The Poem That Changed America
The mandarins of bygone eras were no less dismissive of what they could not understand than at any other time in history. As Jean Cocteau wisely reminded us, We tend to judge what is beautiful by what is familiar.
In The Poem That Changed America, Rick Moody writes of how "Howl" was a natural reflection of his punk-era roots, how it tied directly into punk ethos of his times—once he discovered the poem, which had been written before he was born. Almost in passing, just giving the context of why poetry didn't attract him at first, Moody includes a diatribe against mandarin poetry that fluidly sums up exactly why so many people these days still hate poetry:
What I hated about poetry was Robert Frost. I hated having to memorize all that Frost in high school, and as far as I was concerned, Frost and his perfect rhythms and his nature scenes had nothing to say to me. Fuck Robert Frost. Fuck stopping in woods on a snowy evening. I hated Robert Frost. I hated bucolic imagery. I hated the reverence for nature, because what was nature anyhow but subdivisions in the suburbs and malls and nuclear power plants and petrochemical everything. On my own, I couldn't really afford to go anywhere untouched by man's pestilence. Fuck nature imagery. Fuck the sober and self-serious accounts of autumn leaves drifting lazily in a creek. I hated counting syllables in a line, because I knew from rock and roll that you could fit in twice that many if you needed to. Fuck meter. And there was no real reason to rhyme either. There'd been a resistance to rhyming in lots of the records I liked in those days. There wasn't much rhyming in Remain In Light by the Talking Heads, and there weren't too many rhymes on Rocket to Russia, or Heroes by David Bowie, which even employed the cut-up technique that Burroughs favored. Gang of Four rarely bothered with rhyming. Fuck rhyming, fuck meter, fuck nature imagery, fuck Robert Frost, fuck poetry. And fuck classical allusions, too. I didn't give a shit if I read another classical allusion in my life. It never impressed me when Ariadne or Poseidon or Cerberus appeared in a poem.
—Rick Moody, "On the Granite Steps of the Madhouse with Shaven Heads"
The bottom line here is relevance. A big part of punk's Do-It-Yourself ethos, and its rebellion, was because it saw the end of the world coming and nothing mandarin or formal or established in those Reagan-Thatcher years seemed relevant, personally or politically. It's interesting how these cultural forces recycle: "Howl" was a cry against Moloch in the 1950s, twenty years later punk was an echoing cry against the deadness of the even more powerful forces of Moloch, and right now, right here, the cries are cycling again.
For myself, innately having more of a punk attitude than a hippie attitude towards life, even though I missed both at the time they were popular moments or "movements," I find myself equating the current mandarins and establishments of PoetryWorld with Moloch, as part and parcel of Moloch: the neo-formalist poets and the post-avant poets (not excluding their postmodern fiction counterparts in flarf and flash fiction) seem equally mandarin, equally mannerist, equally irrelevant to actual poetry. I actually happen to like a lot of Robert Frost's later, very dark poetry, but I certainly understand how being forced to memorize his bucolic early poems in a city high school far from Frost's Vermont woods could sour a person on the whole prospect of Poetry. We still teach poetry really badly in our schools, smothering enthusiasm for poetry under analytical dispassion of poetry. This might never actually get fixed, though, not because poetry is hard to teach but because the way we teach in our schools has a lot of inertia behind it. I saw the best teachers of my generation destroyed by uncaring bureaucracy, stuttering hysterical smallminded. . . . You get the idea.
Relevance. Again, punk rock happened because it was a need for folks to hear themselves, in their own voices, saying things relevant to how the were actually living, rather than the ideals given in public discourse that were discordant with the actuality. Hopelessness will often lead to rebellion. Rebellions furthermore are not fashionably ironic; any literary "rebellion" that founds itself on cool ironic distance is mannerist rather than actual. So "Howl" continues to be relevant, as well as misunderstood. The mandarins of culture still dismiss it when they don't outright ignore it, rather missing the point.
And the mandarins not only invented postmodernism, they still control it. If I rebel against postmodernism, which I often do, it's because I'm rebelling against the mandarin deadness of form over content, of language over sense, of disjunction and fragmentation over natural continuity, of mannerism over invention. Even if I use the tools of poetry that I use which are superficially allied with postmodernism—unusual syntax, non-normative punctuation or grammar, non-formalist enjambment, the prose-poem—I still mean to say something, and I still intend to get inside the heads of who or what I'm writing about, even if I'm writing from within the viewpoint of a colony of fire ants. The tools are used, in my case, to be the container: and the container is transparent to, and in alliance with, what it contains. "Howl" is a way of using language that seems natural and crazy, yet is very carefully, even elegantly structured; Marjorie Perloff writes convincingly of this thesis in her essay in The Poem That Changed America. The tools of language in "Howl" are in the service of its vatic, prophetic, voice-in-the-wilderness, jeremaic, resistant purposeful "message." This is prophetic, protesting poetry in the lineage of William Blake, Walt Whitman, Robinson Jeffers, and that whole tradition within poetry that the mandarins usually either dismiss or ignore.
Former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky's essay in The Poem That Changed America is poetic, angry, thoughtful, rebellious, and pointed. As a poet Laureate, Pinsky was highly effective, bringing the enthusiasm of the average reader back into reading poetry aloud, finding ways to use democratizing technologies to get around the gatekeeping critical opinions of the poetry mandarins and just get people excited again. Pinsky's responses to "Howl" are set out in contrast to the worst excesses of contemporary poetry, and Pinsky is scathing in his assessment. And I agree with every comment Pinsky makes, here excerpted in short:
The world's least postmodern poem. Pain, rage, terror, panic heartfelt and body-felt with protective irony or afterthought or sneaking reservations. . . .
A poem profoundly the opposite of the current, early twenty-first-century fashion for the oblique. Majestic in its crazed vulnerability, able to be funny while it is absolutely earnest. . . .
What poem could be more contrary to the current modes of language doubting itself? Rereading now the work of art that inspired me its freshness, directness, and ebullience when I was a teenager, I marvel more than ever at how dire it is, how wholeheartedly tormented, meaning every word, with no implied quotation marks. A howl: that is, utterly the opposite of doubt about the efficacy of language. The sex, for example, is not "camp" or coy, it too is unironic, tormented, and ecstatic and actual. . . .
There's nothing superior or disengaged—in am important way, even, nothing alienated—about the relation to our country, imagined as a fellow patient, sick in mind and body. . . .
I think that back then I welcomed the poem partly as a counter-force to the literary fashion of that day, the nearly religious emphasis on "metaphor" and "image" and "objective correlative," Eliot's phrase associated with his notion that the apparent subject of the poem is a like a piece of meat the poet-burglar uses to distract the watchdog conscious intelligence of the reader. Ginsberg seemed to break down the partitions of that formula. . . .
If "Howl" were published for the first time tomorrow, it would be sensational and challenging: a critique maybe not only of a world where Moloch now claims Jesus as his best friend but also implicitly of our postmodern cool.
—Robert Pinsky, "No Picnic"
This description of "Howl" that Pinsky encapsulates is precisely the sort of poetry that it's time for, again. Another cycle of culture has come around again, and it's time for another vatic rebellion. William Blake would recognize the problems we face right now. Raw, relevant, crazed in its vulnerability, not hiding behind the safety-net of ironic emotional distance—a poetry we need more than over, but from which most contemporary poets shy away. They're probably afraid of their own inner shadows, perhaps having taken too much to heart the ridiculous prescription of poetry teachers such as Yvor Winters that "Emotion in any situation must be as far as possible eliminated." That latter opinion, once again proving how badly we teach poetry in our schools, deserves a guffaw, or a howl of derisive laughter.