Tuesday, February 16, 2021

On Medium: The Wonder and the Rarity of Poems

The second of my articles on Amanda Gorman's phony poems, and on the difference between prose and poetry. The first one is here.


  1. ambrosia and Botox leaked from a tumbling fount

    I think that one line explains why real poetry isn't popular in this country. Real poets are awake to the unpleasant facts & aren't afraid to voice them; but Americans are addicted to lies. What do you think would have happened if Gorman decided that the poem she was going to read at the inauguration wasn't really appropriate for a country that had just survived a coup attempt by some creature straight out of Dr. Seuss? What if she had written something more akin to what you would write in that situation? We both know that if she had, she wouldn't have been given a second opportunity to embarrass her country at the Superbowl.

    I was going to comment separately on your last article, but this response neatly dovetails into that one. I was forced to visit many psychiatrists as a teenager & I noticed that as different as they could be in their approach to therapy, they all shared one common denominator: they lived in a state of denial over some very obvious & fundamental truths about life that someone less sophisticated than them could easily concede: that for every winner, there are many losers; that happiness & fulfillment are mirages that always remain just on the the horizon; that we don't need to love ourselves & most of us really shouldn't; that there are no individual solutions to systemic, social problems like bigotry & wealth inequality. These are fundamental truths of the human condition that Americans would rather not dwell on & so they distract themselves Gormanian platitudes & $200 on hour therapy sessions (or self-help books if they can't afford the therapy). Hey, more power to them!

    1. I laughed out loud at your Dr. Seuss remark. Well said!

      I'd say, though, that the underlying reason why poetry isn't currently popular is that anything now counts as art in general. The standards have been lowered as information has been democratized. Art has become disposable, so if anyone in their sleep now can write a "poem" and "publish" it (on Instagram, etc), why should anyone care about such disposable products? Indeed, how could anyone possibly care about them all? We're dealing with a deluge of dead art--not just poems, but novels, comics, songs, paintings, movies, and so on. We should keep that context in mind here.

      But you're right, of course, that genuine art is often challenging and politically incorrect. Gorman's "poems" were obviously politicized because she was writing for explicitly political or nonartistic occasions. There's a middle ground, though. She needn't have written a nihilistic, aggressive takedown of American culture in light of the Trumpian nightmare, to get across some more insightful observations in poetic form. She did her best, I'm sure, with her hopeful image of climbing a hill.

      It's interesting to reflect on what a real poet should write for such political or mass occasions. There's what you'd want to say, according to your artistic inspiration, but then there's what you should say and would have to recite at the presidential inauguration or before the Super Bowl audience. Writing poetry for yourself is one thing; reading it in front of millions of people is another, so the pressure and the expectations could certainly get to anyone.

      Probably some compromise would be in order, since it would be selfish and naive to pretend that the poem that strikes you as fine when you're alone at your computer is perfectly suitable for the mass audience. You'd want to leverage your artistic interests and take some account of your audience's expectations too. So you'd water down your insights to some extent, but not vacate them entirely. Ignoring your artistic vision would leave you without a poem and would make you a charlatan.

      Regarding therapy, it's interesting that there's an existential school of therapy that would take into account the individual's battle against conformity and against the larger social disorders. So the concept of therapy needn't be wrongheaded; rather, the mainstream types of therapy that fit all-too well into Western culture (rather than being more universal and inspired) can be part of the problem.

    2. Dr. Seuss is one of those authors that everyone reads, but not everyone fully appreciates. Try reading him on the assumption that the book is a coded allegory & see where it takes you. I can't help but speculate what masterpiece he would have penned if he had lived to see Trump take office.

      Self-publishing is definitely a mixed bag. The upside is anyone can get published. The downside is anyone can get published. There is great stuff out there that almost certainly wouldn't be available if not for platforms like the Kindle store, but to find it you have wade through a lot of self-indulgent drivel. From a consumer's perspective it's better than it's ever been, but I feel sorry for the authors.

      There might have been a non-snarky way for Gorman to acknowledge the embarrassment of the Trump presidency, though I can't imagine what such a poem would sound like. I know there are tragedies here: children separated from their parents, put in kennels & raped by guards; civilians being blown up by US bombs in Syria; people injecting bleach into their veins; covid parties; and of course some people actually did die on January 6th -- there is certainly a very somber side to Trump's presidency that perhaps Gorman could have addressed instead of satirizing it; but putting that into verse might have been no less offensive to American ears than undisguised mockery.

      It's interesting to learn that there are forms of psychotherapy out there with an existentialist take. It's sad that religion has become such an anachronism because I believe in some ways it served the human soul better than psychotherapy does now. In the light of scientific knowledge Christianity is absurd & yet concepts from that religion hold great psychological resonance -- at least they do for me. I'm a little embarrassed to say it: I find more insight into the human condition in St. Augustine's writings than I do in Dr. Phil's or Wayne Dyer's. It's too bad we can't demythologize it

    3. Well, that was Rudolph Bultmann's approach, the demythologization of Christianity, and he came from a Heideggerian background (he was friends with Heidegger).

      Also, there's the subversive, slightly conspiratorial and New Agey take on Gnosticism from the likes of Freke and Gandy. They argue that all religions have inner and outer messages. In Christianity, literalism was the outer message, while a more philosophical and mystical Gnosticism was the inner one that mostly got left behind by Christendom.

      I think this simplifies matters and I don't trust some of their sources, but I suspect their main point is correct. If only for Jungian reasons, we can at least project inner and outer meanings onto any pattern. In short, enlightened and unenlightened people always see what they want or expect to see. So enlightened people will interpret Christianity in existential, naturalistic, or cosmicist terms, while the mob can't get past its delusions and will use the religion as a crutch.

      By the way, Adam Curtis' new documentaries are finally out. They should be intriguing.