High and low

Comes the news from the nation's capital that Donald Hall has been named poet laureate.

There's something a bit, well, Continental, about having an official, national poet laureate. The Brits have had them since the 17th century, named by the monarch, but they also have The Most Honourable Order of the Bath. Our Republic (and its poets, from Phyllis Wheatley to Walt Whitman to T.S. Eliot) thrived long before anyone thought to designate an official poet laureate. The first such position was awarded in 1937 as a Library of Congress sinecure; nonetheless, who can quibble with the notion of raising "the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry."

Americans struggle with the notion of publicly-funded high culture, and it's reassuring to see the list of past poet laureates have included decidedly common touchers like William Carlos Williams (who didn't actually serve), Robert Frost, James Dickey, Maxine Kumin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove and Billy Collins.

That's not a bad thing. Selling lots of books of poetry, like Billy Collins has, shouldn't automatically brand you as "too popular," or worse, a purveyor of "low culture." Yes, post-modernism has eroded the line between high and low in academic circles (want to bet on the number of doctoral dissertations written on Elvis Presley in the past decade?) so it is harder to make those traditional literary distinctions.

Donald Hall is an interesting mix of the high and low, a Boston Red Sox fan who writes of baseball and a rural New England life, but also is deeply learned. Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, noted that most of the New Hampshire poet's work is accessible, but added that Hall's best work was "The One Day," a book-length poem that is "in a sense, the last masterpiece of American modernism."

Gioia, a former business executive and a talented translator and poet himself, has been a champion of more accessible poetry, and verse that comes from experience, as he explained in an interview some years ago:

A poet must be honest to experience. Whatever I write must somehow be grounded in my actual life. Contemporary American poetry does not have nymphs and shepherds, but it has its equivalent cliches. Most American poetry takes place in prefabricated literary landscapes, be they redwood forests or working class bars – conventionally poetic places where poets have poetic experiences. I have tried to write out of the range of my actual experience, which means the suburbs as well as nature, which means books and music as well as the family…

I thought of Gioia's emphasis on the artistic everyday experience when I read Robert Pinsky's Sunday column in the Washington Post where he considered the question of "bad poetry" of the recent past, observing that "that much extremely popular poetry of the 19th and 20th centuries now seems unreadably awful. One-time poetry stars such as Felicia Hemans, Edgar Guest and Joyce Kilmer maintain small, devoted followings, but are best known for 'bad poetry.'"

Pinsky focused on Guest, his poem-a-day newspaper column, and his use of "rustic dialect." Pinsky maintained that "before we condemn them as merely naive or faux-naif or just false in an outdated fashion, we should remember the popularity of country music and also the affected, exaggerated 'incorrectness' of the rap idiom. Most American popular song since the birth of rock has been in dialect: A spectacularly successful example is the vaguely Appalachian character created for himself by Bob Dylan."

Pinksy is right to see both country and rap as filling a void in American popular culture–but it is not only of dialect, but also of authenticity. Anyone who has lived in the South knows that the words of country music reflect the rich use of English, the "countrified wisdom" Pinksy cites, found in daily conversation, just as rap and hip-hop mirror the word play of some city streets.

There is nothing false about it. The lyricists of many country songs will tell you that they've borrowed a key line, or image, or story, from something they've heard or experienced. Many of their songs rely on clever word play to illuminate and entertain: from Roger Miller ("I'm a man of means by no means/ King of the road") to Kris Kristofferson ("Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose/ And nothin' left was all she left to me") to Mark McGuinn ("Hey, Mrs. Steven Rudy/ You're the neighborhood beauty/ And that wedding ring is as ugly as your husband is to you") to Toby Keith ( "I ain't as good as I once was/But I'm as good once as I ever was") country songwriters meet Gioia' standard of remaining "honest to experience."

And there is a rueful humor about much of country music, (a legacy of a tough Scots-Irish fatalism by those who settled the Appalachian region?), a closeness to the elemental that resonates with working people, and a willingness to voice sometimes harsh truths.

Despite his high culture (Harvard) education, Donald Hall's poetry is close to the earth; Billy Collins wrote that Hall's "simple, concrete diction and the no-nonsense sequence of the declarative sentence gives his poems steadiness and imbues them with a tone of sincere authority."

Take Hall's poem "Distressed Haiku," written after his wife's death. He draws on the self-deprecating humor of country folk ("Will Hall ever write/lines that do anything/but whine and complain") and the rural love of exaggeration ("The Boston Red Sox win/a hundred straight games") while hitting us with a hard truth:

You think their
dying is the worst
thing that could happen

Then they stay dead.

There is a distinctly American touch to this, a directness and honesty that appeals. It reminds of us of why we are drawn to poetry, why as William Carlos Williams once wrote of the absence of poetry, "men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there."

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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