Poetry, A Serious Business

In a prose-poem book I’m reading called Migritude (which I may review in the future) for a class one of the sections is introduced through a quote from poet Adrienne Rich:

The impulse to create begins–often terribly and fearfully–in a tunnel of silence. Every real poem is the breaking of an existing silence, and the first question we might ask any poem is, what kind of voice is breaking silence, and what kind of silence is being broken?

A giant theme in Migritude is silence, thus the reason why the author, Shailja Patel, chose this quote, and even though the quote seems to make sense on the surface it actually represents a lot of what is wrong with the arts, particularly literature. For one thing there’s the idea that the creative impulse emerges from a tunnel of silence. This is wholly wrong. Personally, my impulse to create often comes when I have read a good poem or story. I started writing poetry when I was first introduced to the poetry of Wallace Stevens; had I never read a single line of poetry it seems unlikely that I would have ever picked-up the pen to write my own. So no, the impulse to create often does not come from silence, but rather being surrounded by communication and art, meaning that not only is Rich wrong, but that the exact inverse is correct. (One might be able to argue the weakness of my refutation citing that it’s purely anecdotal, but my experience is probably shared with most artists.)

Rich then states that every real poem is the breaking of an existing silence. I place an emphasis on real because that is how I read it. What she is implying is that only “real poetry” breaks silence; this means that “real poems” are somehow a breaking of some sort of silence, meaning that “real poems” do important things. As for the rest of the sentiment one can take this at face-value and say “duh, of course it breaks silence, poetry is a form of communication, the opposite of silence,” however what’s truly problematic about the quote is what is implied. From the tone of the quote it is clear that what Rich is really arguing is how “important” poetry is because poetry, after all, breaks silence (and isn’t it ironic that Adrienne Rich’s quote talks about breaking silence, you know, because she’s dead?) Here is the problem with how people regard the arts: They take it way too seriously. What this quote represents is an idea that art is “serious business” where no fun is allowed. But this idea circumvents reality for art, in essence, is really just entertainment, albeit a higher form. This is not to say that art is incapable of breaking political, ideological or cultural “silences,” but by saying that”real poems” are not entertainment, but perform important societal and spiritual functions one places an unwarranted importance on art. This is why there are so many books and poems around that are snore-inducing, because the creators believe that art’s primary function isn’t to interest the reader, but rather to give a lecture or augment society for the better. Again, not saying that artists and writers shouldn’t try to be political or deal with important issues, but a true artist shouldn’t forget that he is an artist first and a political commentator second; if the artist forgets this then his work is more likely to suffer. For example, here’s a poem from Patel’s book, a poem called “First Dates in Utopia”:

In this room, for one hour
let’s be easy in our skins
observe ourselves
with gentle curiosity
proffer and accept
selected morsels of our lives.

Let’s regard each other
with eyes that smile
with faces that engage,
savor without urgency
the strangeness of being human.

This poem is terrible (especially the lines, “eyes that smile / with faces that engage”) because Patel is more interested in expounding a particular message (and a banal one as well) than engaging the reader with intriguing connections, imagery, wordplay or music. This is because art isn’t supposed to be fun, but supposed to be “educational” and “important;” the gravest sin one could ever committ is to have fun with his verse goshdarnit! What’s also confounding is that no one realizes that writing a poem held together by things like imagery and wordplay actually does the message a greater service for it’s provided a greater and more impacting vessel to transport itself to the reader. The sentiment expressed in Patel’s poem is similar to that of many Whitman poems, yet I can read a poem by Whitman and be more compelled by the sentiment because of the way it’s communicated and this is because Whitman was a poet first, and a “serious commentator” and “silence-decimater” second–reading Patel’s poem I feel nothing.

Patel’s book contains poems of similar ilk, yet Migritude is highly praised for it deals with serious issues, and artistic worth is now synonymous with “societal import.” What’s troubling about this is that generic poems and art earns undeserved accolades while good art is largely ignored. And if a good piece of art manages to get positive attention it is for the wrong reasons.

This all goes back to Rich’s quote for it represents this idea, that art that aspires to be “real” has to break some sort of silence, has to be important because art is super serious business. Life is defined by suffering and so is our art, goddamnit! But ultimately, what emerges from this idea is bad art made by pretentious people. The great critic and poet Dan Schneider on his website, Cosmoetica, argues that art is just a manifestation of fun. This doesn’t mean that art can’t be serious, but it’s a creative form of expression first, spurred by a desire to do something enjoyable. People, like Rich, who think that the creative impulse results (terribly and fearfully no less) from some deeply-rooted, existential or spiritual need to fill some void, have a warped sense as to what art is; this results in people championing rather dull and polemic verse, thus one of the major issues with the arts today.

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