So there I was taking a hot shower this morning and I found myself thinking about Bullwinkle’s Corner. Those of a certain generation will recall that the Corner was a 60-90 second feature within the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” show during which the intrepid Bullwinkle J. Moose would attempt to read or recite a famous poem, only to be interrupted by comic mayhem of one sort or another. Bullwinkle can be seen here, his book of verse in hand, sporting a tasteful morning coat and string tie, leaning all nonchalant on his Greco-roman podium, surrounded by the trappings of culture: a green curtain and a large potted plant.
What struck me -- apart from the steamy droplets falling from the showerhead, ho ho -- was this: Bullwinkle’s Corner mocked the convention of the public poetry reading as civic occasion and therefore assumes the audience is familiar with those conventions. Moreover, it assumes that its audience of early-1960s children already knows most of the poems. There is a presumed familiarity with the material and the cultural milieu that would make no sense today.
Checking a list of the works presented by the majestic moose reveals a larger percentage of nursery rhymes than I had at first recalled -- which we will assume were still a familiar part of the standard American childhood at the time. But the list also features a hefty proportion of Serious Verse: hefty helpings of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (The Village Blacksmith, The Children’s Hour, Excelsior), Robert Louis Stevenson (My Shadow, Where Go the Boats), Edgar Allan Poe (The Raven, of course), John Greenleaf Whittier (Barefoot Boy (with cheeks of tan)) and William [no middle name] Wordsworth (The Daffodils, for picking which without a license the antlered aesthete is incarcerated). Who, creating a cartoon today, would expect any audience familiarity with such things? Nobody, that’s who.
Which brings us to the oft-remarked disappearance of poetry from public consciousness. Over the course of 40 years, poetry has declined from being a sufficiently common experience that it could be the subject of jokes in a cartoon to being essentially invisible in the popular sphere. Some of the particular poems and poets in the Bullwinkle canon have faded from view because their homespun sentiment or thumpy thumpy meters just aren’t fashionable anymore. Others have no doubt been given the boot because they are seen as part of the Dead White Male conspiracy that Dominated Our Culture With Its [insert derogatory sociopolitical descriptor here] Values for Too Long. Longfellow in particular has been sent down repeatedly on both charges, neither of which is necessarily fair to him.
Another explanation, it seems, can be seen in the fact that even Bullwinkle had to turn back to the 19th Century for his material. Copyright issues aside, the quantity of 20th Century verse that is memorably recitable and readily familiar to the ordinary television viewer is limited at best. And the public evidence of poetry has declined steadily from there. Poets themselves have been a part of the problem: actually conveying a recognizable meaning, let alone doing it in a manner that might be remotely pleasurable to the reader, has become almost a mark of shame. To be taken seriously among the avant-garde, it helps not to be understood at all. Coincidentally, Joan Houlihan has just put up one of her irregular but reliably interesting commentaries at Web Del Sol, laying into the practitioners of post-post poetry. A snippet:
But one must ask: why is this being said? What is the purpose of these words? Why are they printed in a journal someone paid to produce, for someone else to pay to read instead of being spoken by a stroke victim in a rest home? Who is the intended reader? If it is a slice of something, what is it a slice of?The objection here is not difficulty: the world is full of difficult poems in difficult forms that are nonetheless worthwhile (if not readily recitable by a moose). No, the objection is that the difficulty of the post-post poem is itself an illusion. The poem is not a puzzle in which the challenge is to find the substance or meaning disguised by the appearance of drivel. The poem simply is drivel. Or maybe, as Houlihan suggests, the form has devolved to become not the Next Big Thing but the Last Big Thing:
Such poems are as inevitable as old age and its unstoppable deterioration of language. The avant-avant-garde as displayed by much of the work in [the journals under consideration] is, in fact, indistinguishable from the early stages of dementia. And really, what could be more avant-garde, more against-the-grain, more anti-tradition, more post-post than dementia? Perhaps this is the dawning of the New Senility, the next new thing, so daringly close to death itself, this intentional discarding of connections—synapse to synapse, word to word, person to person—any word, any order, anytime.Not, I fear, a very appetizing prospect. At least not to this particular Fool.
In coming posts (which you have already read perhaps, since they will appear above this one on your screen) I will bring up some poets and poetry about which I actually have something kind and constructive to say. Will this be an all-poetry weekend on the blog? We will soon see, gentle reader. . . .
[Houlihan link via the indispensable Arts & Letters Daily.]