POETRY IN A MULTIMEDIA AGE by Rosemarie Rowley
(PI News January/February 2010)
One of the consequences of living in a multimedia age is that the primacy of poetry has suffered. In the past, poetry had a sacred connection and a particular shape, its form (through epic and myth), giving a unified overview of the aspirations and lived experience of a group of people living together in a particular culture. The modernists were the last of the great poets who had general readers: today, readers rely on information from so many different media to inform their choices that poetry has for the moment lost its authority. One result is that what passes for poetry can appear fragmented and emaciated.
The division of discourse noted by TS Eliot has not gone away. For example, the dissociation of sensibility, the difference between ‘feeling’ and ‘thought’ – mythos and logos, imagination and reason – is perpetuated in the academy in the contexts of multiculturalism, post-modernism and post-colonialism. At the same time our culture is now one of enablement to those who would not previously have written: once the preserve of a powerful elite, poetry now is seen as an embellishment on a CV and everyone wants to become a writer. And writers, because we are part of a culture of public relations and immediacy, have to be seen as agreeable people, and hence cannot criticise for fear of offending a friend or colleague, but must always make it seem as if ‘anyone can do it’. The result has not been good for poetry, since very often the right to freedom of expression is confused with genuine artistic achievement.
The solipsism at the heart of Romanticism, which in itself was a response to the overly-rational Enlightenment, has in the case of the ‘feeling’ poets, brought the ‘I’ into soft-focus and created a very self-indulgent poetry, a beloved monster akin to the child’s teddy still cherished by the teenager as he or she seeks refuge from a multimedia assault and battery on the senses. To emote is seen as enough, and very often the audience identifies with this, so that the writer is primed to expect a soft landing and an indulgent audience who will not, however, want to read poetry a second or third time. Of course there are wonderful exceptions.
The other wing of this dissociation, the ‘rational’ poet split off from emotion, writes a pseudo-scientific, experimental poetry, which can be unappealing to the senses, and which can descend into a freakish monotony – often a condition of the post-modern aesthetic. The death of the author is having a long wake in the academy, where more than ever reputations are made by schools and trends which emerged in university departments during a general crisis in culture itself. The crisis was perpetuated by a proliferation of new classifications and genres.
With so many defining what poetry is – from participation at the local level (which will comfort those who feel it has escaped them in the relentless analysis of the school examination system), to the rigours of the academy, where the post-modern programme is uppermost and artistic achievement takes second place to the career paths of professional critics – confusion reigns. The real poet is he or she who can stride these two worlds like a Colossus, and I can think of Heaney, of course, and Ní Chuilleanáin: I also would include Mahon and Durcan. However, since the great modernists, who sought to find an objective correlative for the machine age which had come upon them, there have been few poets who have attained both a universal appeal and an audience delighted by difficulty – who share in ‘the fascination of what’s difficult’.
Now, with the lens of the media focused at last on environmental and green issues, one path for poets is to reconnect with nature, and some of those already on that journey – for example James Harpur and Joan McBreen – can offer us a way forward. It may be time for the artist to re-discover those ‘ancient springs’ beloved by the late eminent poet Kathleen Raine, who did so much to encourage me at a time when these concerns were being neglected both by the public and the academy. And there is room here for a new Irish writing – or perhaps, better still, to a new international base for Irish writers, and for writers based in Ireland. As to poetry politics and gender issues, it will be interesting to note how these will play out, now that no one should feel excluded from art or from literature in the way they once did.
What I would like to suggest is a return to the techniques of the past, such as metre, rhyming and learning not by rote but ‘by heart’. I can still recite the whole of ‘Ceo Draíochta’ by Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin, with its extraordinary use of vowel and consonant rhyme, and this has stood me in good stead with my own work. (Note to neophytes: ‘CEO’ does not mean Chief Executive Officer, it means fog , which is entirely apposite!)
It is my hope that a love of form, consonance, and beauty in sound, allied to nature, may return in poetry. We need to be aware that a line break does not necessarily make poetry; sometimes it is just makes chopped-up prose. (Try reading certain contemporary poems without the line breaks and you may see why poetry is losing its readers). A return to the techniques of the past, of the great writers, is one prescription, creating a well-stocked mind and leaving analysis for later if a poem is not understood immediately – when it will have resonance with a more mature mind. Let’s return to learning ‘by heart’ to ensure a universal texting language doesn’t dominate and cause us to lose our wonderful heritage both in Irish and English.
Rosemarie Rowley was educated at Trinity College in the 1960s, and has published five books of poetry. She is a pioneer of eco-feminist poetry (The Sea of Affliction) which can be found at www.rosemarierowley.ie She is also a formalist: her book-length poem in terza rima, ‘Flight into Reality’ (1989) will be re-issued in 2010 by Rowan Tree Press.