Please welcome W.M. Driscoll to the Crossroads.
Aristotle called poetry “imitation”, not in the negative sense, but in the sense that all art is an imitation of life. Centuries later, and halfway around the world, beat poet Allen Ginsberg would claim that poetry was “the one place where people can speak their original human mind.” These always struck me as two wildly divergent ideas bracketing centuries of rich and varied poetic traditions. When I, occasionally, find myself thinking on what it means to be a poet in our young tech-savvy century, and on the state of the art itself, I often look back on this sweeping arc of styles and purposes with astonishment.
There is little record of the first poets who seem to have been the intergenerational transmitters of knowledge and wisdom for their non-literate societies the shamans and wise people, if you will, and their poetry a mnemonic language designed to aid in this transmission. Since then, with the advent of the written and then printed word, poets around the world and their poetry have been transformed anew many times, the poets taking on the guises of oracles and historians, prophets, entertainers and philosophers; their poetry shifting to become here the mystic’s song, there the pious’ devotions, the troubadour’s lilting love plea or the bard’s narrative scaffolding.
Born into an era every bit as transformative technologically, socially and artistically as any in the recorded past, I regret to say our current poetry and poetic forms seem to me to be failing to meet the challenge of their times, seeming for the most part oddly lackluster and devoid of purpose, beleaguered by alternative expression (popular music especially) and starved by neglect. Having retreated into the cloistered sanctuary of the academies (never a good sign for an art) and having erected a “thou shalt” dragon, a rigid set of rules and guidelines that not even Nietzsche could slay, the stultifying blandness of much of the poetry being currently produced is staggering, its sole purpose appearing to be that of a political or cultural tool, an elite plaything for the parochial few.
Bleak as my view of the current poetic landscape may seem, I take heart in knowing that it will not continue this way for long. As the late Nineteenth Century French Realists (who controlled the academies and the salons in their day and used these vehicles of authority to proscribe a ‘correct’ form for their art) gave way to the impressionists and post-impressionists, so too something new and vital will inevitably grow from the authoritarian decay and public neglect of our once vibrant and striking modern and post-modern poetic forms. In fact, I can see green shoots pushing their way up through the cracked earth all around; they are ripe for the plucking–from the poetry slams and open mike nights in every major city to the individual poet boards that formed first on Usenet (the creaky old uncle of today’s social media), then spread from website to website, group to group.
What does it mean to be a poet in today’s technological, post-industrial, post-modern world? For me, personally, it has meant being a voice in the wilderness crying the coming of a modern Manet and the inevitable return of the Salon de Refusés. But for others, especially the young poets I watch daily using the technology and new paradigms that have so baffled many of us, their older contemporaries, I look forward to seeing the direction they will take poetry and all the arts in the years to come–to an inevitable flowering, a crossing over into a promised land of wonderful living art, no doubt, an art that my behemoth generation as we pass clumsily from the earth might not live to see.