Monday, August 13, 2007

Jon Carroll played the accessibility card the other day & boy did he bungle it. Carroll, a one-time editorial presence at Rolling Stone, Rags, Village Voice, New West and other “hip” publications, has been a daily columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle for 25 years now, sharing insights of life in Oakland to readers of the Bay Area. Want to know about gyms in converted courthouses or the doings of Bucket (and the recently deceased Archie), Carroll’s cats, he’s the guy for the job. Periodically he skewers the Bush administration as well as anyone living for its inhumanity & its inconsistencies. And he’s one of the world’s finer collectors of Mondegreens (e.g., Jimi Hendrix’ paean to gay love, “’Scuse me, while I kiss this guy,” or the Beatles’ “The girl with colitis goes by”). He can be, when he’s on, as good a columnist as any in America.

But when he’s off? Well, it could hardly have gotten much worse than his first foray into poetry & poetics in several years. First of all, he doesn’t know the players, even with a scorecard. Everybody he picks ultimately is on the same side of this argument, tho it’s true that Helen Vendler is going to offer you the uptown version of whatever suburban dream Billy Collins wants to peddle. The truly difficult poets – my friends, for example, not to mention that good-looking guy in the mirror – are so far beyond the horizon that Carroll doesn’t know he’s left them (us) out. Which is to say that he doesn’t know who David Lehman & Billy Collins feel they’re defending themselves against when they argue (a) for accessibility and, in the same moment, (b) attempt to demonstrate that they too understand the importance of artfulness & aren’t simply country bumpkins. Carroll actually seems puzzled and/or offended by this latter position. He doesn’t just want Collins to seem artless, but actually to be so as well. Which leaves Collins to stand up for the values of art, defending difficulty against those who would insert instead the simple family values of weepy nostalgia & necrophilia.

Carroll actually knows better, which might become apparent to him if he were discussing a genre into which he had some knowledge & insight. Both of his daughters, for example, have had careers in avant-garde circus.¹ You know the kind: based in Montreal, run by people who speak French, thinking of circus as art, actual skills involved, no abused elephants or obscenely caged tigers, no clowns with red noses, none of that icky cracker-jack-cum-cotton-candy odor thick in the air. You call this a circus, buddy? Where are the geeks? I have no doubt that Carroll could knock out a 700-word column on this topic in the bat of an eye, and do a good job as well.

But when it comes to poetry, he’s like the guy who got into a boxing match with a kangaroo & lost.

His problem is that he really wants an effortless, artless form, one that just gets out of the way so that the emotions can flow & wash about & we can all have our good cry & feel better. Let’s hug.

In fact, there’s nothing wrong, or even deviant, about this desire. MSNBC isn’t running a TV show anywhere in which readers who want this can set up “dates” with poets who are ready to really mean it, only to trap these readers & reveal them for the pervs they are. But, on the other hand, there is a reason, a real historical reason, why we keep having this discussion in poetry, over & over. The people who turn to poetry because it makes Bill Moyers go all misty aren’t its regular readers. They’re there for awhile & then they move on, usually to genre more suited to what they want from their arts. The readers who stay with poetry, the ones who sustain it year after year, generation after generation, are those who seek what it can do you can’t get in any other way, and those are features that are fundamentally linguistic in nature – they’re formal.

Lets go back to before there was TV, before complex novels like Ulysses (let alone Finnegans Wake), before Neil Gaiman & high-art comic books, even before thorny deconstruction or other abstract postmodern critical interventions, to the 12th century, where the troubadour poets mostly of Southern France already demonstrate the strains that exist because literacy isn’t distributed evenly throughout the population.

The troubadours had to survive by their writings – they didn’t have tenure, there was no NEA, no Miss Lilly with the big $200 million grant. Therefore, the troubadours developed multiple genres to address different possible audiences. You can almost see their formal modes in the same way that a technology or car company offers its products today: you got your premium line for the high-end consumer, your basic standard line, and over there in the corner is the economic value line, for those who just need the widget & can’t afford any bells or whistles. For the troubadours, Trobar leu offered plain lyrics to the nonliterate masses. These poems were the odes of Billy Collins circa 1150. Trobar ric focused on poems that fixed around verbal pyrotechnics – even if you didn’t understand them, you could at least hear them, the way more recent readers could see, say, e.e. cummings’ play on the page without necessarily needing to know the history of modernism into which his poems fit. Trobar clus were the truly dense poems intended for other poets. Think J.H. Prynne, Peter Seaton, Tao Lin, Bernadette Mayer, Taylor Brady, Linh Dinh.

Already, of course, the romance tales that Cervantes will exploit in his version of the invention of the novel some 450 years later are competing with trobar leu for the attention of the masses. And the rise of the novel represents a significant moment in the history of poetry where part of its traditional social function – telling stories – literally goes away. It’s not that you can’t still a story in a poem, of course, but why would you? There is a genre right next door whose very premise is built around the devices it uses to convey narrative. (Thus the rise of a second genre, cinema, that does the same thing even better – you can see the story – represents a true crisis for the novel, since the silver screen robs that form of its only real rationale, something the novel could not do to the poem. Trobar clus turns out to be immune precisely because its purpose was never instrumental.)

The distance between the troubadours & Cervantes & between Cervantes & ourselves is such that it makes sense that nobody yet really knows if any of these newfangled narrative genres that are burgeoning around the fringes of the web will amount to anything. But the process left in place by this sequence – a poetry centered around poems for other poets, around which exist various “popular” variants, perpetually crumbling at its margins as the popular genres & poets (Edgar Guest & Ogden Nash in one generation, Ted Kooser & Billy Collins in another) prove to be short-lived as social phenomena – goes on, generation after generation. There is a certain amount of celebrity to be had if you’re a poet who falls into that slide zone, but any historical perspective on the phenomenon ought to make a poet like Billy Collins nervous as a cat. That’s why it’s so important for him to be understood as a “real” poet & not simply an artless spewer of emotion. After all, the reader who really wants artless poetry streaming “real” emotion circa 2007 can turn just as easily to Jewel. She can sing too. But the instant you can tell that Collins & Kooser aren’t Jewel, they’ve become something else altogether by definition – sort of Bob Perelman & Charles Bernstein lite. And that’s always the beginning of the end, because this now positions them in a social world in which Kooser & Collins simply represent something else done badly. Not a fresh breath of air at all.

But the question I have is why does somebody who comes up to this fairly large social machine – the 10,000 publishing poets who exist just in English, say – expect every place on the map to be equally accessible or want to require (Carroll’s complaint after all is really a demand) all poems be as artless as Jewel? Do we want every musician to be John Denver? Can’t somebody be Pete Seeger or John Coltrane or Bela Fleck or Meredith Monk? And wouldn’t that, actually, be more interesting? What if you want Lou Reed & Tuvan throat-singing? The world becomes very monochromatic the instant you want the same level of accessibility everywhere.

The flip side of which is what does it mean to demand of an art form that its practitioners not take the art to the max, not carry it as far as they can. Demanding universal accessibility is like going to a circus where the “high wire” is about 18 inches from the ground. Yes, you could do this too. But, again, why would you?


¹ Carroll himself has been on the board of the Pickle Family Circus