Saturday, March 19, 2011

Telling the Truth Slant: Making Poetry Relevant Again

The tongue-in-cheek homage to Joyce and Beckett reminds me that I had meant to post another video having to do with literature. And in the meantime—just today, in fact—another one came my way.

One often wonders about the fate of poetry in the modern (western) world. In some countries and cultures, poetry is part and parcel of the national identity. The United States may be one in which that least holds true. We do not (or no longer) have a strong habit of identifying poetry with the nation and national history (just compare us with, say, Poland, Italy, or Russia).

On the one hand, we are told, poetry is more popular than ever: from production of new poetry, to slams.  On the other hand, few Americans are acquainted with their native poetic tradition. The formerly canonical poets of the nineteenth century are rarely studied, and less often read.  I think back to the "Authors" card game that I had as a child (1, 2). In retrospect, it was a great way to begin to become acquainted with English and American literature. But who reads Longfellow today? (Well, one of my Tweeps certainly does, but he stands out precisely as the exception.) I doubt one in 50 Americans could identify the author of the "Song of Hiawatha" (full text here), much less, quote a single line from it (exceptions: Minnesota residents, especially if they attend the Pipestone Pageant or similar festivities).

There are certainly ways to make the familiar—or the dusty once-canonical but forgotten—come alive.  Harvard historian Jill Lepore, who just completed a stint as writer in residence at the University of Massachusetts (more on that in a separate post) just published such a piece on—of all people—Longfellow. There she shows that his "Paul Revere's Ride"—arguably the poem for which he is best, if imperfectly, known today—was at the time of its publication "read as a bold statement of his opposition to slavery."

However, there have also been attempts that transcend the academic or purely textual-contextual.

One was this multiple-prize-winning Polish rendition of (or meditation on) Emily Dickinson's "Much madness is divinest sense." (not for the faint of heart, as they say)

Dickinson can appear deceptively simple and inviting (perhaps for that reason it was so easy for her early editors to prettify her works as well as her picture, assigning them titles and banal and uplifting themes).Yet as soon as one begins to enter any one of her poems, the perceptive reader realizes that s/he is in a labyrinth.

Sandburg, who seems so popular and uncomplicatedly "accessible," is difficult in another way. The general sense of the individual verse or phrase is simpler (though every once in a while, an unusual formulation, like a speed bump, jolts us out of our complacency: "flinging magnetic curses"), but he, too, asks us to interrogate ourselves, our values, our world.

More tame in style than the Dickinson video but no less innovative in its way is this treatment of his great "Chicago." Graphic artist Bud Rodecker's determination to make one piece of art each day ("RicharDaily") eventually led to his "typographic 'Chicago,'" part of an "Ode To Carl" series. As he explained to the Chicagoist, cited here by the Poetry Foundation, “Chicago has those amazing, short phrases that are so iconic,” so he sought an ever more pared-down visual, geometric language, which could do both justice to the literary text and awaken jaded Chicagoans to its vitality.

Ode to Carl - Kickstarter Promo Video from Bud Rodecker on Vimeo.

Well, I am glad that I have at least begun to talk again of books.  On to buildings.

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Further reading:

Gregg Mosson, "Ars Poetica: A Case for American Political Poetry," Potomac, Summer 2009.

(which mentions both the Dickinson and Sandburg poems treated here)


Isidora said...

Strangely enough, I am only the daughter of a Minnesotan, and somehow I can recite the "By the shores of Gitchee Gumee" verse!

Jim Wald said...

Thanks (and for the earlier comment, as well). I'm a Minnesota native, so the Longfellow came naturally to me. Not only is the poem largely forgotten, but those who have heard of it probably have no idea that Longfellow took quite some pains to consult with and learn from Native Americans.