What, exactly, is poetry? The Modern world has no answer to that question, just as it has no answer to what, exactly, a novel is, or what, exactly, a symphony is, or what, exactly, a portrait is. In each case, it has made room for appeals to the old forms of artwork accessible as nostalgic throw-backs to a period which its denizens barely understand; such appeals, however, are inescapably marred by irony, pompousness, and frequently border on kitsch.
Presently, the hipster response to the question comes in two forms: the radical semi-ironic postmodernist and the radical semi-ironic neo-traditionalist. The former will suggest that poetry can be just about anything, including a haiku in which the word fart is repeated seventeen times in a row and split across three lines. As evidence, he’ll cite stand-up beat poetry, slam poetry competitions, and e e cummings. The former, obviously, has the taste of a paste-eating toddler and about as much intellectual depth.
The latter, on the other hand, will attempt to argue the opposite strain. Poetry, he says, must be structured and obvious; it should display a clear understanding of rhyme and meter, and it should be, but doesn’t always have to be, in some sort of long form. Limericks are viewed as begrudgingly simple exceptions to the rule, since they’re so short and typically artistically dull, and free verse as a concept is thrown out the window. At least the limericks follow a clear pattern.
This approach, however appropriate in its general sentiment, lacks the nuance that is required to understand any sort of genuine artistic creation. It ignores the small handful of gold found at the bottom of the Modern’s bucket of coal, while at the same time naïvely and ineffectually preaching the merits of structured verse. And while verse is no less important now than it was four hundred years ago, the likelihood of a literate person actually reading it today has diminished to the point of near-abolishment. Poetry is meant to be read, and if the extreme neo-traditionalist is only willing to write or read the works of old while doing nothing to grow the genre, then poetry is indeed dead. And how could he possibly grow the genre when today the genre is, like all fields of artwork, drowned in irony and self-aggrandizement?
I offer up an example of where to go from here: James Wright. He stands rightfully alongside T.S. Eliot as among the best English-language poets of the Twentieth Century, although he’s barely heard of outside of a handful of literary classes taught at liberal arts colleges. Typically, such credentials would imply that he’s some sort of race-baiting neo-transvestite who wrote genderqueer poems about growing up on an urban plantation during the race riots, but in Wright’s case, that couldn’t be further from the truth. He was an Ohio River native from Martins Ferry, Ohio, born in 1927, and grew up through the Great Depression and the War. He lived a somewhat complicated life wrought with severe depression and eventually died of cancer in the 1980s.
Wright’s poetry, however, is the point here. His early work revealed a distinct love and respect for the highly structured forms of poetry that were considered outdated even at the time he was writing. These poems are nearly unparalleled in the Twentieth Century American vein, despite revealing a poet that had yet to come into his own. His work on translating Spanish realists and his dramatic shift into imagism prompted that shift, and when he finally did come into his own, it was a very distinct form of free verse poetry that was the result. Although the means he was using was modern, the fundamental subject matter and his themes were not. A man’s alienation from other men, the separation of nature from God, and the Fall all echo throughout his works begging not for a nihilistic conclusion and suicide, but for a somber reflection reminiscent of ancient philosophy. In the case of Wright, free verse did not imply soapbox political chants about race or sex.
Such a comparison may draw parallels to Pablo Picasso. As the legend goes, he was a brilliant abstract artist whose early work gave every indication of extraordinary talent. The comparison is flawed, however. Picasso, though a talented painter, lacked the patience and insight necessary to bring into the world any sense of beauty. He abandoned that early on, after becoming disillusioned with where he recognized the direction the art world was headed at the time he was painting. Instead, he wasted his efforts on frivolous experiments in perspective that added nothing to the sane person’s understanding of spatial awareness, color tone or hue. In the meantime, he shifted his entire approach to making art into the commercial market, mass producing large canvassed paintings in his workshop specifically for their sale to the rich. One anecdote includes him paying a restaurant bill with a doodling on a napkin. Art wasn’t about beauty, he recognized—nor fundamentally about money, either; it was about personality. The art world was little more than the sophisticated version of Hollywood. Once you’re in the circle, all you have to do to stay relevant is churn out a new thing once in a while and make sure it’s as shocking as possible.
Wright lacked all of these qualities. Even his early experiments with free verse lack the boredom with traditional structures that Picasso’s early experiments in abstract art embodied. Wright’s mature works lack the cynicism and sarcasm that permeate many of Picasso’s canvases. His poetry evokes a genuine sense of the human condition unpolluted by the egoistic trappings of an artist pursuing his own glory or stating his own views. And of course, poetry, being significantly less lucrative a commodity than colorful pictures, was unable to find a market that could fit mass-production on the scale that Picasso’s endeavors heralded. This difference alone may account for the differing ways in which the art world degraded over the last century, but in any case, the point remains: Wright’s work never masked the blasé with importance or celebrated chaos with a sarcastic glee. That path is too easily trod when Modernity espouses flipping the bird to the traditions you’ve come from. Wright instead grew the traditions, even if he grew them through Modernity’s petulance.
Which brings us back to the state of Modern artwork. The traditionalist’s take shouldn’t be to simply rewrite the classics or retread the same ground stylistic ground that has come before. That will neither resonate with new readers nor adequately build off of where he claims to be coming from. Those who espouse such a view are looking only for a nostalgic recreation of a world that existed largely as an abstraction. The traditionalist’s goal is the same in art as it is in politics or the rest of culture: recognize tradition and the structure of rules that it advocated, understand the system at hand, and use them to create relevant works of art contemporaneous to the culture. Art is not only meaningless when it misrepresents the culture, it is irrelevant.
Admittedly, Modernity has blown open the gates of artistic sensibilities to such a degree that it can be difficult, if at times impossible, to navigate that path through the creative wasteland of abstraction, ludicrous noise-riffing, and political regurgitation that all pass themselves off as “experimental” these days. And meanwhile, the market inflicts its share of violence upon the artist’s soul; Picasso’s cynicism is every bit as merited and understandable as it is worthy of rejection. But that is not enough of an excuse. Artists have a responsibility to temper their spirit and their craft, and to orient both into accordance with their proper causes. That’s all traditionalism asks. Anything less is merely pretension.