Like political discourse, attentive reading and lucid prose, poetry has fallen on hard times. By my, albeit whimsical, estimation, in Canada alone there are at least two poets per capita. In America, one need only consult The Poetry Foundation to find an innumerable cohort of poetic nonentities who have brought the craft down to the level of barstool confessions. This is thanks in large measure to the pedestrian influence of Robert Lowell’s Life Studies with its all-too-intimate revelations of self, its reminiscences of personal trials and ordeals, its family histories, and its flat, prosaic, unbosoming language. As a result, poetry on the whole seems to have become mainly kibbitz, mere undistinguished palaver, a token of egalitarian self-promotion. “Shouldn’t it be possible,” asks David Orr in Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry, “for us to read poems without thinking of ‘the personal’ at all?”
Serious poetry was always a highly specialized, aristocratic art (from Greek ἀριστεία: aristeia, “excellence,” “nobility,”), something rarefied and patrician. Reading poetry required effort, and for most minds, appreciating it fully demanded serious instruction. That is why indiscriminate profusion is a bad sign.
The baleful effects of the impulse toward self-disclosure, chat and vent are visibly prominent in the office of our national Laureateships. The installation of Canada’s current Parliamentary Poet Laureate Georgette LeBlanc, for example, is primarily a nod to the “French fact,” a political move that has nothing to do with poetic excellence. Her poems are adiabatic, neither bad nor good, consisting mainly of reminiscence and a kind of domestic commentary. The present American incumbent Joy Harjo relies on her Indigenous status to regale us with narratives of personal trauma and collective suffering. These laurel offerings are TMpoems, autobiographical and therapeutic in nature, “placing inadequacy,” as Christopher Grobe writes in The Art of Confession, “where we expected an epiphany.”
The prestige of such poetry is ubiquitous. And if this were not bad enough, the situation has deteriorated, possibly beyond recovery, owing to the easy access and uncritical circulation afforded by the Internet. Typified by the absence of intellectual integrity and serious craftsmanship, a new species of poetic writing, known as Instapoetry, has emerged and is flooding the mediascape. It represents what Frank Furedi in The Power of Reading calls the “decoupling of literature from cultural content [and from] the exercise of judgement.”
By “cultural content,” Furedi is not alluding to the cultural philistinism of the moment but means something like Matthew Arnold’s “the best which has been thought and said in the world” and “the study of perfection.” Stemming in part from a “fetishized orientation toward the mass impact” of technology and new media which have devastated the cognitive landscape, Furedi’s “decoupling” is an index of the intellectual vagrancy and bad faith, abetted by the open sluices of the Internet, that epitomize an increasingly degenerate culture and its poetic output.
Similarly, as Adam Garfinkle argues in National Affairs, “cognitively sped-up and multitasking young brains may not acquire sufficient capacities for critical thinking, personal reflection, imagination, and empathy”. These are qualities necessary for what Maryanne Wolf in Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, cited by Garfinkle, calls “deep literacy,” a capacity that reflects reading and writing “with the potential to bear original insight.”
Given the decline in cognitive capacity that Furedi, Garfinkle, Wolf and others lament, it is no surprise to find Rumaan Alam at The New Republic consecrating Canada’s Insta-sensation Rupi Kaur as “Writer of the Decade.” Kaur, with a degree in Rhetoric and Professional Writing from the University of Waterloo, has sold millions of copies of episodic natterings. Her sappy, infantile maunderings not only sound the death knell of real poetry but serve as an illustration of what the Internet has done to the sad remnants of popular taste.
