Smallness and Significance  

Occasionally the truth slips out, despite a gentlemen’s agreement not to mention it.  This happened in a recent issue of the TLS where Patrick McGuinness reviewed a book of French poetry by Paul de Roux.  Through carelessness perhaps, or absent-mindedness, McGuinness blurted out the following: One of the clichés of modern poetry is that its job is to make the ordinary extraordinary, drawing out the hidden wonderment of everyday life.  A consequence of this is that many poems over-promote banal things that only the poet finds interesting.

I’m surprised alarm bells didn’t go off all over the po-biz world, that insufferable menagerie of workshops, MFA programs, conferences, websites, chatrooms, writing centers, and literary salons where Mainstream Muck is churned out with appalling regularity.  For those who inhabit this menagerie, the drearily quotidian is their stock-in-trade.  They strive mightily to render poetic that which in itself is insignificant and pointless—a vague and disjointed “feeling,” a snippet of memory, a fleeting perception, or some stupid little epiphany the poet had while contemplating a chipped coffee cup.  The world has been programmed to think that inane stuff like this is what poetry produces, which is why so much of the world has given up on contemporary poetry, pigeonholing it as solipsistic wanking.  And please don’t bother telling me about all the publications and readings and festivals and study groups that are going on—a lot of soi-disant poets talking to and congratulating each other doesn’t constitute a vibrant art scene, much less a renaissance of creativity.

Obsession with the small, the minor, and the quotidian is one consequence of literary modernism, although the original modernists strove to give their poems a wider resonance than the mere reportage of petty facts and perceptions.  If Pound, Eliot, and Stevens dealt with humble subjects, they made sure that they presented more than just a biopsy slide of the banal and the humdrum.  Eliot’s vignette of the typist, the “small house agent’s clerk,” and their vulgar interlude in The Waste Land isn’t a mere photograph of a sordid sexual moment, but serves as a profound judgment on how a debased modern culture has reduced high romance to bestial couplings devoid of love.  In Stevens’s “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” we aren’t simply shown an ice cream vendor plying his trade, or a deceased woman on a bed.  We’re given a bone-chilling picture of The Lord of Death, and his majestic triumph over life and life’s temporary amusements.

But many poets today have consciously chosen not to add any larger point or resonance to their haiku-like scraps of meaninglessness.  They have sworn off such additions as illegitimate betrayals of the hard-core reality of perceived phenomena.  Like radical nominalists, they have rejected ideas, concepts, logic, and discursive statements as pure Platonic delusion.  Their attitude has its roots in the “no-ideas-but-in-things” fatwa of the New Jersey pediatrician, boiled down and simplified into the tedious “Show don’t tell” mantra of the workshops.

When you bring up this problem in discussion, a common counter-argument adduced by those who produce a poetry of pure phenomena is that the meaning of a poem should be “suggested” rather than “presented.”  According to this counter-argument, it’s more effective to manipulate one’s readers surreptitiously by disguising larger meaning than to make that meaning explicit via straightforward statement.  Well, OK—that’s like quietly adding medicine to a child’s chocolate milk to make sure he takes it without a struggle.  But the stronger and more pertinent point is this: the counter-argument admits (even if only privately) that larger meaning exists, but that it has to be disguised to serve one’s persuasive purpose.  A poetry truly dedicated to phenomena alone would not be interested at all in “larger meaning” or “persuasion.”  It would just present snapshots of phenomena, with no attempt whatsoever to manipulate a reader’s reactions to them.

Of course that never happens, since every poet attempts to manipulate his readers’ reactions to some degree.  The most pared-down and skeletal imagiste effusion has some kind of intention behind it, no matter what sort of steely silence is maintained by the poet when you question him about his poem.  In short, pretending that your poem is unconnected to graspable discursive meaning is only a deceptive posture.  If the poem is completely and deliberately opaque, the poet is telling you that he is a special member of a select avantgarde, and this makes his poem (and him) important.  When a poet says “There isn’t anything here that a common schlub like you can understand,” that too is the communication of larger meaning.

As Richard M. Weaver eloquently argued, ideas have consequences.  If you’ve been gutted of epistemological certainty, you won’t be comfortable making mental judgments and verbal assertions.  You’ll shy away from them, and limit yourself to brief flashes of perception and personal epiphanies.  And that will have an effect on your poetry, which will tend to be private, hesitant, noncommittal, and self-sequestered.

Well, the jig is up.  Poetry of this nature no longer has a public dimension, speaking as it does only to the poet and that small group of fellow poets who have been trained to appreciate low-key opacity for its own sake.  It’s not written for a wider public, since to do so would be to imply the reality of transpersonal meaning, commonality of culture, public memory, and shared assumptions.  All those things are subject to fierce contestation today.  The trendy view is that we can’t make trustworthy judgments and assertions because every utterance is labile, uncertain, personal, interested, prejudicial, historically conditioned, or hopelessly embedded in the cultural context that gives rise to it.

What’s left then, for trendy poets?  Only the small.  They cannot aspire to significance, which now is possible only for the non-trendy.  And a growing number of readers are developing a healthy cynicism that makes them unafraid to say this to the trendy purveyors of private snippets: “Your small poems are not only boring and banal—they’re also meaningless.”  At least that’s a hopeful beginning.

Joseph S. Salemi has published poems, translations, and scholarly articles in over one hundred journals throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. His four collections of poetry are Formal Complaints and Nonsense Couplets, issued by Somers Rocks Press, Masquerade from Pivot Press, and The Lilacs on Good Friday from The New Formalist Press. He has translated poems from a wide range of Greek and Roman authors, including Catullus, Martial, Juvenal, Horace, Propertius, Ausonius, Theognis, and Philodemus. In addition, he has published extensive translations, with scholarly commentary and annotations, from Renaissance texts such as the Faunus poems of Pietro Bembo, The Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, and the Latin verse of Castiglione. He is a recipient of a Herbert Musurillo Scholarship, a Lane Cooper Fellowship, an N.E.H. Fellowship, and the 1993 Classical and Modern Literature Award. He is also a four-time finalist for the Howard Nemerov Prize.