The Speed of Poetry
Cultural speedup is, at bottom, an economic issue. A mass-market mentality is creeping up on the poetry world. As Jack Agüeros pointed out in a talk at Poets House, Seamus Heaney's new translation of Beowulf, a bestseller in England, is repeating the performance here. The more Beowulf the better, one might think--except for the pressure on other poetry books to demonstrate their salability in compliance with the unpoetic rhythms of product cycles. The "news that stays news" suddenly has a shelf life. Like Ray González using the "Latino boom," poets must think increasingly in terms of exploiting narrow windows of opportunity. A fortunate few achieve a sort of brand-name recognition that feels very different from "reputation" in the traditional sense but is no less hierarchical.
I don't quarrel with Lee Briccetti's view that it's a good thing poets are becoming increasingly attuned to practical strategies for marketing their work. We are poets in this world and must cope with its limitations. But I worry about the impact on the writing of poetry. Shifts in cultural velocity are bound to reshape our imaginative lives, our relationships to metaphor and even the tangible structures of our language. For some, the new conditions offer attractive openings. "Her spare, short-sentence style is built for speed" reads an admiring review of Anne Carson's Men in the Off Hours. But what of styles built for slowness?
Perhaps the ultimate symbol of poetry's integration into the market is its popularity as an advertising gimmick. Talk about reception in a distracted state! A recent ad for a financial-services company uses passages from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." The makers of an organic green tea on sale at my food co-op have actually registered the word "haiku" as a trademark and are using poems by the ancient Japanese masters as product endorsements. Jane Preston thinks that such appropriations are inevitable given poetry's new mainstream visibility. True enough, perhaps, but it strikes me that the poetry commercial is advertising more than a specific consumer product. It's touting commodification, period. For if a poem can be used to sell automobiles or sneakers, is there any creative energy left on earth that isn't shilling for capitalism?
I'm well aware that the fundamental political and economic questions I'm raising won't be resolved primarily in literary settings. Poets, editors, publishers, readers and arts advocates must keep scrambling to survive, make creative and principled use of the double-edged swords at our disposal (better marketing and so forth) and participate in movements for radical social change. My exhilaration in the aftermath of National Poetry Month owed as much to my attendance at political demonstrations as it did to my dip into poetry's flood tide. This spring's Manhattan and Brooklyn protests against police brutality and the Washington rally against the policies of the IMF and World Bank took on versions of the tasks that also confront our literature: achieving real democracy, resisting commodification, saying no to the pressure to gear our imaginations to the warp speed of markets.
What would it feel like, I wonder, to inhabit a culture that traveled at the speed of poetry?