Sunday, March 1, 2009

Too Modern Poetry

By Bonnie Stanard

Years ago the play “Art” debated whether a white canvas with a horizontal black line is a work of art. For two hours the cast of two actors defined and redefined modern art, which doesn’t sound like much of a plot, but it was intriguing. It’s about time some playwright took on today’s poetry and its ambiguities.

Before we go any further, I confess that I don’t read much modern poetry. The rumor is that there are more writers of poetry than readers. If I’m typical, there’s merit to this rumor. Furthermore, I freely admit that one of my favorite poems is “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll.

It’s not that I don’t applaud the efforts of writers to reach beyond traditional parameters to create new avenues of expression, but I would argue that form alone is meaningless, i.e. the message is as important as the messenger. Regardless of how creative and evocative the language and/or presentation, a poem is disappointing if it doesn’t convey meaning on some level.

I am reminded in particular of John Ashbery’s poetry. A critic once wrote as a compliment that Ashbery effectively demonstrates that language is inadequate as a tool of communication. What? Maybe I did get the point after all!

I’ve always thought that one reason poetry has a small audience is that it is not a “spectator art,” such as novels, paintings, plays, etc. Rather it requires participation. As a general rule, the reader benefits depending on what he discovers or contributes to what is implied. If readers are required to learn advanced methods of interpretation, I predict poetry will have an even smaller audience.

There are obviously contemporary poets who are writing verses that can be understood by the average reader. To find these writers you would logically look to critical reviews, but don’t. Too many of them are laudatory explanations. I like William Logan’s reviews. They reassure me that my opinions aren’t necessarily a sign of mental insufficiency.

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