The complexity of the modern world presents us with questions and doubts that would hardly have occurred in the minds of our forebears. For instance, when we come across an eccentrically punctuated and ungrammatical rant, arbitrarily broken into a mess of lines singularly lacking in sense or aesthetic qualities, we have to decide whether it is the by-product of a disturbed and disordered mind largely unacquainted with the language in which it presumes to bother us, or it is a poem.
In many cases, our task is made easy because we have the author’s testimony that it is the latter, and being that we would do anything for an easy life, we tend to take the author’s word for it.
The acquiescence to this view, that an artefact is what the artificer tells us, is a simple proposed solution to a complex problem of definition, and it has advantages for the barbarian who wishes to make his way in this world: firstly, in that it is a simplification; secondly, in that it serves to display a thoroughly modern and sophisticated tolerance for things about which he couldn’t care less, for which boon he need expend no veritable generosity of mind; and thirdly, in that it applies to his own works.
If, then, we are to take to be a sufficient definition of poetry that it be a piece of writing, arbitrarily broken into awkward lines, singularly unconcerned with metre, grammar, beauty or sense, for which we have the author’s testimony that it is indeed poetry, then we have the potential to become truly a land of poets; for all we need do is persuade the vast numbers of semi-literate savages, for which this country does not want, to bestow the name of poetry upon any rubbishy scribbling of theirs. They could all produce trash of this calibre, for example:
Summer thoughts of icicles imprintvoices on the fibers of young skin.License to use syllables is paintedtopaz maybe maybe yarn perhaps gold.She rinsed her mail in salt waterprotectively left leaves to dry.Night defined by memory elapsesinto solo heat that self erases.He moved where nobody would recognizehis penmanship and started signing checks.Weeds in the new yard grew fresh and tall.He, loving extension of his beard.(Sheila E. Murphy, “Loving Extension Of” Lynx, XI:2, June, 1996.)
It would be wrong of me to describe this as having no intrinsic qualities. After all, it made me laugh, and I must give due credit for the provocation to the author’s work, as well as to my own merry soul. But we have only the context and the author’s word with which to decide that it ought to be described as a poem, rather than as an embarrassing case of logorrhoea.
It often appears that the only barrier to becoming a modern poet is an aesthetic sense of decency and rhythm; and even our very own Nobel laureate Harold Pinter has overcome this barrier to produce work that “proceeds to its own law and discipline” (Quoted by Martin Esslin, Pinter: The Playwright (London: Methuen, 1970) at HaroldPinter.org):
And after noon the well-dressed creatures comeTo sniff among the deadAnd have their lunchAnd all the many well-dressed creatures pluckThe swollen avocados from the dustAnd stir the minestrone with stray bonesAnd after lunchThey loll and lounge aboutDecanting claret in convenient skulls
(Harold Pinter, “After Lunch”, online at HaroldPinter.org.)
Should not such pap fill the heart of every talentless troglodyte with the stench of hope? For if this is poetry – and by our modern definition it is – then every man, woman and misbegotten child has the righteous claim to be a poet. But then, I suspect that that is the point.