A few weeks ago I found an awesomely weird book at a church rummage sale. In a box with other dusty things was this small but serious-looking hardbound book called Man Made Plain: The Poet in Contemporary Society
Apparently during the '50s a Harvard sociologist named Robert N. Wilson made a study of "the poet" and what made him tick. This sociologist, who died in 2002, took a sociologist's approach to his topic: he researched and conducted interviews and even administered a psychological test to a number of poets and other writers.
Turns out Robert Wilson was really smart, and he really liked poetry. Much of his book reads more like a good English class than I imagined a sociological study would sound, but the very existence of it is sociologically interesting. I mean, he wouldn't have needed a study to understand the poet's role if he didn't consider it a marginalized one to begin with. And while I'm well aware that the reading of poems isn't as popular a pastime these days as watching youtube, I didn't really know whether poetry was hurtin' 50 years ago, too. Evidently it was. In the book's foreword psychologist Henry A. Murray wonders if "the sorrowfully narrow influence of modern poets" is indicative of "a drying of the springs of hope, passion, and fecundity." Yikes!
I'm not pretending that I don't understand why readers are put off by poems that seem willfully obtuse, and I know that many people cringingly associate poetry with the things they themselves are embarrassed to have written as teenagers. But it wasn't until I started caring enough about my own poetry to want to share it that I learned how fiercely some people resist it.
As always, I had a blast at the vibrant and inspiring Philadelphia Zine Fest last week. However, I also had the following dispiriting interaction. As I was browsing people's tables I picked up an interesting comic and wondered if its creator would do a trade. (Most zinesters are happy to swap one of their little books for one of your little books rather than take money for it.) So I asked the guy, who was sitting there looking up at me, "Do you like poetry?" "No," he said, sort of brightly and without a moment's hesitation. Um, okay. You don't like any poetry. Isn't that sort of like saying you don't like music? Or any other category of stuff? I don't run around wearing a cape or a stovepipe hat but that doesn't mean I don't like "clothes."
Still, even after this annoying conversation I wouldn't go as far as Murray did in his mostly-cloudly foreword. Poems may have disappeared from most general-interest newspapers and magazines, but they're out there, often in publications that don't aspire to the literary at all. And that's one of the most interesting things about all this, come to think of it. Most of the people who have announced to me that they don't like poetry are also the type who consider themselves trendily intellectual, who'd be happy to chime in with something about postmodernism if they felt the conversation called for it. I wonder what this is all about. Surely all the smarty-pantses of the world haven't forgotten that poetry can be funny as well as dark and sometimes (like life) both things at once. Or that plenty of latter-day poetry is as straightforward
as an arrow to the heart, but that poems written in traditional forms are ageless and wonderful too.
I know a woman who's a performance poet, and once when she was telling me about a spoken word piece she'd recently heard and had found particularly insightful she slapped her thigh and said, "Now that's f***ing USEFUL!" I loved that. Of course good poetry is useful. It doesn't keep ships afloat but, well, yes it does.
p.s. I gave that dude one of my poetry zines anyway. I wonder if he'll read it. Either way I like the idea of it sitting in his backpack or on the tank of his toilet, waiting for him in case he changes his mind.
p.p.s. This is where the title of the sociology book came from:
Was this the poet? It is man.
The poet is but man made plain,
A glass-cased watch, through which you scan The multitudinous beat-and-pain, The feverish fine small mechanism, And hear it ticking while it sings.
Behold, this delicate paroxysm
Obedient to rebellious springs!
? Ushant, Conrad Aiken
p.p.p.s. Aiken avoided service in World War I by claiming that, as a poet, he was part of an "essential industry."