A problem with much contemporary poetry is its tendency to euphoria and dreaming. I don’t mean the normal imaginative leaps and verbal virtuosity that are part and parcel of fictive mimesis. All good poets have an active and vivid imagination that allows them to inhabit the zone of hyper-reality we call poetry. No—the problem in much contemporary poetry is the unspoken assumption that poems should be uplifting catalysts for optimism, hope, metaphysical arm-pumping, and rah-rah hype. These poems all sound as if they should be recited with the sound track of “Chariots of Fire” in the background.
Poems of this sort are annoying and tedious, but they are profoundly Mainstream American. They wear Smiley-Face buttons, or proclaim that the occasion for a Smiley-Face button is on the way. They are positive and upbeat and triumphant, expressing a worldview in which the pessimistic, the cynical, and the dark are considered unspeakable taboos. They are blissfully and brainlessly American, like soap commercials and Disney World. As a general rule, they are the only kind of poems appreciated in the various State Poetry Societies, and the contests that they sponsor.
Before you start screaming that I’m a viciously negative right-wing dreamstealer, let me recount an anecdote. The incident occurred when I was teaching at a small community college in Nassau County. I took the Long Island Railroad back and forth to work, and often rode home with colleagues from the school. One afternoon I was with two fellow members of the English Department, and our conversation was desultory and sporadic, with no particular excitement. But then for some reason the subject of space travel came up.
One colleague suddenly blurted out “You know, I’ve decided! I’m going to go up there some day!” His face glowed with the commitment of a True Believer, and his voice had become oratorical and soulful.
My reaction was to think “What kind of an asshole is this? He thinks he’s going to go up into outer space?” But I simply smiled and said nothing. One learns to do that a lot in academia.
What shocked me was the reaction of my other colleague. He blossomed into the same joyous enthusiasm, and exclaimed “Really? REALLY? That’s just wonderful! I’m delighted to hear that!” And the two of them were immediately transported into a euphoric state of quasi-inebriation, and went on and on in bubbly, glassy-eyed chatter about the wondrous promise of space travel, and how one of them had resolved to take part in it.
I thought to myself “What is wrong with these two middle-aged idiots? How can they babble on like this about some futuristic pipedream? Have they watched too many Star Trek episodes?” The idea that two grown men could fly off into an adolescent reverie of this sort seemed incredible.
It was only many years later that I came to realize something about the American psyche—something that explains what happened that day on the train. Impossible hopes and dreams are like catnip to most Americans. This is why we are a land of cults, con-games, and crackpot investment schemes. An American is never happier than when he is fantasizing about some bizarre, off-the-wall new idea, and how that idea will set him apart from everyone else as a genius, a person of virtue, and a member of an elite class. Going into outer space? Inventing a crypto-currency? Becoming an Amway dealer? Starting a new religion? It hardly matters—it’s all part of the same syndrome. When that jackass Obama spoke of “the audacity of hope,” he was signaling his allegiance to a standard American mania.
Many years ago, in his devastating book Class, the literary critic Paul Fussell pointed out that an unmistakable sign of the American bourgeoisie was its fixation on hopes, dreams, and imagined optimistic scenarios. The ubiquitous Smiley-Face, Have-A-Nice-Day culture of America is rooted in this fixation, so it is hardly unusual to see its effect in popular tastes in mainstream poetry. The most widely read poet in America today (if we can believe in on-line hits) is Rupi Kaur, whose work is a saccharine amalgam of cliché, earnest sincerity, feminist self-affirmation, emotional positivity, and heartwarming celebratory posturing. Even the people who defend her (on the grounds that she speaks for millions of vacuous young girls) grudgingly admit that her poetry qua poetry leaves much to be desired.
What has happened to poetry, if even knowledgeable persons argue that Hallmark-Card quality verse, completely bereft of any quality other than “artlessness,” should be praised and supported? But it’s not just the celebrity of Kaur. Has anyone looked at a recent issue of Poetry, one of the oldest and premier journals of American poetry? The scattershot emoting, the twisted absurdities, the frank absence of literacy, the fakery posing as avant-garde experiment… Good God, not even those who are reflexively in favor of the modernist and postmodernist project bother to speak up in favor of the magazine anymore. They simply avoid all discussion of it.
Many Catholics who are appalled at the multiple insanities being perpetrated by the current Pontiff speak of a “diabolical disorientation” entering the world, one which clouds the perceptions and intellectual faculties of human beings. I think that we can extend their hypothesis beyond religion and apply it to politics, economics, sexual relations, the family, education, and—most emphatically—to the arts. This disorientation has brought many to the point where they are incapable of understanding, defining, appreciating, or even recognizing genuine poetry. And that vacuum is naturally being filled by emotion, euphoria, and dreaming—the default modes for general cluelessness.
So, we find ourselves in a new poetic environment—one of social media hype, the Smiley-Face button, instagrams and tweets, the on-line pseudopoem, unfocused emotionalizing, and “artless” sincerity. Well, if you like that kind of thing, good for you. The world is your oyster. You probably also would be happy in outer space.