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Toward A New Romanticism in Poetry

March 24th, 2009

Toward a New Romanticism in Poetry

Maybe it’s time for a New Romanticism, not just in poetry, but the world. This doesn’t have to mean a return to naïveté. A mature adult is well aware that nothing in this world will ever be ideal, that life is full of trade-offs and heartbreak. But is the current capitalist model, with its childish insistence on free reign without constraints any more mature or realistic than romantic idealism? Hardly. The corporate charter, with its myopic focus on the bottom line – profit and self-interest as the sole human motivation – has reached the logical end of its excesses. And look where we are. A new model must be built that places the need for profit in tandem with responsibility to the community – both local and global. As a friend of mine says, why is it a problem to have only a big profit instead of a big fat obscene profit? No one ever died because they made a little less profit this year than last.

What does this have to do with poetry? Everything. Poets too in this age may need to focus less on what profits themselves and their careers and more on community. “The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it,” writes Lawrence Ferlinghetti in Poetry as Insurgent Art. And vice versa. “Save the world?” you laugh. Certainly poets aren’t what Shelley called the “unacknowledged legislators of the world” in a literal sense. By nature they are probably the least capable of the mundane, repetitive dirty work of governing. But Irving Layton refined the point when he said that poetry “enables us to hope, makes compassion reasonable.” In the “nature red in tooth and claw” doctrine of social evolution hijacked by capitalism, compassion is not reasonable, because it hampers one from crawling over broken bodies on the way to the top of the pyramid. But if we’re to meet the coming challenges of the 21st century, then compassion is at least a start. One could even argue from an e! volutionary point of view that a community ethos is more adapted to survival of the species than narrow self-interest. Human-induced, global climate change being the illogical result of this latter doctrine, I rest my case.

A New Romanticism for the 21st century, then. If this seems hopelessly retrograde, an exercise in reviving passé 19th century Romanticism, please bear with me. Remember that William Blake’s visions of the Industrial Revolution’s “dark satanic mills” were seen from the outset of the phenomenon, not from the endpoint, where we are now. In the ancient Celtic bardic tradition, poetry is often visionary, even prophetic. As Ferlinghetti said, “poets are the antennae of the race.” In the Celtic story of the Salmon of Knowledge, the aspiring young poet who accidentally touches the roasting salmon’s skin is granted not only the master poet’s gift for poetry, but the gift of special insight. He becomes a poet and a seer. Somehow the poet is in touch with the dark forces brewing within the human shadow and isn’t afraid of exploring them for the benefit of not only our species but all those we share the biosphere with.

But what is the key to this almost druidic power, this strength to take the hero’s journey to the dark side and return safely home? Wordsworth gives us a clue: Poetry is “emotion recollected in tranquility.” And emotions after all are subjective phenomena, unique to each individual. Individuality is largely about perception. And more than anything, it is emotion that colours our perception, makes it distinct from anyone else on the planet. As Irish poet-philosopher John O’Donohue explained, there are as many worlds in a room as there are people. Wordsworth’s aphorism has been widely dismissed as simplistic in the worst possible romantic sense. Modernism and postmodernism implies that the poet must never intrude into the poem with her presence but maintain a strict objective distance. To thus intrude is to muddy the water for the reader with one’s point of view. It is a fiction and a delusion. Anyone who has worked as a journalist or historian can tell you the notion of ‘obje!ctivity’ is just that—a notion. We all come loaded with our points of view. While in journalism this does indeed present problems, prejudicing a report in a certain direction, in poetry emotional subjectivity is to be celebrated.

Realism in art needs a point. The same goes for what much of current poetry adopts as ‘objective distance’. If it only reinforces the status quo of perception, of accepted ‘reality’, then it serves ultimately to oppress our spirit, and plays right into the hands of the capitalist elite. We are not cameras or tape recorders. We are flesh and heart and soul. We are human, capital ‘H’. That means we not only think, we feel. If we are afraid to feel, we are afraid of our own shadow. If we fear and run from our shadow, as Carl Jung taught us, it overtakes us. And then becomes us. Just take a look at the U.S. under the Bush regime.

President Kennedy said at his inauguration, “Where power corrupts, poetry cleanses.” Emotions are for healing, and for fully sensing the world. The parts of the world that hurt us, that we want to shut off, have something to teach us. And it may not be pretty or the least bit fun. But that’s the purpose of the shadow. Only by facing down fear can we get past it. We are subjective beings. Why pretend otherwise? Why not celebrate our subjectivity, that multiple lens of perception? If we only touch the mind and not the hearts of our readers, we both end up empty.

Twentieth century poetic developments like ‘sound poetry’ and concrete poetry, which used words purely for sonic or visual rather than denotative effect, have had their day. The mind is intrigued but the heart is left unengaged. As poet Kate Braid has so aptly said: “In my naïve and foolish adolescence and young adulthood, I was often misled by intellect; I was easily dazzled by language and for a long time figured that to be incomprehensible was to be wise. …Now I find that for words to be merely pretty or merely clever is not enough. The reason we talk to each other—all those exchanges that make up culture and community—is connection.”

Ultimately, as Braid explains, writing is communication for connection. If we fail to connect with our reader on anything more than a superficial level, then our writing has failed. How we communicate toward that end is infinitely varied. But in my view, poetic movements that centre on sound for its own sake, or on rendering an image as ‘objectively’ as possible, miss the point. George Orwell once wrote that he wrote best when he was angered by injustice. If passion is lacking in both the motivation to write and its final result, why bother? Ferlinghetti revisits Wordsworth: “Poetry should be emotion recollected in emotion.” Why? Because such poetry is the “shortest distance between two humans.”

A New Romanticism calls for the testimonial of the spirit, not idealized in its disembodied state as the Christians would have it, but allied to the body. It’s a spirit—a ‘holy ghost’—that is less prophetic than it is testimonial—in the sense that American Southern Baptists give glorious, singing testimonials to the Creator’s power. Not to perpetuate any doctrine—the last thing we need at this point in history—but to write poetry that is testimonial to the creativity of the human spirit, Earth and cosmos. I see it as a twofold principle in action: 1) it enshrines respect for all life; and 2) moves us as poets to a sense of responsibility to community in the way we use our art. The days of ‘art for art’s sake’ were fine, but they’re not now. And who knows? If poets are to survive difficult political/economic times, they may need to create works that are less focused on self-satisfaction. A return, even, to the ancient concept of noblesse oblige—that those blessed with greater! riches in wealth or talent ought to give more to their community in return.

A New Romanticism calls on poets to enshrine the spirit—the heart—again in the temple of the mind. If you think I’m talking about sentimentality you haven’t been paying attention. “If you would be a poet, discover a new way for mortals to inhabit the Earth,” Ferlinghetti said in Poetry as Insurgent Art. This is Blake’s New Jerusalem writ large across the human spirit. We’ve had enough of the ‘objective’ and we’ve certainly had enough of self-absorption. “Have wide-angle vision, each look a world glance,” says Ferlinghetti. “Express the vast clarity of the outside world, the sun that sees us all, the moon that strews its shadows on us, quiet garden ponds, willows where the hidden thrush sings, dusk falling along the riverrun, and the great spaces that open out upon the sea… high tide and the heron’s call… And the people, the people, yes, all around the Earth, speaking Babel tongues. Give voice to them all.”

Essay Date: December 2008

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