For several decades subway riders in New York have been confronted with random slabs of verse entitled “Poetry in Motion”, whose main effect, whatever its purpose, is to confirm the onward sterility of modern poetry. More is the pity. Times of existential uncertainty summon the need for poetry, or at least good poetry. It provides a unique consolation.

What do I mean by good poetry? (The topic is infinitely vast yet let me try in these few hundred words to tame it.) Can one compare it to that other thing that shall not be named in such close association, but which was once defined by a Supreme Court justice as something one knows when one sees? A perhaps less obnoxious comparison, but one that to me resonates, is with popular music. Like the songs that moved us when we were young and discovering life (and love), there is a lingering, frozen frisson in those words that first moved us when we were first discovering literature and the love of language. Eliot describes this as “that intense excitement and sense of enlargement and liberation which comes from a discovery which is also a discovery of oneself: but that is an experience which can only happen once.” Eliot’s poems to me had certainly provide that excitement, sense of enlargement, and liberation. In these troubling times those lines that long ago I had sought to memorize have jumped back into my conscience, as if remembering a long ago prophecy. And in part they jump back so easily because in their intense excitement they clearly wanted to be remembered.

It is not that our culture is incapable of producing good poetry; it is that the gatekeepers of our culture seem to select and encourage the worst of it. And by “worst”, I mean solipsistic, light to the point of randomness, and almost careless in selection of theme and word. I am not trying to be fogey-like and insist on rhyme and rhythm. But, Eliot again: “The rejection of rhyme is not a leap at facility: on the contrary, it imposes a much severer strain upon the language. When the comforting echo of rhyme is removed, success or failure in the choice of words, in the sentence structure, in the order, is at once more apparent.” In the poems in, for example, the New York Review of Books, a publication I read regularly, and the poems on the subway by anyone born after 1950, and wherever else contemporary poetry appears before ones eyes, these failures indeed seem apparent. They are aggressively banal. If anyone pays attention to them, they actively annoy. The young people with their headphones on listening to hip-hop—the apparition of these faces in the crowd—are better off keeping on their headphones: the poetry they are listening to is probably on average more inventive and rooted in emotion than what is printed in front of them.

On the other hand, I find consistently excellent poetry in the quarterly “Modern Age”. There is a greater tendency in these poems to resort to the “comforting echo of rhyme” but it is not cheaply done. For me, part of what makes a poem “good” is that it concludes. There is something at the end of it that indicates its reason for having been written, a knot: slip-knot, hitch, bowline, or noose, but something that binds. It is not an easy effect to achieve because it demands a design.  The modern poetry that is in vogue among our cognoscenti seems to peter away like Cantor dust. For some reason they want it that way.

The poem’s desire to be remembered is a sort of weight in itself. This was the pre-literate function of poetry: to be remembered and recited. This desire to be remembered also comes from another elemental aspect of poetry: it describes something that cannot be described in any other way. In certain cases, perhaps, it describes something that has been perceived but not identified and brings something new into the world. For all of these reasons poetry is, even in our literate, prose-say-ick age, something indispensable because it does something nothing else can do. More than that, it does something that we need. But we will never realize that we need it if it is not done well, which means if it does not demonstrate those properties that only it can demonstrate.

In the pre-literate age poetry was necessary to culture because that was how culture propagated—it was the way that judgments were passed from generation to generation as Roger Scruton defined it. In the apogee of the literate age, poetry was culture. It shaped civilizations by endowing them with self-understanding in the vernacular. In our post-literate age, real poetry has been orphaned by culture but is necessary for the individual who seeks it for the consolation in provides short of true faith. The post-literate individual is paradoxically fortunate to have at the point of his finger virtually all poetry from Homer on, and from almost every culture, to find the inspiration to endure the prose-say-ick tyranny.

Yet the words of the prophet were written on the subway walls.


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