(My opinions here have definitely changed, especially after reading Dan Schneider’s views of Poetry, and re-reading Sylvia Plath properly. But I’m just putting it here for interest)
Something has made me come to the realization about something, namely the fact that I Do-Not-Like-Most-Of-Poetry. There’s seems to have been some kind of error going on the the history of English Literature after the advent of Billy Shakes, namely that people seem to have kind of forgotten the primary act of making poetry cool.
Probably the realization was caused by too much trying to get into the French Symbolists, Beat Poets, and Moderns. Without the knowledge of the tongue to go with it, I don’t really find much of Rimbaud or Baudelaire to be beautiful in any way. Rimbaud’s prose poems are even worse because now there’s almost no tongue to speak of when translated. Without a referent to that original splendid tongue, the prose poems dissolve into a series of weird images for the sake of weird imagery, and mad howlings. I love Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen though, but because it doubles as being sensual and cynically hilarious.
The Beat Generation is probably even worse. There was once a time when I kind of liked Howl, but now the mad jumble of in-your-face images are completely unbearable, and the cadence is over-the-top rather than sublime now. Only Kerouac is bearable, because Kerouac always has a rollicking fun voice, and he also reads his works with actual personality and jazz (like actual piano jazz music, just search Youtube), rather than sounding like a prophetic drony Lit professor.
The Confessional movement is even worse. I primarily tried Ted Hughes, Plath, and Anne Sexton, and while Hughes has maybe some startlingly nice poems, the rest falls to a cascade of imagery. And its all mostly primarily the same psychosexual kind of repressed sounding imagery that would give Freud a real head trip, while dumping in a whole lot of small sense-facts about their life and all that.
Then I skewed back a few years the the Romantics. That is, Keats, Byron, Shelley, Coleridge, Blake and their like. It seems Byron is the only poet who knows what writing rollicking fun and sharp witted poetry means, and even then anyone before the 19th century writes with that high flown poetic register that received its fullest flowering in old Billy Shakes. Coleridge is like the haiku-writer of the romantics, but even then his sparseness doesn’t help him much except in some images. Keats is more interesting to me when he’s theorizing on aesthetics in his letters rather than his actual stuff (except La Belle Dame Sans Merci and a few others). And while Blake is the most revolutionary and probably my favorite of the lot here, he’s the hardest to get into because you have to know about his weird mystical visions and decipher his self-made pantheon and all that stuff.
Whitman though, he I can get into. But Whitman’s register is primarily the declamatory poetic type, and he’s always transcendent rather than sharp. TS Eliot and Yeats are pretty cool on some fronts (I love Murder in the Cathedral. Actually I’m only starting to get into Yeats on William Gass’ recommendation, and although he isn’t exactly what I’m looking for, he’s quite good in some areas).
Poe is called the jingle man, but he’s my jingle man.
A book analyzing Symbolist poetry, called Axel’s Castle, wrote that English was so late into the Symbolist poetry movement, or rather they were almost non-existent until they merged in with other stuff into the Modernists, was because the Elizabethans basically did the same high density associative type of poetry years before the French started it. The difference though was that the Elizabethans scaled it down because they were still primarily writing plays for a public and stuff, whereas the French took it to the extent where the images had very little referent to anything at all besides the intoxication of their own aesthetics. Billy Shakes and Co. had the same level of imagistic power as the Symbolists, but they rooted their symbols into psychologically relevant and sequential linear plots, with characters and their respective philosophies. Thus every line has not just decorative weight in a Shakespeare play, but also psychological or even ideological weight.
You see, I think its a symptom of the times too, and the history of the time of language that I’m working with. The symptom of our times is that poetry is basically integrated into rock, and English is the language that has the highest flowering of rock music as opposed to the other cultures (well some may contend me on this, especially the Japanese or the French). As a contemporary kid, my mind has been fed constantly with sharp electric guitar bass solo drum augmented lyric lines, and especially the ultimate beat cadence found in hip-hop. Imagistic poetry that has less heavy mind-blowing ideological content than philosophy, and is not as musically awesome as rock music, or as sensual as dream pop, is completely out of my books. This means that the only poetry I’m interested in is either the type of poetry that has political, psychological or comedic-witty relevance, like much of Billy Shakes, or I need poetry that I can use to scream people’s faces in.
