Art vs. Laundry
More and more, this year—especially since our second child was born—I’ve come to feel that poetry just can’t be as important as most people who write about it now make it seem: that, as Elizabeth Bishop put it in another connection, “Art just isn’t worth that much.” Sometimes I do not want to read—much less read about, write about, or even write—poetry, because it would take time away from more important things (such as accumulated laundry). More often I feel that I should not give poems the time that they (immoral creatures) seem to demand. If we are judged fairly, if we can ever be judged fairly, the verdict will rest much less on the spark in our line breaks or on the aptness of our adjectives than on whether we live as responsible people: whether we keep our promises, prepare acceptable lunches for our children, return the phone calls we get at odd hours from friends. We will be judged on whether we give other people what we owe them, and whether we can clean up after ourselves.
Such claims, and the feeling behind them, might have seemed to some writers (to Bishop, or to George Herbert) to go without saying. “There are things that are important beyond all this fiddle,” as Marianne Moore put it in her poem “Poetry.” To other writers (to William Blake, or to Barbara Guest) the feeling might have seemed misguided, or erroneous, or something that no true poet would ever maintain. It’s a feeling that can obviously lead the people who take it seriously—who allot their time accordingly—to make less art.
It can also affect the art that does get made. What are the characteristics of an art—of poetry, in particular—that estimates its own worth moderately, an art whose makers and whose readers do not expect themselves to put it first? It does not require us to say that we “dislike it,” nor to read it “with a perfect contempt for it” (as Moore’s “Poetry” prescribed), but it must be modest about its demands on our time.
It is, therefore, art on a small scale, art that can at least seem self-contained: it must consist either of compact, independent wholes or of modular, separable parts. The poems of Robert Herrick make perfect examples: “I sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds, and bowers,” the first poem in his collected works begins. Many of his elegantly playful pages take very little time to remind us that we have little time, saying, famously, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” Other poems by Herrick compare his art to clearly trivial pursuits: in “Love’s Play at Push-Pin,” (discussed at length in one of my favorite lit-crit books) the art of poetry and the art of love both resemble a “childish” game much like jacks.
An art that does not want to make too much of itself must be concise, but it need not seem “minor” or “light”; it may eschew elegance for sharper, harsher effects. The contemporary poet Rae Armantrout sets herself against all kinds of self-importance, including the self-importance endemic to poetry: no wonder her poems end up short, no wonder they so often seem to cut themselves off, no wonder they admire (when they admire anything) sites and phrases that would otherwise seem beneath poetry, beneath notice. One of her happiest recent poems, “Pleasure,” imagines a scene
Just made up
tuning fork ferns,
Armantrout’s “little . . . extents” figure her short lines; they are also the fronds of ferns, unshowy replacements for more colorful flora—her versions, you might say, of Herrick’s “birds and bowers.” Such poems (like those of William Carlos Williams or Walt Whitman) promise to reverse society’s values, so that the last shall be first, the common most prized; they also (unlike Whitman) turn a wry and unprophetic eye on any moral claims they advance.
Poets who play down the importance of poetry, who write against its overestimation, often repudiate earlier, more confident, or more ambitious poems: they may write what the ancient Greeks called palinodes, poems that take back (Greek palin: “back,” “backward,” “against,” or “again”) what the same poet earlier said. Robert Lowell began his career with jeremiads, poems of prophetic denunciation, but his last books, especially Day by Day (1977), are full of palinodes and renunciations, declarations of unimportance: “Fortunately / I only dream inconsequence”; “I was surer, wasn’t I, once . . . ” You can call such art self-dramatizing (you can call every bit of Lowell self-dramatizing, if you decide to dislike him), but you might want to see how hard he tried to diminish the power he claimed for himself.
You can find other self-doubts, other stabs at the palinode, in less likely places: for example, within Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam, a long elegy for the poet’s best friend, Arthur Hallam, composed in 131 self-contained parts over 17 years. Some of the parts dramatize world-shaking grief or promise consolation. But some of the parts worry that none of the parts will do anything for anyone. Perhaps they are merely a “sad mechanic exercise, / Like dull narcotics, numbing pain,” and the poet himself like an “infant . . . with no language but a cry.” You can call such doubts about poetry, expressed in poetry, a rhetorical convention or a pose, but you might still see how Tennyson repeats them: they vex him. (In Tennyson’s earlier poem “The Palace of Art,” the soul of the poet first seeks, then decides to reject, the “God-like isolation,” the “spacious mansion,” and the “intellectual throne” of literary technique pursued for its own sake.)
An art that doubts or lowballs its own worth may also doubt the wisdom of anyone’s choice to devote a whole life to that art. It may address an audience itself not wholly devoted to poetry, an audience that has made the wiser choice. Such an art must acknowledge not only that it can learn from, but that it might deserve to lose, the competition for time and attention and energy that poetry mounts against any more practical endeavor: child care, certainly, but also the pursuit of public good through electoral politics, the transportation of freight by road, river, and rail, or the practice of medicine.
It was William Carlos Williams who wrote, late in life, that “men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found” in poetry, but it was also Williams, a family doctor, who had to write some of his poems on prescription pads, in the minutes between seeing patients, and it was Williams who likened his own prolific output of small-scale poems to the “monolith of sand” transported by “The Well-Disciplined Bargeman,” whose work is admirable but never prophetic, magical, or exalted. “Standing upon the load the well disciplined bargeman / rakes it carefully, smooth on top with nicely squared / edges to conform to the barge outlines—ritually: sand.” To say as much is to elevate bargemen, certainly, but it is also to delimit, and to demystify, claims for poetry: so much, and no more, perhaps, are the lines of verse.
