The Noble Art Is Not So Noble

For some time now, I have received the “poem of the week” from a UK poetry publisher that bills itself as the largest in the world. Some of these poems are the work of established figures—John Ashbery, Les Murray, Louise Gluck—while others pour in from an unending cascade of entry hopefuls, all hyped to the skies and practically all completely ephemeral. When I peruse the last one hundred such items in my folder, I can honestly say that only three or four were reasonably comprehensible or demonstrated some degree of verbal competence, apt phrasing, and a unique perspective on experience.

Poetry, to be sure, is no longer a popular art, appealing now merely to the tiny minority of the cognoscenti, but it nevertheless remains a cultural marker. It functions as a barometer of the times, often initially adversarial in mode and content, and as a preserver of linguistic caliber. When it falters and grows culturally mimetic, it violates its ancestral mandate while revealing the decline it both mirrors and participates in. Smarmy self-indulgence combined with inscrutable or undistinguished language is as reliable a sign of cultural marasmus as we can detect in any other field. It is also no surprise that the majority of poetic practitioners appear to embrace the progressivist ethos of the day.

When poets, who presumably know the history of the noble art and who plume themselves on a special dispensation of creative talent, deep-bred individuality, and cognitive acuity, present themselves as ideological nitwits, political ignoramuses, sanctimonious upholders of the debased norms of the era, and purveyors of clichés and banalities couched in smudgy and ecdysial language, then we know the culture is sick and faces a long and arduous road to recovery.

Poetry is not “the noble art of losing face,” as in Danish poet Piet Hein’s witty little Grooks, but the noble art of gaining legitimate cultural stature and authority. Poets were once understood as the custodians of language and provisional arbiters of cultural taste, forging (in the positive sense) what James Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man called “the uncreated conscience of [the] race.” Regrettably, at least since the hormonal sixties, poets have tended to become run-of-the-mill apologists for the status quo, and it shows in their work.