A nice indicator for the worth of poetry I’ve realized, is whether I can imagine Dmitri Karamazov quoting it in one of his mad rants, or I can imagine it being an incantation for a spell in Fate/Stay Night or Dies Irae. Dies Irae specializes in ripping off as many lines from Goethe to use in awesome spells as much as possible. If the awesome mystical crazy Nazi Vampire cast can’t make it sound cool, then there probably isn’t any hope for it.
Incidentally a poem that somehow passes my taste without going through these tests, in that it actually provides a cohesive beautiful, albeit symbolistic and decorative, vision, is this translation of a Baudelaire poem.
(Now every flower stem swings a censer chain
And every flower gives incense to the night.
Sounds, perfumes circle in the evening light.
Turning in langourous waltz, again, again;
And every flower gives incense to the night . . .
The violin trembles like a soul in pain.
Round goes the langourous waltz again, again,
The sky is like an altar, vast and bright.
The violin trembles like a soul in pain,
A sorrowing soul, that fears the unknown night.
The sky is like an altar, vast and bright.
In its own darkening blood the sun lies slain.
A sorrowing soul, that fears the unknown night,
Draws from the shining past what dreams remain.
Though in its darkening blood the sun lies slain,
Your memory, like a monstrance, brings me light.)
BUT, the first prize (so far) to the most scream-in-your-face poem I’ve read ever, is probably this translation of Stefan George’s The Antichrist. I mean this was actually a poem quoted by a bunch of assassins when they were going to try and bump off Hitler, so that kind of indicates how nice it would work in Dies Irae.
(“He comes from the mountain, he stands in the grove!
Our own eyes have seen it: the wine that he wove
From water, the corpses he wakens.”
O could you but hear it, at midnight my laugh:
My hour is striking; come step in my trap;
Now into my net stream the fishes.
The masses mass madder, both numbskull and sage;
They root up the arbours, they trample the grain;
Make way for the new Resurrected.
I’ll do for you everything heaven can do.
A hair-breadth is lacking – your gape too confused
To sense that your senses are stricken.
I make it all facile, the rare and the earned;
Here’s something like gold (I create it from dirt)
And something like scent, sap, and spices –
And what the great prophet himself never dared:
The art without sowing to reap out of air
The powers still lying fallow.
The Lord of the Flies is expanding his Reich;
All treasures, all blessings are swelling his might . . .
Down, down with the handful who doubt him!
Cheer louder, you dupes of the ambush of hell;
What’s left of life-essence, you squander its spells
And only on doomsday feel paupered.
You’ll hang out your tongues, but the trough has been drained;
You’ll panic like cattle whose farm is ablaze . . .
And dreadful the blast of the trumpet.)
I can totally imagine the line “Make way for the new Resurrected” screamed by the drunked-out lead singer of some hardcore punk band.
Second prize probably goes to the Death Fugue of Paul Celan which can be found here
What Billy Shakes all that while realized, was that the whole idea of poetry is to give an immutable form to a truth, or a fact. When poetry tries to reach the standard of music, it gets outmoded every time by real music, except in the instance where the lyrics sync with the instruments. When poetry depends purely on aesthetics, then we merely get a quick scrolling through transient forms, without any recourse in anything concrete or spectacular. And while that may somehow supposedly express a ‘poetic truth’ of the poet, I’m going to take a cue Wittgenstein’s in that if I have no insight into the simple object/intention/usage/language-game which a proposition is supposed to be referent to, then effectively its senseless/useless to me except in terms of its function as sound, that is, as music (which of course it will fail at most of the time). And if they tell me that that’s because I have no language-to-visual imagination, I’ll probably reply that the stuff I come up with in my daily pre-dream free associative imagining sessions are more beautiful than the stuff that they can come up with (I blame Studio Shaft and Makoto Shinkai for completely destroying my ability to accept just plain language-visual aesthetics).
And really English is a very un-cohesive and hodge-podge language, which makes it very hard to pull off pure-sound poetics as opposed to other languages at times. (Or maybe that’s just me falling into the Simon Leys adage that a person is unable to derive aesthetic enjoyment for the language that he most commonly uses, because I think Borges was still able to love the hell out of English as a whole, but that’s just Borges being Borges. I guess everyone needs a language for common use and a language for poetic discovery, like Nabokov’s English)