I used to believe the above quote when I was a kid. But life has taught me otherwise. Some of the greatest artistic achievements I’ve witnessed, whether on stage or TV or film or recordings or in galleries or someone’s loft or apartment or the street—have never been rewarded with any kind of major public recognition or appreciation beyond the limited audiences they’ve been able to attract.
And I know it’s all a matter of taste. But whose? How did all the so-called “language poets” get so much academic and critical acclaim and attention? Some of my best friends are identified as “language poets” and I too have been numbered among them, at least when the term was first being thrown around and the magazines that published and promoted their point of view vis-à-vis poetry (like L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E) were first appearing.
That point-of-view being as simply as I can summarize it, that words have other qualities besides their most literal meanings—i.e. shape, size, weight, or relationships to other words or history or capitalist exploitation etc. The “language” poets’ work would emphasize all that over and above (and yes—beyond) meaning. Or, as poet Bruce Andrews explained it to me when we first became friends back in the early 1970s: “connotation over denotation”.
Hey, I recommend a “language poet” in my Xmas list blog, my old friend Ray DiPalma’s latest book. (Though he may not want to be described that way, and if so sorry Ray.) Some might see Geoff Young’s work that way too, another poet I highly recommend on that list. I’ve got nothing against any language poet personally, but how did that particular approach to poetry—that except in rare cases, to the general reader and almost anyone I ever talk to, often appears way too dense and meaningless to sustain much interest unless performed in a captivating way at a reading or explained by a particularly brilliant teacher—become so overwhelmingly recommended and commended by reviewers in Publishers Weekly etc. and among those-in-the-know who run a lot of the alternative poetry venues, from readings to magazines?
It’s a mystery to me.
Again, I know, it’s a matter of taste, even if the academics seem to think, or want us to, that it’s a matter of intellect and expertise. In fact, like some kinds of “free jazz” that came into vogue at about the time I was getting out of jazz—jams where anyone could blow anything regardless of chord changes or melodies or time signatures and other structural considerations that were always the basis of even the most progressive forms of that music as I had learned it and played it and dug it—“language-centered poetry” as it’s sometimes called, is very easy to fake. And there’s a lot more room for the results to be pretty tedious, and few who subscribe to its principles or lack of them ever say the emperor has no clothes.
There are other categories of poetry that are even more full of mediocrity that gets highly praised. To continue with the music analogy, there’s a category I’d call “pop” poetry, like Billy Collins, who I think if I remember an article I read on him has become the best-selling poet of all time. A poet I admire and love cajoled me into attending a reading of his back when he was the Poet Laureate of the USA and all I could say afterward was, why did you drag me to this?
Yes, a few of the poems he read were humorous enough to raise a chuckle, and a few were sweet and maybe even touching if you love cats or share his taste in other pets, etc. And he seemed like a nice guy whose poems are pretty good. But do they deserve top honors? Nah. An audience, why not? If he can get the readers and they dig his work, more power to him. When I was young there was a guy I can’t remember his name now who wrote reams of poetry and recorded it as well, Rod McKuen that’s it, and he sold more poetry books than anyone in history until then, and I dug some of his recordings, as obviously a ton of others did too. But he didn’t win any literary prizes. He just got rich, which he deserved, because his books and records were enormously popular.
Is Billy Collins better than him? In that academic, writing-workshop kind of way, he is. But in terms of depth of feeling and insight and impact on an audience, I’d say they’re about equal. McKuen may even be a little more experimental, dare I say original?
A disclosure here, my poetry has been compared to McKuen’s now that I think of it, as well as Bukowski’s, another enormously popular poet who never got any of the literary rewards or awards but nonetheless has had, I would guess, a bigger emotional influence on his audience than Collins, even more of a life changing influence I’d guess.
I wrote a big article/review on Bukowski and another less well-known but better poet, in my estimation, Larry Eigner, back in the early 1980s for The Village Voice. Eigner was confined to a wheelchair all his life and yet his poetry is more expansive, more free, more full of unexpected dance-like moves and use of space than any of the above. He was picked up by the “language poets” as a predecessor to their approach, though he stood, or rather sat, way outside it as far as I can see, on a whole other plane.
Sometimes the whole academic-and-critical-attention-and-awards thing can be explained by simple personalities. Some people know how to work the system better than others. Some people just know how to schmooze and hustle better than others. Some people really do know how to use the casting couch better than others. Some people just have better luck than others. Just like in the rest of the world.
Meanwhile, the poetry of plenty of poets I’ve read or heard, surpasses anything written or read by a lot of recent prize winners and critically-acclaimed, academically-championed lesser talents. Yet they will never get the opportunities to make a living from their work, to gain a place in literary history, to have their books published by major presses or important smaller ones or taught in college classes and continually in print, like many lesser lights do and will. It’s actually pretty weird when you think about it.