational consciousness, her amusement at its contortions and slippages. The tone, light and self-aware, amused and pleased me. Something new!
I’m incredibly powerful in my ignorance. I’m incredible, like some kind of fuzzy star.
The nonsense of me is the nonsense of death, and
Oh look! Light through the trees on the lake: ….
I love the squirrel-shaped attention-span here, the crazy identification with “nonsense” and the perverse comfort drawn from not being able to make sense of something, or, better still, the inability to concentrate long enough to make sense of it. “Powerful in my ignorance” says this new poet–new to me. Just so.
Cleanthe Brooks and William Empson said that poetry was about paradox. Sandra Gilbert, more wisely and mildly, called it an “act of attention.” It is not easy to pay attention to things–which is perhaps the more thorough explanation of our contemporary allergy to all things poetic. We do not like to take the time to stop and give our consciousness over to a single, clear moment. Even if that moment is actually, so the poet might reveal to us, only as clear as “a fuzzy star.”
Unlike novels, in which the details are infinitely skip-able, poetry is only ever details. The devil is in the details, I’m told. And so is God.
I continue to tell myself stories in order to live. I have to have narratives to make sense of the chaotic realities and the infinitude of frustrating details that threaten to overwhelm me. I try to be the heroine in my own life, even as I admit painfully that I am just as frequently its villain. I tell myself stories in order to live, but I read poetry to remind myself what I’m living for.