Jeffrey Bahr over at Whimsy Speaks has done something of a post-mortem on what he's dubbed the "difficulty" conversation that was going on last week. I was struck by a paragraph that he wrote in his comments section:
There seems to be a whole lot of recent work in one of two camps: poetry that takes itself too seriously, and poetry that doesn't take itself seriously enough. The first class has a long history, of course. The second category is chock-a-block with poems consisting of line after line of ironical observation. Either can make for difficult reading, and it's particularly confusing when members of the former persuasion laud members of the latter -- say, when Ramke blurbs for Rohrer.This is a wonderfully simple take that, rephrased, gets to the heart of what gets me so itchy about the so-called "popular poets" like Collins and Olds who have been my collective straw man. That is, I think such poetsparticularly Collinsfall into the "don't take poetry seriously enough" camp. They may take their subject matter seriously, or THEMSELVES seriously (never an attractive choice), but they don't take POETRY seriously. Every line I've read by Collins (who's all about "ironical observation," after all) seemed calculated to diminish poetry as an art, to make it your easygoing buddy that would join you in mooning everything associated with High Seriousness and the sublime. At best, such poets use poetry to assume the privilege of a bardic position without actually permitting language to use them, without becoming inspired in Plato's sense. Bahr seems to worry a little more about those who take poetry too seriously, arguing that poetry is fundamentally about entertainment and not in itself important when compared to "saving lives or raising children." Well, this is kind of a dead-end argument, isn't it? Nothing in the aesthetic realm has any practical use, by definitionpoetry doesn't get your shoelaces safely tied, let alone raise children. Nonetheless we talk about "needing" poetry and even "dying for lack of what is found there"if you accept that human beings have non-material needs without which life seems not worth living, then poetry surely attempts to satisfy those needs. I have no wish to make poetry into a religion, but I do get some of that sense of participation that I associate with the religious from reading and writing poetryparticipation in a collective effort toward the greater coherency of human energy, the larger extension of the franchise of personhood. (I'm going to have to spend some more time with Grossman and write about it here; but every time I sit down with The Sighted Singer [I just typed "The Sighted Signer"] I simply end up wanting to quote the whole thing.) So I'm not sure it's possible for us to take poetry too seriously, except insofar as we might come to neglect political and ethical obligations in favor of feeding our private muses. For what it's worth, I happen to think Matt Rohrer takes poetry very seriously, just not himself or poetry-as-institution. Frank O'Hara took poetry seriously too.