She is, however, onto something – if only in the sense of serving an evident demand. According to Alam, Kaur “understands better than most of her contemporaries how future generations will read.” That, I submit, is the problem. It may also be how future generations will write. As the great critic Hugh Kenner bemoans in Gnomon, “we observe, among other symptoms, a student population so illiterate it cannot read poetry at all.” Composition is equally moot. Here is a typical Rupi Kaur poem from the sun and her flowers:
like the rainbow
after the rain
joy will reveal itself
Obviously, there is nothing much there. The insight is trivial. Cadence is non-existent. The metaphor of the rainbow is an unadorned cliché that remains undeveloped in some unanticipated way that might rescue it from utter banality – as for example in Bobby Borchers’ singable Promised Her a Rainbow with the clever refrain “I promised her a rainbow/and gave her the rain.” The Rolling Stones can get away with the platitude in their hit song She’s a Rainbow, thanks to the musical accompaniment: vocals, instrumentation and melody that embellish the trope. Even the mechanics of Kaur’s content are dubious, for rainbows typically adjoin rather than follow a shower or thunderstorm and, depending on the observer, might be viewed before, during or after the event.
Poetry requires precision and originality, as well as the capacity to create a ripple effect in the mind – in short, an architectonic. Think instead of Emily Dickinson’s stanza with its Worsworthian conclusion:
The rainbow never tells me
That gust and storm are by,
Yet is she more convincing
feel, with amazement, their minds
longing for tears as children for a rainbow.
Or William Wordsworth’s figural rainbow template in My Heart Leaps Up, echoing the Book of Genesis.
Instagram poets are a coterie of pretty dull blades who think they are cutting-edge. They are certainly not “distrest,” like Hogarth’s garrett-bound scribbler. Reviewing another Canadian, the masked Instapoet code-named Atticus who read last year at the Strand bookstore in New York, William Logan writing in The New Criterion is almost affronted. “There’s scarcely a metaphor in the book that isn’t a cliché shoplifted from Walmart,” Logan muses in disbelief. What is one to make of these approximate ten-liners filled with “cotton-candy sentiment and malignant drivel, which show no more intelligence than a fried potato?” Harsh words but true.
At the New York reading, Atticus expressed the hope that his work and social media presence would be “a gateway drug to classical literature.” As he told The Globe and Mail, Atticus feels fortunate to have taken poetry classes at Wadham College at the University of Oxford, which might explain the sentiment. Here is a typical Atticus poem from The Truth about Magic:
“I don’t know many things
with any certainty,”
“but snuggling feels important.”
One can see the problem with this snippet: its absolute triteness and its encapsulation entirely within itself, qualities that blanket his entire production. What we are observing is the dreck effect in action. One might say that “deep reading” is beside the point here since, as Maryanne Wolf writes, “All deep reading requires the use of analogical reasoning and inference if we are to uncover the multiple layers of meaning in what we read.” There are no multiple layers of meaning in Instapoetry.
In a comprehensive article in the Huffington Post, Instagram Poetry Is A Huckster’s Paradise, Claire Fallon points out that the title phenomenon is an industry and its practitioners are “brands” (Atticus’ own word from the Globe and Mail interview) whose “appearances cohere into a marketable aesthetic” and whose verses “in their conceptual simplicity and linguistic timidity read like parodies of poetic schmaltz.”
The genre remains hugely popular, however, because “for these Instagram poets and their audiences, creating fresh, original verse isn’t the point.” Instead, the traditional gatekeeper system is down in order to welcome marginalized voices, “[p]urveyors of female empowerment and romantic expression,” as well as “scammers and opportunists and ironists faking sincerity”. And, as she points out, plagiarists, too. Fallon’s critique is persuasive, especially as she writes from a doctrinaire alt-left perspective native to the HuffPo where a greater sympathy for these tender-minded millennials might have been expected.
That millions of people are buying Instagram poetry does not change the fact that it is self-indulgent rubbish aimed at an unevolved readership unlikely to graduate to the works of the classics from the Greeks to the Victorians, or of the great “modern” poets like Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Robert Frost, Daryl Hine, Richard Wilbur, Seamus Heaney, James Merrill, Philip Larkin and Irving Layton, or living poets of accomplishment like Peter Van Toorn, Kei Miller, Eric Ormsby and Bill Coyle.
