Life at the margin?

With Seamus Heaney:

Poetry isn’t important in one sense — it’s more important to live your life and be a good person. Who cares about poetry, there’s plenty already around. Life is more important than art.

Under what conditions is that true?  Under what conditions is it actually believed by Heaney?  Here is the rest of the interview, interesting throughout.  I enjoyed this bit:

MB: What do you like to discuss in terms of literature in your classes?
SH: I’m radical about this, but it seems strange to have discussions with people who don’t know anything and who overreact. They usually don’t have much to say. Maybe discuss literature with them the following year — after the class — when they’ve had time to have the material enter their memory. Until it’s entered their personality they can’t say much.

Via Anecdotal.


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As Han-shan (or one of them) might have put it:

awww, poor poor scholar--
"hunger" and "cold" are not just words!
not otherwise employed, writing verse
line by tenuous line the substance of pulse.
--but no one collects unemployed verse:
self-lacerations must yield blood, not ink.
may as well print them on dog biscuits,
which discerning mutts won't even lick.

For the most part poetry is just crap used to inflict pain on high school children under threat of failing school unless they agree that it is deep and meaningful. What could possibly be more important then living a life worth living. Make a change in your life and vow to be a better person. Do good, be good, help others, be the best spouse and parent you can be.

Then after reading the interview, the wonder persists: what is the relationship today between writing/composing poetry and teaching?

What is the recent history of this relationship? Seems like something that occurred all in the second half of the 20th century, resulting in the academic captivity of American letters, prose and verse writers given academic "work" ostensibly tied to "professional" status. (How can anyone thus claim "Poet" as a full-time occupation?)

In the US at the very least poetry and the rest of literature are in dire need of being FREED FROM THE ACADEMY: the same argument could be made for poets and writers themselves, but that's up to academic poets and writers.

Tyler's post might as well have been titled: Teaching at the margin? --since teaching itself surely is a bit more marginal than life itself.

"what is the relationship today between writing/composing poetry and teaching?"

Which leading British (or the like) poets from the last century-and-a-bit do I still glance at for pleasure? Kipling, Eliot, Larkin. Plus several lesser lights such as Betj, Yeats, ...

None were university teachers as far as I know. But "today" you said. Dunno: I haven't seen a new poet I've taken a shine to since I came across Larkin. Novelists, yes. Playwrights, yes. But not poets.

Except, except; when we lived in Edinburgh there was a spell when poetry readings flourished - my golly they could be fun. But those (largely) Scottish poets are not much read outside Scotland I expect. Some of them were teachers in schools or universities.

The point is, America has become a bitterly and hopelessly divided country.

Seamus Heaney sounds like a great teacher, but there is no market for the poetry of the page. You can't give the stuff away. And in the absence of any standards or strictures enforced by demand, who can measure its quality?

It is instructive to compare the fate of written poetry with spoken verse. We are currently living at the tail end of the greatest flowering of oral poetry in the history of humanity – rap and hip-hop. This efflorescence has taken place among a totally unexpected class: our most fit and competitive young men at the height of their vigor.

It's the authentic proletarian poetry long sought by socialists and communists – but shockingly taking the voice of the oppressor, glorifying violence, fetishizing money and firearms.

Today’s oral poets have power and influence beyond any artists of any kind in all of history. They travel with private armies of armed ruffians. Their approval is sought by businesspeople and presidential candidates. They sit in the most prominent seats in the coliseums, and marry the most beautiful women.

From its very beginning, rap set off an uprecedented mimetic firestorm, being taken up by fit young men in every culture and language on earth. Whole industries are devoted to replicating the clothes and accouterments of our oral poets.

Rap marshals the same devices that drive the Iliad and the Odyssey. It is real poetry, far more than the “poetic” lyrics of the Bob Dylans and Bruce Springsteens. You and I may hate it (I despise every last scrap of rap I’ve ever heard, right up to and including “Hamilton”), but it’s the dominant art form of our time – and it will not be truly reckoned or evaluated for another generation.

At that time, there will be no cultural memory of the written poetry of university workshops, but educated elites will shake their heads in wonder at this overwhelming global poetic phenomenon that was rap.

Likely the scene, minus a few technological artefacts would be familiar to the gatherings of old where the inebriated bard would entertain the men and women with ribald stories of danger, battle, adventures, women they had or didn't have, the search for riches interspersed with stories of death and despair. The poetic structure was and is an aid to memory.

There is a very interesting clip on the Jimmy Fallon show where the author of Hamilton Lin-Manuel Miranda riffs off of three words. It is competitive, mental dexterity mixed with the ability to entertain.

Give it a generation or two and the life will be sucked out of it by earnest pedagogues leading their bored students in a study of the mechanics and meaning of rap.

"And in the absence of any standards or strictures enforced by demand, who can measure its quality?"

Depends on how you define aesthetic quality really. If that is your standard of measurement, then so be it.

I am not at all sure either that poetry and rap are one and the same. Listen to Slick Rick, then listen to Gucci Mane. Is it just the rhymes you're hearing, or is there music assembled there as well? The difference between trap and "old school rap" isn't just a matter of an aid to memory getting a new sheen. Trap, and other forms of rap, have a specific stylistic intention that just don't work in the same way spoken word does.

Then there's William Carlos Williams' lines:

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

Yes. Thank you for that.

Agreed, great quotation

Rap is to the Iliad (The Poem of Force, remember) as Do-Wop was to the chansons of the troubadours of southern France. On the beat, needing sound effects and reliant on shock-effect profanity and violence, it's also closer to a marching band than to a Tracy Smith.

As to SH: In the early to mid-70s, before MFA culture totally took hold of the poetry industrial complex, it was possible to get the experience Heaney describes as ideal: a successful and learned practitioner who'd tell you what it was, how it came to be, how it worked and who left room at the margins of class to let students test their ideas out. Some wonderful teaching was performed, especially for me by Norman O Brown on Pound and Williams and some of the 1950s and 60s writers. And William Everson, aka Brother Antonius, on Robinson Jeffers and Ted Hughes.

But creeping into my classes was the idea that we could teach each other. And that one guy would never shut up, that one girl would go on and on about what they said in her AP English class; and no one could or would say anything critical, even constructively, because how could they? It was clear where things were headed. At the Iowa Workshop, where I was later, the emphasis on craft and picking things apart and putting them back together again as a class struck me--I had moved over to fiction by then, so was an observer--as the blind (or future Freshman English teachers) leading the blind. There, it was a death by a thousand passive-aggressive cuts and what died was the poem. (Who cared about the poet?)

What will survive need not concern us, for we won't be around.

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