Thursday, July 5, 2012

800 Words: How I Learned to Start Worrying and Hate Poetry

July 4th is important in America for many reasons, not the least of which is that it’s the anniversary of the publication of Leaves of Grass’s first edition in 1855. It is the ‘inauguration date’ of American poetry, and to some it doubtless marks the publication of the greatest, most influential, and most significant of all American books. Oh how I wish I was still one of them.

As an eighteen year old boarding school student who covered up insecurity with insufferable intellectual pretensions (how little life changes...), I suppose it was a given that I’d take to American poetry like a fish to water. At the Hyde school, we were surrounded by the lovely dark and deep green coniferous trees of rural Connecticut, a landscape that seemed to radiate the folksy severity that’s defined New England life since the Puritans. No doubt, many if not most of the kids at Hyde used those woods at some point to smoke pot, but when I walked through them, I could convince myself that I was breathing the same air as Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Longfellow, Whitman, Dickinson, Eliot, Frost, Stevens, Cummings, and Elizabeth Bishop.

Whether or not that love was real, I certainly believed it was. I felt as though I loved poetry, and I think I even understood some of it. But whether I did or I didn’t, I couldn’t get enough of it. I wrote at least 300 poems of my own, and I held ‘poetry readings’ at the school where I would try to get other Hyde students who exhibited even a glimmer of intellectual energy to get their thoughts down on paper.

I’m 30 years old now, I’ve long since lost touch with virtually everybody from Hyde and can’t say I particularly miss too many people from that period. Those poems of mine currently exist somewhere in an accordion folder, no doubt boxed up somewhere in my parents’ attic. Most of the poetry I once loved seems to me a colossal waste of hormones - an exalting of an inner life and that doesn’t really exist and an escape from dealing with the actual complexities of living. But I miss feeling that way about poetry.

The whole idea that art can bring us into a special world - an inner world of ecstasy and mysticism in which art and philosophy can feed the ‘spirit’ and the ‘soul’ - now seems like the dumb musings of upper class twits who know too little of what life really is to ever reach it. Art is no better than religion at soul-feeding, and all we have to do is look at the sophisticated aesthetic tastes of atheist mass murderers to see that art can be just as dangerous: Hitler was a Wagner-loving painter, Saddam wrote novels in his spare time, Stalin and Mao were both poets in their younger years. If we look to art as a substitute for our baser instincts and fanaticism, we may do no better than we did with religion. Art, like religion, is hopefully a way to pacify our baser tendencies, but there’s no guarantee that either does. In some, art inspires greater humanity and humility. In some, art inspires less. If music or poetry inspires you to listen to other people more attentively, to be more considerate in what you think, to be more skeptical toward the beliefs with which you agree and more charitable to those with which you disagree, then culture can truly be said to have a beneficial impact on people. But is there any truly quantifiable way to measure that? And if we do, what happens if we find out that art affects people’s ability to become better people not at all, or makes people worse?

There is lots of poetry I still love, but most of it is much less grand in intent - small-scale poems by Philip Larkin or Billy Collins meant to make us laugh or cry, without abiding ambition to capture any greater meaning than the emotions we feel every day. The ecstasy of poetry, the feeling that you were reaching some higher level of inward consciousness and aesthetic bliss, no longer seems real to me. The days when Whitman or Dante or Milton or Goethe could bowl me over have likely passed on forever.

Furthermore, I’m not even sure anymore why people should or would read it. Twelve years ago, I certainly thought of myself as a dyed-in-the-wool leftist, but even then I used to bristle at the idea of resenting Dead White Males for writing better poetry than everybody else. To my 17-year-old brain, puffed up in many cases on the Harold Bloom filter rather than the texts of the books themselves, the thought that we’d ditch Milton for Maya Angelou was an abomination. But as I started to carry my own version of precisely that same resentment: the Dead White Goy.

