In an episode of The Simpsons, Ned Flanders goes mad. Lashing out wildly at every person in the town of Springfield, Flanders’ acid tongue finally rests on Lisa Simpson, the town know-it-all. “And here is Lisa,” Flanders snaps, “Springfield’s answer to the question nobody asked.” If you would like to know why the awfully uncultured milieu often doesn’t like poetry, maybe Ned Flanders has the key. What is poetry sometimes if not a haunting, hurting, gorgeous, painstakingly measured response to absolutely the wrong question? All those adjectives distract the aficionados from understanding why a person wouldn’t want to sit down and read pages and pages of stanzas. But who is the lover of the poet here? The vanguards of the meaningless, endless trope, or the people who tune it out, buy Chicken Noodle Soup for the Teenaged Soul and are satisfied?
Now I won’t be trite and start off with the phrase, “these days”. It is not just in these days, but in all days, that poets have failed. Poetry itself has not failed, since it is its own measure. For what did poetry ask, what did poetry demand in the old days? It asked to be beautiful, honest, and true. It wanted to be a reflection of the human. And that is, for better or worse, what it was. The final stanza of Baudelaire’s “Brown Beggar Maid” captures it perfectly: “Then go, with no more ornament/ Pearl, diamond, or subtle scent/ Than your own fragile naked grace/ And lovely face.” And that is sometimes what poetry was: an unornamented, simple confession in spite of, and utterly because of, itself–the being as articulation, a “promise taken flight by its own shape”, to quote the modern poet Dan Quick.
But, however fine and touching, these poems were and are confessions of a lack. Now, as then, much of poetry is a consistent evasion. The poems are the metered apologies of the writers who craft them—and the great sin is a matter of subject. Poets continue to write works that answer the wrong questions. The difference between early modern poetry and today’s poetry is how the poets committed these crimes. Poets like Baudelaire evaded the question through simplicity. Their poems were precious things which touched on easy subjects: a woman’s grace, love and loss, carpe diem ad nauseum—and don’t get me wrong, at one point these were the questions which needed to be answered. But these were not the questions which belonged to all the poets who wrote of them. Just as we do not ask our baker the question which should be addressed to our priest, or ask our priest that which should be directed towards our physician, so it is with the artist. Each has a different calling. Say it is specialization or say it is cosmic destiny: all our questions cannot be the same. And yet many poets latch onto the same questions, and the result is that you can read three poems by three different poets on three different subjects, and get the bewildering, haunting sensation that you have just read the same poem, thrice over. If earlier poets created works which were unornamented confessions, today’s poets use structure, and workshops, and inaccessible ideas to complicate their words and their lack of meaning. They borrow upon traditions in which they detect meaning and react against them, as if reaction were an answer. And now the poetry created is once again beautiful, honest, true, in the revelatory sense–but is it no wonder that no one wants to read it? For what does it reveal, evasion not phrased in pretty words like Baudelaire, but evasion phrased in harsh, grating, contrarian terms, framed by maze-like structures which can only ever be seen as a “Keep Out!” sign on a child’s door. Why bother? If all the poets are going to talk about is love, loss, and the fleeting nature of time, why should I hear about it and be insulted, too? Why not listen to my pop music and let them tell me the same story, the same poem and let them be nicer about it?
There were always those great poets who, in spite of it all, struggled and fought and died to answer the question which came on its knees to their doorstep. But others were cowards. They were clever and sad cowards, like Kafka’s canine scientist in “Investigations of a Dog,” who spent his life researching the manner in which his fellow comrades received sustenance when the true, difficult question of his life was music. And what did the dog do? Like evasive poets, the dog obfuscated and complicated the question he chose. He was blind to the answers which surrounded him. The scientist never wanted to end his researches into sustenance because then he would have to deal with the original question: music. He could not—would not—do that. And so it is with the poet, he deals with issues of sustenance such as love, sex, and time, and while all of these may run tangential to the deeper question, may even be entangled in the deeper question, they are not by any means the question. Poets today can write one hundred poems about a woman’s anatomy, and the life ephemeral, and gardens, but further than this they will not go. They hold firmly to the secret maxim which Kafka articulates in “The Great Wall of China”: “Try with all your might to comprehend the decrees of the high command, but only up to a certain point; then avoid further meditation.” Near the end of Manhattan (1979), Woody Allen’s character Isaac articulates the problem perfectly when he discusses his idea for a story which would be about “people in Manhattan who are constantly creating these real, unnecessary, neurotic problems for themselves ’cause it keeps them from dealing with more unsolvable, terrifying problems about… the universe.”
Just like Allen’s Manhattanites, poets practice avoidance par excellence. They get away with it because they deal with issues of sustenance, they deal with issues that have immediate bearing and resonance in their readers’ lives. Yet today the evasion has taken on a new more desperate, detached, and condescending tone. So the audience is turned off—the child’s sweet performance degenerates to a tantrum and the mother turns, bothered, bored, calls over the maid and leaves the room to powder her nose.
Poetry is beautiful because it will always be honest. Every poem says something about its author and its author’s intentions. And if the writer has been honest, then his insight will come through. Standing before an audience at his Nobel Lecture, Caribbean poet Derek Walcott said that “For every poet it is always morning in the world.” It is a question then, of how a poet decides to face the world upon the evacuation of his dreams. Does he claw after the paradise he has left? Does he re-hash nightmares regardless of meaning because he has learned to equate pain with depth? These are not the “real poets” as Franny describes in Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, “They’re just people that write poems that get published and anthologized all over the place.”
What are the real poets? How do they confront the world in its morning? Of course these are questions I cannot answer, questions best left for the poet herself. These are the questions which as Kafka archly asserts challenge not only our consciences but the very ground on which we live, the very ground on which we write. I feel though that ironically enough, Charles Baudelaire may be onto something in “Brown Beggar Maid”. His words deserve revisitation: “Then go, with no more ornament/ Pearl, diamond, or subtle scent/ Than your own fragile naked grace/ And lovely face.”