Many readers and writers, especially of the millennial set, will claim that I’m speaking down, a snobbish relic of an earlier generation. I suppose that the same would need to be said of Camille Paglia who, in Break, Blow, Burn, mourns the virtual extinction of lyric poetry, “which from its birth in ancient Greece has played so significant a role in the emergence of individualism, spawning in turn our concept of civil rights.” We have, Paglia regrets, forfeited “custodianship” to “deconstruction” – and to the inability to defer gratification, the unwillingness, let’s say, to steal time from sleep.
As I’ve written in the past, poetry comments, meditates, broods and speculates on life. It is a meta-discipline whose proper function is deliberative, memorial, playful, celebratory or elegiac. One notes the Greek word for a poem, poiema, “thing made or crafted,” something that stands on its own, yet remains accessible, as something to be used in the conduct of everyday life. The good poem will also occasionally feature an aphoristic line or phrase which leaps off the page and into the mind: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” “Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.” They bring a quality of permanence that lives on the synapse.
Genuine poets are recognizable in at least four ways: they have something reasonably important or meaningful to say, they can say it in pleasurable, original and lively language, they have a thorough knowledge of one or more major cultural traditions, and they display a distinctive prosodic itch.
True poetry lovers and real poets are at a discount these days, made to feel irrelevant and superannuated, if not apologetic. A jesting remark of Sir Walter Raleigh’s (found in Kenner’s Gnomon) comes to mind: “If I am accused on Judgement Day of teaching literature, I shall plead that I never believed in it and that I maintained a wife and children.”
All I can say in response is that if you do not know, or strive to know, the history of your culture, nation and civilization; if you have not learned, or have not tried to learn, the grammatical rules, expressive possibilities and rhetorical cadences of your language (especially if you harbour literary aspirations); if you refuse to submit to a long and arduous apprenticeship in your chosen craft, including a familiarity with its formative tradition that serves as the basis for poetic innovation; and, in short, if you have not “read deeply,” as Wolf urges, then it follows that your thought processes will remain larval and your practice vain, superficial and (despite your sincere belief otherwise) entirely unoriginal, regardless of your age and current enthusiasms.
Indeed, it should go without saying that without a thorough grounding in what came before and an internalization of the technical aspects of the art, a poet cannot expect to produce much that is not ephemeral. After all, if you wish to excel, you have to know your stuff. Some still manage to do so. Contemporary poet Bill Coyle’s intricate yet colloquial sestina with its six rotating rhymes across six stanzas and a triplet coda, “Abandoned Bridges” from The God of This World to His Prophet, says it clearly, both in illustration and theme:
For now you fathom how those bridges,
as needful as they were before,
only grow more so over time,
how they lead us to a past
inaccessible by roads.
You look toward the other side.
Critic Rumaan Alam, on the other hand, approves of a poetry that works “within the parameters of a smartphone screen” – a sign, I suspect, of limited attention span and dwindling focus. To write poetry that speaks of the dilemma of consciousness in a world of mortality, that plumbs the mysteries of the human heart, that responds with satiric exuberance, manifest eloquence or heart-rending directness to the complexities of experience, that drives for beauty rather than “pleasure technology,” as poet Dana Gioia puts it in his talk Why Beauty Matters, and that embeds its wisdom in the memorable line or phrase or verse that stays with us – well, a smartphone screen just won’t do.
I would suggest to any Internet practitioner serious about his or her craft (there may be one or two, though I have yet to find them) to junk the smartphone and the media platforms and get down to the real business of poetry by consulting what won’t fit on a screen or an Instagram post. For example: an epic scroll, like James Merrill’s magisterial The Changing Light at Sandover, or Michael Lind’s masterpiece in rhyme royal, The Alamo; or a crown of sonnets, like David Trinidad’s “A Poet’s Death” in The Late Show; or Paul Muldoon’s “Encheiresin Naturae” in Frolic and Detour. It can be done; two of the three poets are contemporary, while Merrill died in 1995.
