Saturday, August 13, 2011

Isn't Howling What Animals Do?

As a child, I was taught in school that poetry was an art form, with an emphasis on the word form. Rhyme and meter were probably the most obvious aspects of poetic form, but I gradually became familiar with other aspects of poetic form as well.

Not that there wasn't also a substantial amount of thought-provoking content in the poems of people such as Robert Frost. In fact, the poems with which I initially became acquainted were actually about something; and rather than trying to cover up a lack of content by writing in such an obscure and formless manner that one spent most of one's time trying to decipher the meaning, the form actually seemed to enhance the meaning of nearly every poem.

It was a lot easier to respect poets back then. They actually seemed to exhibit a certain measure of self-discipline in the ways that they wrote.

Such poetry didn't usually leave readers feeling befuddled and confused. It might take a little bit of work in order to understand every last reference in some  poems (especially when reading poems which had been written centuries ago), but an imperfect understanding could usually be achieved, unless the poem was one where the entire point was to engage in verbal gymnastics which would delight readers with the sound of the words alone, without reference to any content.

I am thinking, for instance, of the writings of Lewis Carroll, whose poem "Jabberwocky" was considered to be an example of the genre known as "literary nonsense". I'm not sure who came up with that label, but you have to hand it to them for their honesty.

However, compared to the writers of some of the garbage now being marketed as poetry, Lewis Carroll demonstrated that he was a master of clarity.  At least Mr. Carroll was somewhat funny, which is more than many modern poets can claim.

Is it any wonder that poetry sells so poorly these days? People don't like wasting their time trying to decipher the intentions of writers who don't seem to have any idea what they are trying to say.

The way I look at it, the whole point of expressing things with words is communication, not obfuscation! If a writer cannot be bothered learning how to communicate with clarity, then why should I be bothered trying to read that writer's mind in order to compensate for that writer's laziness and communicative deficiencies? Life is too short for that kind of time-killing nonsense.

Traditional poetry nearly always required mastery of whatever form might be required for a particular kind of poem. Epic poems were dramatically different from haiku, and both were dramatically different from psalms, but all three forms were definable. They all possessed certain characteristics which could be both studied and mastered.

Traditional poems might can be somewhat constrictive, compared with prose, in the sense that poets who hope to create poems with a definable style are not (or traditionally have not been) free to use all of the words in the dictionary in any way they see fit. But that, it seems to me, is part of the secret to the delight which well-written poems can bring.

If everyone could competently create good poetry, everyone would do it.

By creating an "anything goes" climate in which no one has a basis for declaring a poem to be objectively good or objectively bad, the pioneers of modern poetry effectively created a situation in which any pretentious person with nothing much of value to say can therefore claim to be a poet and an "artiste".

There is order in the universe, as seen from the viewpoint of a Christian such as myself. That sense of order can be seen in many traditional poems, regardless of whether or not the subject of those specific poems is specifically Christian or religious. Notice, however, that I describe such poems as traditional. As time has gone by, we have entered an era in which rules of any kind whatsoever have come to be seen as anathema.

As a side comment, I might note that anathema once referred to rejection by eccliastical authorities within the Catholic church, and to some extent, it still does. But popes and Bishops hold less sway these days, so that the word anathema is also defined broadly as "something or someone that one vehemently dislikes". (Merriam-Webster)

So, for example, if a person is excommunicated from the Catholic church for practicing homosexuality, then that person is "anathema" according to the older definition of the word. But if members of the "gay community" vehemently dislike Catholic leaders for the reason that gays embrace an utterly different set of values, then those religious leaders are likewise "anathema" according to the newer, secondary definition of the word.

When one thinks about it, that's kind of amusing. Gays like to criticize their critics for being "judgmental," but it turns out that they are just as "guilty" of judging others. The only difference, as far as I can see, is that they are subservient to a different (contradictory) set of moral principles.