An art that abjures high claims to its own importance—that abjures them without sounding self-important—does well to compare itself to more practical pursuits (such as the steering of barges) or else to diversions (such as push-pin), sports, and games. W.H. Auden, in his elegy for W.B. Yeats, first told us that “Poetry makes nothing happen,” then told poets to make things happen anyway (“With your unconstraining voice / Still persuade us to rejoice”). Auden later came down on the side of inconsequence, instructing would-be poets (in verse) that their art was mere diversion: “Your tears have value if they make us gay; / O Happy Grief! is all sad verse can say.” Paul Muldoon has offered even sharper ripostes to the idea that art has a special moral status, that poets and poetry ipso facto deserve a great deal of your time or a high place: indeed, according to Muldoon’s sonnet “The Point,” poetry of the kind that Muldoon writes may not have any “point” at all:
What everything in me wants to articulate
is this little bit of a scar that dates
from the time O’Clery, my schoolroom foe,
rammed his pencil into my exposed thigh
(not, as the chronicles have it, my calf)
with such force that the point was broken off.
So much for confessional poetry (which digs out and plays up the poet’s old wounds); so much for the Irish epic (such as the Táin bó Cúailnge, which begins with a stolen calf); so much for the noble ambitions that W.B. Yeats once saw in a “consecrated blade.” Muldoon suggests, or fears, that his poems are worth no more, and no less, than a schoolroom feud.
But these are attacks, refutations, teases, palinodes. They work against grander, untenable notions of art rather than setting up notions of their own. How would a poet articulate a positive role for an unambitious art? How could a poem show that it is worth something, some time and attention, but not too much; that for it, we may give up some (but only some) more practical goods, postpone (but only by so many hours) so many obligations (e.g., laundry)? Bishop’s own poem called “Poem” (it begins “About the size of an old-style dollar bill”) mounts perhaps the best modern defense of a modest and yet a durable art: an art that deserves our attention, and our gratitude, even if (and because) it will not take all day.
Bishop’s poem describes an heirloom painting, one that “has never earned any money in its life,” and what it records (what gives the painting, and the poem, their use value, their value in memory) ought neither to be ignored nor to be mistaken for grand revelation. Contemplating “a sketch done in an hour, ‘in one breath’” of a farm in Nova Scotia (“Heavens, I recognize the place, I know it!”) by Bishop’s uncle George, “Poem” combines the rhetoric of an overstated, even a playful humility with a genuine modesty about how much this poem, or any poem, can do. It cannot turn sadness to happiness permanently, cannot discharge our moral obligations, cannot turn a “literal small backwater” into a highly symbolic world capital, or an Uncle George into a Raphael. It cannot even emulate extraordinary beauty in nature (no wild seashores here, only little farm animals). It can, though, show “life and the memory of it” in a “minor family relic”:
the little that we get for free,
the little of our earthly trust. Not much.
About the size of our abidance
along with theirs: the munching cows,
the iris, crisp and shivering, the water
still standing from spring freshets,
the yet-to-be-dismantled elms, the geese.
Art may not be worth a whole life, for Bishop, but it is worth something: “Poem” says how and why, showing us something (as the critic Zach Pickard says) “not valued until we saw someone else valuing it.” Quietly alarming (what if all poems have no more worth than this sketch?), the poem also ends up resolved, if not resigned: devoted to a painting whose cash value is nearly nil, one that few others have cherished, Bishop takes care to limit, as she takes care to show, what value it has.
Devoted to an art that is easy to make, but very hard to make well, and not often prominent (as against, say, films or novels) even when it is made very well, we poets, we critics, we serious readers of poetry too often respond to inconsequence with self-importance: we generate interminable arguments about how much poetry “matters,” about how it can indeed “make something happen.” I do not mean to dismiss all such arguments (I agree with some of them). I do fear that they can lead us to overestimate the powers, and the moral weight, of poetry, and perhaps to neglect other goods, other obligations (including the laundry).
Poetry (such poems as “Poem” imply) isn’t worthless, but it is worth less than many poets and readers believe: however much we like it, it may not merit all the claims it can make on our time. There are more important things. That I feel so—that I think “Poem” says so—does not mean that I want to get you to feel that way too; it means that I want to think about how such feelings manifest themselves in art. If we are to see this feeling for what it is—sometimes oppressive, sometimes unwelcome, sometimes a welcome consequence when a writer with obligations (and not only the obligations that come with a baby) has his or her head screwed on right—we ought to be able to see its aesthetic effects, the ways it can change the art that does get made.
We also need to distinguish those effects from the harsher consequences of material need. For some poets, writing less, writing differently, or taking time out from writing to meet other people’s needs has felt like anything but a choice. When Lorine Niedecker compares her poetry to compelled, repetitive labor (“No layoff / from this / condensery”); when she remembers cleaning “carpets, dishes / benches, fishes / I’ve spent my life on nothing”; when she remembers her “Old Mother” telling her “Give me space. I need / floors. Wash the floors, Lorine!— / wash clothes! Weed!” she is not declaring her poetry, or any poetry, less important than other poets think their poems have been; rather, she is reminding more fortunate readers how much it has cost her, how much it has meant to her, that she makes art at all. Whatever we owe other people, at home and beyond, we owe something—some time and attention—to such poems too.
The washing machine image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license by LG.
Stephanie (also Steph; formerly Stephen) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice...