May 2009


Virginia Woolf famously observed that “on or about December 1910 human character changed.” Her main example was the “character of one’s cook. Whereas the Victorian cook had lived in the lower depths, modern cooks were coming out of the kitchen to borrow the Daily News and ask “advice about a hat.”

Woolf chose December 1910 as a watershed as it was the month of the first post-impressionist exhibition, organized by her friend Roger Fry in collaboration with her brother-in-law, Clive Bell. It should also be noted that King Edward the VII died in May of 1910, marking the end of Edwardian England, an after glow of the Victorian age of optimism and stability.

In 1910 Sigmund Freud published “The Origin and Development of Psychoanalysis” as a series of lectures in the American Journal of Psychology. He had published books earlier at the dawn of the 20th Century. Rapid advances in physics in the last decade of the 19th Century spilled over into the 20th Century. The nature of radiation and the architecture of the atom were sketched out. In 1905 Albert Einstein published a series of important papers in physics.

Friedrich Engles, along with Karl Marx, had announced scientific socialism to the world in mid-19th Century. Writers like William Dean Howells, in his 1882 novel A Modern Instance, had sketched out the modern character (devious and undesirable, in this instance). So that what Virginia Woolf had observed was not quite the newest of the new, but it hit with some force in 1910 because most everyone could see how the world was changing.

The scale on which technology had transformed industry and warfare became apparent when the Great War began in 1914, when the youth of Europe massacred one another on an industrial scale at far greater distances than in past wars. This was the brutal Shock of the New. Out of this trauma came two basic strands of thought and action. One was represented by the Dadaists, a whimsical anti-war movement that announced its messages in news flashes and slogans. Their message was that the center had collapsed and the artist needed to take to the street to proclaim his message by any means possible. The Dadaists represented the fragmentation of Western consciousness.

The other was exemplified in the poems of Wilfred Owen, a young Romantic enamored of Keats, who wrote his mature poems in the mud and fire of the Western Front. His witness was that the center held, the conventions of poetry held, but the message was terrible. Better men would come along and fight greater wars. Owen had written in a letter, in 1914, “I believe in Science more wholeheartedly than in Art, but what good could I do in that way?” Killed in 1918, he accomplished rather little. But he had saved the core conventions of poetry for future poets, such as W.H. Auden, in the 1930s. (See my essay The Cult of Ugliness in Art and Literature).

But modernism would out. T.S. Eliot had published “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in 1915. Seven years later “The Wasteland” was published.

The shaping influence of “The Wasteland,” Ezra Pound, a fellow American who had traveled to Europe, would lead the modernist charge in poetry with his pronouncements rather more than poems themselves. Pound said, “Make it new, make it modern, make it like science.” To Pound, the scientific equivalent in poetry was Imagism, whereby a specific concrete image correlated to a discrete experience.

Born in 1885, Pound had already formed his artistic sensibility, though not his rhetoric, by the time of “The Wasteland.” Idiomatically, Pound was much more comfortable in the 19th Century. He had little love or understanding of science. Owen, who attended a technical school, certainly knew the subject better. What Pound picked up on was the vibe, the zeitgeist. Science was a new force in the world. It changed things, invented things. It gave artists new tools to play with.

What Pound, and those who thought like him saw, was that science was difficult, and scientists experimented. Therefore, artists should experiment and create an equal level of difficulty. For Pound, this difficulty veered off into the riddles and perplexities of the Cantos. The role that best suited Ezra Pound was that of gadfly and would-be seer. After the death of God in the 19th Century, as proclaimed by Nietzsche and evolution, the artist stepped into the role of prophet, actually, an ancient function, but one now complicated by science and the misapprehension of it. There is no such thing as “scientific poetry.”

What these artists-as-scientists have never understood or accepted is that the results of science come from the rigor of the scientific method. Scientists, like artists, seek inspiration, see answers to questions in dreams. But then they experiment, and most experiments fail to produce any basic knowledge or practical result. In art, one announces an experiment that ipso facto is a success. Who says? Is such an experiment repeatable? Of course, one can copy a Jackson Pollock drip painting, but so what? Pollock was an artistic personality who seized the moment and created an identifiable body of work, quite valuable today in monetary terms, but contributing no real knowledge to the world.

This is not to say that artists should not experiment, try something different. But that “something different” should not be confused with science. Einstein’s equations should not be mixed up with avant-garde riddles and fragments. There are numerous theater labs in the world. The actors, playwrights and directors who produce in them strive for some bold, original result. That result will eventually be compared with prior plays in earlier periods of drama and comedy going back to the ancient Greeks. Greek science, on the other hand, is merely a curiosity to the modern scientist; it does not limit or inform his forward progress.

When something is easy to do these days, we say: “It’s not rocket science.” We understand that putting a rocket into space is not the same thing as launching the new Off Off Broadway season. The rocket, say, drops a rover onto Mars that successfully deploys and sends back photos of its travels of the surface of the planet, which I can view on TV or my computer screen. It’s all quite remarkable, and I watch in fascination for awhile. I too believe in Science, its rigor and rational thinking.

But, alas, no Green Man appears to take a bow. Mars is pretty much dust and rock, with a murmur of ancient water. Science fiction has filled my imagination with countless dramas, forging far ahead of actual discovery, the better of which curve back toward mythology. I am a storyteller. I believe in the power of art and language to tell the story of the tribe. Science and technology enrich our lives, make them more interesting. But they are only part of the tale. And stories we must tell, whether by cell phone, computer, pen and paper, or the unaided human voice.

By Hudson Owen. All Rights Reserved.

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I am writing regarding Daniel E. Pritchard’s review of the March 30, 2009 roundtable discussion “Critical Contexts” at Harvard University, in the May CPR. After orienting us to the poet-critic speakers and the gist of the conversation, Mr. Pritchard writes this:

“There were many offhanded references to tradition, identity, lots of Robert Lowell, Adrienne Rich, Tennyson, language poetry, and one entirely wrong-headed comment by (Maureen) McLane that ‘plenty of people are in the line of Robert Frost.’ But, no—they’re not. Plenty of people are poor imitators; only one living poet, to my mind, is in Frost’s line, and that is Seamus Heaney…Writing in form does not put you in any category with Frost, whose standing and category are based on the immense accomplishment of his poetry, not in the easily-identifiable trappings of his verse.”

The Frost-Heaney comparison is interesting. Both produced significant bodies of work; both wrote poems of place; both spent time at Harvard. Frost was the more insistent rhymer of the two. Heany’s one Nobel Prize might be roughly equivalent to Frost’s four Pulitzer Prizes, although I think the Pulitzers tell more about Frost’s reputation at home; we all know about the eccentric choices for the Nobel in Literature. Mr. Pritchard might have mentioned Richard Wilbur, who has quietly assembled an impressive body of work in Frost’s shadow.

We understand that verse trappings do not make great poems or poets. What bothers me is the phrase “immense accomplishment,” which suggests that Robert Frost has become a demi-god of sorts, remote and unapproachable, beyond human ken. Mr. Pritchard seems to be saying that no one among those who write in forms today can be anything but a poor imitator of the craggy master. Such poets, even if they have talent are somehow lacking: in character, gravitas? They should smash their computers and weep.

Mr. Pritchard might not have been impressed by present company at the Harvard roundtable. That, however, is not a reason to use Frost to punish or discourage those who write in the Anglo-American tradition. It’s a tough world out there, generally less literate than in the day when Robert Frost tramped through the New England woods. It is a world filled with many more distractions, many more writers striving for recognition, a galaxy of web sites emitting faint twinkles among the firmament of sensations.

All of which is to say, taking the discussion out of Harvard Yard, there is more going on out there than the “mere trappings of verse, and gatekeeper-reviewers like Mr. Pritchard, a writer and publishing professional, can do us all a favor and take notice.

Sent, but not published, to Contemporary Poetry Review. By Hudson Owen.

I hear the dogs of Brooklyn bark.
I do not need to strain my ear.
Their varied voices fill the dark;
A Hamlet here, there soulful Lear.

What is it that these voices say?
They say they cannot smell the moon.
Their muzzles upward point and bay.
They say that Christ is coming soon.

They say that they have guarded hell
From old Cerberus to this day.
They know what noses know that smell.
They know their jaws must snap or play.

They know their master is the law;
Some sort of higher primate mind.
They lash out rude or raise a paw.
They feel the pressure from the blind.

Casually they take the street
And lift their leg, a further sack
Of values crumbling in retreat.
They say they were abandoned, Jack.

And where is heaven, one might ask?
Their long pink tongues come lolling out;
Their eyebrows arch, their bodies bask.
This is all life can be about,

These dogs of Brooklyn seem to say.
Turned loose into fair Prospect Park,
They sniff the pedigree and stray,
And seem to shrug at what they mark.

They seem to miss the broken glass;
Or does it not cut city hounds?
All things to them can stay or pass,
As long as they can make their rounds.

They all but lay the secret bare
Of civil coolness, timely heat.
They bid us join them in our hair,
Tussle with them off our feet.

There is no master, law or end.
They jerk their heads and onward lead
By leaps and bounds; around the bend
Are fields where none must curb or heed.

They pause and sniff the shifting air.
We follow them with Darwin’s brain.
They wheel and bark and, snarling, bare
Their fangs at someone, something, rain.

I hear the dogs of Brooklyn bark.
I do not need to strain my ear.
I listen, though, if what they mark
Is longing, play, or darksome fear.

In 1978 the Canine Waste Law went into
effect in New York City. Rather than deal with
the $100 fine for not curbing their dogs, many
pet owners simply abandoned their animals.
I was living in Park Slope at the time, where
the abandoned dogs congregated in Prospect
Park at night and let out mournful howls for
quite sometime afterward. This was the
inspiration for the poem.

From The Endless Evolving Trilogy – A Poem Cycle
By Hudson Owen. All Rights Reserved.

Brooklyn Bridge Fantasia 16x20 copy small

In The Praise Singer, Mary Renault’s novel of classical Greece, we read:

“The song was the dance; the bard was its perfect instrument. He sang it lightly but with reverence; none of those little variations thrown in to flatter the hosts, though they are sometimes good enough to keep. This piece was sacred, this he handled like a phoenix egg.”

What pleasure the author must have experienced in writing those sentences, in evoking the pristine skies of Western poetry. I believe it is most every poet’s wish to, in some way, touch upon the dawn of art. Elsewhere in the novel, Renault defines the term “rhapsodist,” as a performer chanting Homer. In the Oxford English Dictionary a rhapsode is described, in an 1834 citation by H.N. Coleridge from his book Greek Poets: “These rhapsodes were indigent persons, who gained their livelihood by reciting the Homeric poetry.”

Years ago, in Toronto, I met an English actor who had quit the profession to become a reciter of verse. He had in ready memory a repertory of some 400 poems. He could deliver Burns in Scots dialect. It was from this remarkable individual that I first heard of a rhapsode. A rhapsode, he told me, held a cylinder of some sort, perhaps like a martial baton, firmly with both hands, so as to absorb the emotion of the performance, so the voice would not falter.

In the oral tradition the heroic tales are of the tribe and the poetic devices are familiar to the audience. The poet might interject new material into the story. But the poet was not first a literary artist. Rather, he was a seer and teller of the tribal tales. Modern bards, reciting epic tales running into thousands of lines, often with a stringed instrument, have passed down their craft into the 20th Century, in Russia, the former Yugoslavia, and in Swahili-Arabic cultures.

These bards have had little impact on Western prosody, I suspect, because language and culture are off the beaten track. Nonetheless, we have a fairly convincing picture of the Ur poet of Western tradition as a singer of sacred choral hymns and secular lyrics. The lyric was combined with the lyre, or more probably the seven-string kithra, among the Greeks.

T.S. Eliot could say, with some authority in his bygone era, that “some poetry is meant to be sung; most poetry, in modern times, is meant to be spoken.” In the 1960s, certain folk/rock lyricists, with a knowledge of poetry, were openly called troubadours and were widely considered by their peers to be the de facto poets of their time. They rejoined the lyric with the plucked string instrument, the guitar, and sold millions of records.

Today, half a century later, we live in an ever more aural, performance-based culture, the era of the open mic. You can listen to podcasts on the Web, poetry accompanied by music on Public Radio, or an unadorned poetry reading at the local library or a friend’s apartment. The average attendance of a faculty poetry reading at Harvard is 75 persons, I have read. Looking at YouTube as a measure of popularity, the def jam poets (nearly all minority), and slam poets lead the way with views sometimes in seven figures. An animated version of Billy Collins reading his poem “The Dead” has accumulated 700,000+ views in two years. Ted Koosner, reading at a lectern as Poet Laureate, comes in at 10,000+ views. Renditions of Rumi on YouTube draw strong audiences.

Cleary, performance pays, and poetry written primarily for the microphone, is the biggest draw of all. Page-oriented poets, the sort who attend a reading at Harvard, may well roll their eyes and object that they don’t care for def jam or slam poetry. It’s not their cup of tea, to put it mildly. I think that the energy of this parallel poetry universe disturbs them.

What I am trying to do is this brief essay is to shed light on the discussion of sound vs. sense, page vs. mic, lyricist vs. lyric poet, by going back to origins. Many serious artists, I have discovered, are interested in this subject. Obviously, word preceded written word; and word, writing, music and dance, are all ancient. In recent times I would say that poetry meant for silent reading and lectern presentation has fallen into decline, not so much in terms of numbers of poems published, in print and on the Web, but it’s not where the action is. This is a result of tectonic plate shifts in the culture.

We live in a much more aural culture than when Caedmon Records were the main source of poets reading their poems, less reflective and more demonstrative. Just as we now know that the Greeks painted their statues in polychrome, which peeled off over time, we know that music played a role in poetry in antiquity, providing historical roots for the sound explosion we hear today.

Which is not to say that page poets need to despair that theirs is an illegitimate, dying art form, the sick man as portrayed by Tom Wolfe in The Bonfire of the Vanities.

Returning to The Praise Singer, we read this passage: “Well, sir,” I said after a while. “one always sings keeping sheep.” “Sing me a shepherd’s song, then.” I hesitated, now overcome with shyness. “It’s not a real poem, sir. It’s just a song.”

In Keats’ “Ode On A Grecian Urn” we read these lines:

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:

Artists have different sensibilities and write, paint, compose, according to their nature. There are loud artists and there are quiet artists, cerebral writers and cerebral musicians. The quiet ones might sell fewer copies of their books and CDs than the more aggressive, higher decibel types. They might also see further, feel more deeply. Poetry is vision. It does not mainline emotion quite the way pop songs do, leave as much spit on the microphone. I have heard there are great rewards for such artists, such visionary beings. Sometimes I believe that is true.

By Hudson Owen. All Rights Reserved.

Geez,

The cherry trees
Are in bloom.

It’s a funny thing
In Washington Square,
With so many people there.

Somehow you’d think
They’d love or scare
The tender blossoms away.

But it worked all right.
Frisbees, bongos, wackos—

Hey!

From The Endless Evolving Trilogy – A Poem Cycle
by Hudson Owen. All Rights Reserved.