In Praise of Futility
What’s a guy gotta do to get some reaction around here? In last week's post I more or less said Emily Dickinson--had she not found poetry--would have turned out to be a serial poisoner and that Walt Whitman could have been a darn fine used car salesman, and I didn’t hear even a grandmotherly tsk tsk tsk.
Have we really reached the point where any schmo with a keyboard can slag two of the purest of American literature’s saints, and it doesn’t even warrant lukewarm pique?
I, frankly, am outraged.
I understand that poetry doesn't matter. I spend too many of my hours thinking about it to think that poetry means anything to anybody but poets themselves. Poetry as a vital force in American culture has gone the way of full-service gas stations and not talking with your mouth full. Poetry is written almost exclusively for poets; there is little to no audience beyond. The whole endeavor is a snake swallowing it's tail, it's flogging a dead horse, and any other moth-eaten cliché for futility you care to cough up.
So why do people like me care so much about it?
The short answer is, I don’t know. Certainly life would be a lot easier and more remunerative for all of us poets if we just unplugged our prefrontal lobes and began writing advertising jingles and product assembly instructions for Scandinavian furniture megastores instead.
But, I think we should never underestimate the allure of futility. There seems to be an inherent magnetism in the idea of the lost cause, likewise many of us are drawn (perversely no doubt) to the role of outcaste. It makes us feel as if we were members of a secret society, or initiates of arcane and esoteric knowledge. The Punks of the mid-seventies, the Beats, the Dada and Surrealist movements, the English Bohemians and French symbolists of the nineteenth century and countless major and minor cliques going back through time have all fed on the energy of the lost cause. And I think there is a little of that in all of us who read and write poetry in this day and age.
So in honor of all those who swim against the prevailing currents, writing stuff that even blood kin don’t want to read, I give you several works by poets who now have taken their rightful places within the pantheon, but who died in utter obscurity and/or critical disgrace.
Poems and Prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins and The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins
His sensual, ecstatic sonnets were a bit too...well, sensual and ecstatic for the Victorian-era Jesuit order, of which he was an ordained priest. He published next to nothing in his lifetime.
The Complete Poems of John Milton
Yes, that John Milton whose Paradise Lost almost put me and thousands of other high school kids off poetry for good. I've since come to like long streches of it. Note: It reads much better aloud than in a hurried adolescent funk. Channel James Earl Jones or the late Harry Kalas (the voice of NFL Films) to get the full effect.
The Complete Poems of John Keats
Friends claimed a particularly nasty article on his poem "Endymion" killed him.
Poems of George Gordon, Lord Byron
Byron was genetically incapable of doing anything in obscurity, but joyfully courted disgrace with every breath. You just have to admire anyone of whom it was said, "He is mad, bad and dangerous to know."
Beat Voices: An Anthology of Beat Poetry
Sure, Ginsberg, Snyder and Kerouac are lionized, but what about all those other angel-headed hipsters?