Even until today, the whole concept of the “Dead White Male” never made any sense to me as an aesthetic concern. It makes very little sense for students to read a book by a particular writer because of the ethnic group he or she is from. Supposedly, the best art is created for all of us to appreciate; and if we want our students to be well-educated, then we must have them read the best books - regardless of who wrote them. And unfortunately, for most of human history, White Males were the only people in the world with the time and money to cultivate a highly developed aesthetic sense. Practice makes perfect, and the fact that there’s no equivalent to Tolstoy among Zulus is not a question of racial prejudice, it simply has to do with the unfortunate dumb luck that the vast majority (though hardly all) of people born through history with enough privilege to practice their art were White Males. Most other civilizations lived through far too much hardship to worry themselves about any art that wasn’t expediently made to serve a utilitarian purpose.

But the Dead White Goy is a very simple concept for me - and it was years before I realized that this complaint of mine is precisely identical to the Dead White Male for other minorities (I certainly didn't call it the 'Dead White Goy' until I saw the similarity). I'm a conservative Jew born and raised among other Jews in Northwest Baltimore. What matters is not whether the books I read correspond to reality, but whether the books I read correspond to my reality - the only reality I know. How could a kid raised in my milleu ever hope to understand what makes The Divine Comedy, or Paradise Lost, or The Brothers Karamazov a transcendent experience? I like to think I know more about Christian history and doctrines than many Christians, but my experience of Christianity is almost completely abstract: I know relatively few believing Christians, and I can probably count the times I've been to a Christian service on my hands. How am I supposed to understand why these beliefs mean so much to certain people? Furthermore, how could a person with a childhood like mine appreciate works that are shrouded in Pagan Mythology? How could Faust, or Ode to a Grecian Urn, or the Lady of Shallott, with their classical allusions and/or Norse/Celtic mythological references mean anything to me?

Christianity vs. Paganism is not my fight. Whether Christian or Pagan, all those reams of allegedly great literature which harps on the worlds of the spirit mean very little to a kid raised to believe that within a year of their death, every person gets into Heaven; a place so boring that the only thing to do for all eternity is to study the Torah. The idea itself of the spirit world is an extremely goyisher concept, almost completely at odds with any Jewish mindset I know (Isaac Bashevis Singer being an extraordinary exception to this rule). Judaism, a religion I was steeped in from the earliest age and whose outlook permeates every aspect of my life - whether I like it or not - is a religion of laws, ethics and customs. It is a supremely practical religion, concerned hardly at all with questions of the afterlife and only with how we conduct ourselves in our own world.

But if I, a shy bookish kid who had very little he loved more than to read, could not relate to this literature, how much less relateable is Tennyson or Dostoevsky to the existence of inner city kids from the projects who are barely exposed at all to the written word? If we want to make as many of them into readers as possible, then they need literature that speaks to them as much as Franz Kafka or Saul Bellow speak to me. It's a trial and error process, and we may not like the books which they love.

So why do we hesitate in allowing for these differences of mindset? To my mind, that can only be explicable by the 'Halo' effect - not the video game, but the pretentious cathedral-like reverence that surrounds certain works of art that makes us feel that we should appreciate them even if we don’t. It’s the hush of Milton and Wagner, Bob Dylan and Stanley Kubrick (we kid ourselves if we think such sentiments don’t exist in popular culture as much as aristocratic), in which the self-conscious loftiness of their work dupes insecure people into thinking that dreary loftiness of aim is the same thing as intelligence. a.k.a. This is boring and grandiose, therefore it must be amazing.

This is the hush of the high school English class, in which we read precisely the same books our grandparents read in their English classes (...except for Death of a Salesman), and 16 year old versions of us are expected to appreciate precisely how the work of a 19th century transcendentalist describing the flora and fauna of the New England springtime applies to our everyday life. How is a sixteen year old kid supposed to have enough life experience to relate to Song of Myself? Or The Scarlett Letter? Or Moby Dick? I’m now thirty, and I still don’t relate to them.

And yet I can’t deny that there is something comforting in the very unrelateableness of that literature. The fact that it speaks of a world about which I knew/know nothing was part of its very appeal to my adolescent self. I went to a school I hated with lots of kids I couldn’t stand and no hope of getting out of there before graduation, and here was a world completely unencumbered by reality - a world which tells you that a completely separate reality is but a page away. Today, I don’t think much of the idea that books exist to take you out of yourself - that seems all too much like an excuse to act like an ass in your real life. But I can’t deny that, occasionally, perhaps that’s a necessary sentiment. And perhaps I’ll see more reason for it again as the years go on. 

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