Muldoon writes a “Heroic Crown,” in which a 15th sonnet deftly reprises the lines of the previous 14. The title is an alchemical allusion to the “Spirit of the Earth” in Goethe’s Faust and the bonding of spirit and flesh in William Butler Yeats’ Supernatural Songs, providing the kind of rich amalgam of the literary, historical and personal dimensions utterly foreign to the kitsch and mummy wheat of the Instagram mind. (That many of Muldoon’s poems hew rather snidely to the left and are ruined by partisan boilerplate does not alter the fact that, in this case, a good poem is a good poem.)
Perhaps our Instapoets might learn the rugosities of the art they profess by working occasionally in strict verse forms such as the villanelle, consisting of five tercets with alternating first and third rhyming lines, which then comprise the final couplet of a concluding quatrain. Among the most beautiful such exemplars in the language are Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night,” Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” and Robyn Sarah’s “Villanelle for a Cool April,” which can serve as models for emulation.
Or they might aim for the long haul, say something like Alice Oswald’s fascinating and protean variation on the Odyssey, Nobody, whose gorgeous syntactical “waves pass each other from one colour to the next,” and which demands both prior knowledge and dogged stick-to-it-iveness. Of course, these virtues are no guarantee of excellence, but they at least give the poet a chance at it. Such application would constitute a valuable learning experience and would certainly enhance the quality of concentration in a media-distracted world.
Distraction, along with short attention spans, is one of the roots of the problem. How, asks Maggie Johnson in Distracted: Reclaiming Our Focus in a World of Lost Attention, can we turn “epidemic distraction into exquisitely engaged minds?” How to create a “renaissance of attention…in a distractible world” is the pivotal issue, she suggests, if we are to build and inhabit an “ambient presence” and a culture of patience in order to produce anything of value. No easy answer. But we must somehow recover, she stresses, “the ability to pause, focus, connect, judge and enter deeply into a relationship or an idea,” which takes logarithmic time and sustained attention.
Johnson mentions the painter Anthony Ryder, “who spends up to seventy hours on a single drawing.” I recall my colleague Peter Van Toorn, who would accumulate a hundred drafts for a single line of poetry, as evident in the verve and polish of his classic volume Mountain Tea, one of the finest collections to appear in the Canadian poetic muniment. The alternative, as we see in Instapoetry, is a “numb[ness] of easy diffusion” and nervous recoil from the reign of artistry. Johnson remains hopeful that a cultural reset is possible but, apart from individual exceptions like those I have mentioned, I am not so sanguine.
In Politics and the English Language, George Orwell argued that language is becoming “worn out,” “unevocative,” “vague,” “abstract,” “prefabricated,” “stupid” and “sentimental,” and that “our thoughts are foolish.” Had he only seen the effect of the Internet on thought and language he would be spinning in his grave like a pulsar. The practice of Instagram poetry constitutes only the latest proof of Orwell’s grim assessment. Minds untrained in the rigours of the discipline they avow and fascinated by the epicurean ease of digital composition-and-distribution can generate little but callow observations and pretentious commonplaces best harbored in private. That such work has achieved public success is a testament to the soporific dullness that has overtaken us.
“[P]oetry makes nothing happen,” wrote W.H. Auden in his moving elegy for W.B. Yeats; it survives only in “the valley of its making.” But poetry may still be useful in that it serves, if not as a remedy, certainly as a symptom of the current state of the culture. It helps us read the etiological chart. In declining times, all that serious poets can do, whether “distrest” or not, as the Koholet advised in Ecclesiastes 9:10, is find the work they must do with their hands and do it with their might, rather than indulge the jubilant plunge into untutored sentiment, unadulterated emotionalism and mere chatter.
To quote my former correspondent and revered mentor the late Richard Wilbur, who put it succinctly in a brilliant lyric entitled “Ceremony,” “Ho Hum. I am for wit and wakefulness.” Can’t argue with that.