When freedom is seen as a necessary means to a desirable end, then it is worthy of being defended. But freedom for its own sake can, ironically, become a form of slavery.

It might seem odd to some readers that I'm talking about relativistic morality, when the original subject of this blog post was modern changes of attitudes regarding poetic styles. But bear with me, because I think there is a relationship.

Carl Sandburg, from Chicago, was one of the poets to begin to challenge the rules of poetry. Free verse seemingly operated in accordance with a rejection of the use of rules and formulas, regardless of what the nature of those rules and formulas might be. Robert Frost once wrote that free verse was comparable to playing tennis without a net. (And how long would you want to spend, watching that kind of a tennis game? Without the net, how could either player legitimately declare victory?)

Some people might argue that a lover of jazz, such as myself, ought of all people to appreciate the value of spontanaeity. But this displays a sad misunderstanding of jazz. It's true that jazz involves a level of improvisation which is seldom observed in modern performances of classical music, which is mostly about the interpretation of written transcriptions in an attempt to replicate the original experience of listening to those pieces of music for the very first time. But even classical music has changed over the last several centuries. Improvisation was a component of the original performances of classical music (as seen in the movie "Amadeus"). I suspect that if we had high quality recordings of those pieces as performed by people such as Mozart, as is the case with even the earliest examples of jazz, the differences between jazz music and classical music would be far less obvious. There would be more improvisation of classical music, because modern performers wouldn't be burdened with the preservationist functions which now dominate the manner in which classical music is usually performed.

Jazz is just as beholden to form as any piece of classical music. In fact, it's precisely because the jazz format is so well known that jazz usually sounds so coherent (even when jazz musicians are  "jamming" with musicians they've never even met before), in spite of the improvisation. (There are exceptions, such as the "free jazz" of Sun Ra, but that is not by any means the only type of jazz; and in fact, it's doubtful that the majority of people who consider themselves to be lovers of jazz prefer that type, preferring instead the numerous other varieties, including Dixieland, Swing, Bebop, Hard Bop, Fusion and "smooth jazz".)

It's been written that "free verse" is not utterly lacking in form, but rather, that the poet is "free" to make up his own rules as he or she goes along. But of course, a "rule" which is non-binding isn't really a rule at all. If a "rule" is known and understood only by one person (the person who has just finished making it up), then it really isn't a rule at all, is it?

It doesn't take much of a stretch, in my opinion, to see a connection between that rather noticeable aspect of free verse and the moral relativism which dominated modern thought during the twentieth century.

The connection between the two had not yet become glaringly apparent in the poems of Sandburg, but by the time when Allan Ginsberg read his profanity-filled so-called poem "Howl", it had become glaringly apparent that poets were no longer content to thumb their noses at the stylistic rules of traditional poetry. They took things to their logical conclusion, and decided, as well, to thumb their noses at the rules of traditional morality, and to foolishly spit in the face of God.

Inasmuch as one of the stylistic elements of traditional poetry is alliteration (from which I occasionally derive a certain amount of amusement), I found myself composing a little alliterative poem (earlier today) which poetically describes how I might have talked about Ginsberg if I'd tried to do so while he was still alive:

Please pray
     for the puerile poet
with the pathetic propensity
     for pointless profanity.

Some might use the preceding poem as evidence of my "judgmentalism". I would wear such a criticism as a badge of honor. In this modern era, in which art is whatever anyone chooses to call art, and in which anyone who shows any backbone with regard to matters of morality is ostracized by the self-appointed arbiters of all that is "cool" and "hip", I long for a time when the word "standards" did not just refer to tunes which all jazz musicians were expected to know by heart.

It also referred to moral standards, without which the world would be ruled by chaos.

Artists, whether they be poets or novelists or musicians, ought to care less about whether or not they will be embraced by the self-appointed taste makers (who, in many cases, are pathetically out of touch with the values of ordinary people in the real world) than about whether or not they will eventually be embraced by God, who is the source of the artistic impulse which is so frequently abused.

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