MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Another One Bites the Dust?

Pages from Emily Dickinson's small poetry booklet "fascicles"

Pages from one of Emily Dickinson’s small poetry booklet “fascicles”

So just how many of the dear, withering Muses are supposed to be on death row? Of course the meme of The Death of Classical Music (TM) gets periodic play.

Then there’s the familiar hair-pulling question: “Is theater a dying art form?” Even Hollywood is said to be in its death throes.

And poetry? The art that is inseparable from language itself, the very signature of our humanity? There’s no lack of doomsayers claiming with a straight face — and hoping to boost hits in the process — that poetry “is about as useful as the clavichord.”

One common denominator in this litany of obits: the relentlessly short-sighted, quick-fix worldview of contemporary capitalism.

“Poetry is dead by capitalism’s standards – it is not an obvious moneymaking venture, despite traceable employment and readings’ payoffs via the academy – and that emboldens some folks limited by capitalist blinders to herald poetry’s last breath,” writes Amy King, co-editor of the PEN Poetry Series, in a worthwhile new essay for the Boston Review: “Threat Level: Poetry.”

And talk about blinders: “The naysayers of poetry’s vastness seem to be primarily fueled by declaring poetry’s defeat or impotence instead of engaging in the more difficult work of creating beyond what they know.” King continues:

“The limits of my language are the limits of my world” is not Wittgenstein’s defeatist end; it is his challenge to set out boldly and with curiosity to expand and explore through the language we think through. He didn’t stop with the “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” where that statement appeared; it was his first of many books, such as the “Philosophical Investigations,”that explicated his theory of “language-games” and complexly broadened his considerations of language use overall.

What a lazy, pretentious approach to think we’ve located our limits and can now only recycle and shuffle what’s been said before as cut-and-paste, as the Conceptual poets would have it, or by squeezing words into forms without any sense of language’s expansiveness or trust in the person using it, as traditional formalists would claim.


Further, the writers of poetry’s obituaries are aligning themselves with a capitalism that is patriarchal by default: it is more beneficial to divide and conquer or imperialistically claim, in sound-byte fashion, than to identify and envision beyond perceived limitations or some institutionalized formulaic trend.

I especially admire Amy King’s eloquent manifesto for what poetry can do:

Poetry is as large as language. Just as language pushes its limits, poets can make connections where connections are frowned upon. We might engage with our intuition or emotion or even that mysterious and popularly denounced “spiritual” part of ourselves. We can juxtapose the arbitrary with the arbitrary and invoke a maddening sense of the reality we’ve inherited. We can move from our depression or fleece a corrupt order with a vision of existence that incites responses varying from the call to question to the responsive insurrectionary. We can also highlight the beautiful-ugly among us that everyday language would insist is either one or the other.

Filed under: aesthetics, poetry


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