Sunday, October 4, 2009

Reading Exacts a Heavy Cost / What It Takes To Be Popular /The Arts & Sciences

Just listen to this summary of what it “costs” to read a book:

Self-publishing companies may produce books for less than $5, but how much does all this production cost readers? In ‘So Many Books,’ Zaid playfully writes that ‘if a mass-market paperback costs $10 and takes two hours to read, for a minimum-wage earner the time spent is worth as much as the book.’ But for someone earning around $50 to $500 an hour, ‘the cost of buying and reading the book is $100 to $1,000’ — not including the time it takes to find out about the book and track it down.
“You’re an Author? Me Too!” NYT, April 27, 2009 by Rachel Donadio.

Oh, the agony of connecting to the imagination, our own boundless minds!

It's good that Zaid “playfully” draws this comparison, rather than have anyone take these remarks seriously. In the conclusion of my dissertation on Blake, bpNichol and Kenneth Patchen, I also jokingly provided a formula for the “cost” of poetry in terms of energy used to produce the materials, hours worked, and value of the paper—in trying to materially quantify the value of my dissertation. Ideas of the “worth” of poetry are perplexing, as every poet I know is attempting to actualize his or her creative potentials to the fullest extent possible as a value. But again and again, I find there always seems to be a needed justification for the activity. What basic questions are we asked about our efforts, if we don't achieve popularity, or some factual gain? On the one hand, a “valuable” set of questions is being asked of writers, and on the other, most writers ask themselves about their place in the larger society, the relation of writing to economy (always a complicated affair, but an important one), but also about the meaning of the activity for all of their other relationships, communities, writing friends & casual connections. How do we frame our aesthetic ideas, and our reasons for taking up the work? As a project? A poetics? I’ve found that writing is often an affirmation (if not a complication) of personal relationships, social responsibility, and an endlessly renewable resource. But as a less-than-perfect communicator myself, I've learned that the poem, its forms, its disturbances, as well as its theatrical dimensions (entertainment value) are a way of thinking through again. The poem is an amazing form of concentration and is a way of thinking through the senses themselves.

The other day a friend of mine reminded me that she doesn’t “get” contemporary poetry or painting; even though she is, on her own terms, a very accomplished new media artist. I take her opinions seriously, and feel the questions she raised needed to be addressed.

One important found-by-the-blog comment has helped me address this question of audience-v-value. Bob Grumman (an eminent visual poet) breaks down some of the basic, though necessary distinctions for why a lot of people don't like capital P poetry. He is responding to a rather lunkheaded essay he read in the New Criterion (bleech!) that laments poetry’s “loss of audience” since the days of Longfellow. I’m often faced with the “audience” question myself. It's one reason I decided to include a meter that counts the number of visits to my blog. Grumman explains that poetry is not “popular” simply because the prevalent cultural examples of poetry are poorly defined. Distinctions should be made about the multitude of reasons for reading a poem. We often forget just how much poetry is readily available in any number of places & in many different forms. The issue centers on which poetic forms are defined in ways that announce themselves as “poems”:

The reason poetry is no longer as popular as it may have been in Longfellow's day is that newer forms of art can do what it used to do for the aesthetically unsophisticated much better than it could. For instance, (1) still and cinematic photography are its superior at capturing easily-digested moments of beauty in both the natural and man-made world, and are widely and cheaply available; (2) the novel--and now--the movies and television--easily surpass it in story-telling, and are widely and cheaply available; (3) television talk-show hosts, news commentators, televangelists and the like are vastly more facile than it in expressing moral dogma capable of being understood by imbeciles, and are widely and cheaply available; and (4) pop musicians (in particular, rap artists--whose lyrics are memorized as lovingly as any prior poets' texts) outdo it in providing the simple fun of doggerel, sentimentality and plain stupidity, and their texts are widely and cheaply available.

The few poets who do reach a wide audience do it by conventionally expressing simple human truths that appeal to the masses, but only if they are establishment-aided representatives of a certified victims' group like Rita Dove and Maya Angelou, unusually effective careerists like Billy Collins, or celebrities like Jewel. As for our best poets, they compose for people with functioning minds and viscera. The result is poetry using traditional means that is, for the most part, dauntingly complex, and/or poetry that is innovative in the manner of Cummings or Pound, or of contemporary language-centered and pluraesthetic poetries. And the limited, and quiet, audience. It's as simple as that.

A good definition. At the same time, I was also blown away by Gillian K. Ferguson’s poetic project that takes its rhetorical direction from Wordsworth, no less. Her work can be found in a completely free online publication of a “1000 page” poem on the Human Genome. In her introduction to the poem, she has this to say about the role of the poet:

The role of the popular science writer as a ‘filter’ is obviously vital; but along with this, I believe there is no better ‘way in’ than the arts; and no better language than poetry to help this process. Poetry is the ‘right’ kind of language; it can be used to express grand concepts, but will not abandon feeling, reaction, emotional responses as invalid or ‘wrong’ because these things are ‘non-factual’; or rather, cannot be expressed as equations, computations or chemistry.

Poetry’s ‘special’ language is able to incorporate, bridge, and explore these parts of understanding as first nature; as an expansion of vision and perspective, thus contributing to greater understanding. The prevalent view of science as being somehow an absolute dictator whose stark ‘facts’ must be accepted unquestioningly as the entire ‘truth’ - contrasting with the intuitive notion of the ‘messier’, more blurred, interconnecting, seeping understanding of life that being alive instead presents to us - is no longer adequate. And even the most detailed blow-by-blow minute breakdown of the anatomy and processes of a flower, down to the very last chemistry and molecule, misses out something vital in the nature of that flower if this description conveys nothing of the flower’s beauty and aesthetic impact on the human senses. The purely ‘factual’ picture lacks adequate range of vision to present the whole meaning of the flower. In addition, we are simply ‘missing out’ on some of the most fabulous and mind-expanding findings ever made by mankind; life revealed at its most marvellous, creative, and spellbinding.

I agree! I’d recommend a reading of her entire introduction. I appreciate the critical value of serious intellectual work, especially when it is helpful in defining one’s terms and extending our ability to describe value; but of late, and increasingly, I am much more inclined towards positive visions of communication, and the sense it provides of purposes and goals amenable to the writing of poetry that must be its own intrinsic reward. A wild proliferation of senses, palpability and signification in a ludic or logic-curving relation catches me every time, rather than timid passivity.


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