The philosopher Nietzsche wrote a brilliant essay called “The Use and Abuse of History.” I haven’t read it in years. But I don’t have to—I can remember what he said about art and literature. Far too often, said Nietzsche (“for that was his name,” as a student of mine once said after mentioning Emerson in the first line of a paper) teachers and would-be shapers of thought inadvertently use art to kill art. They present Emerson or Shakespeare (for that was his name) or some other genius and proceed to demonstrate the “true” meaning of the poem or essay.
I can remember how mortifyingly dumb I felt in my first college English classes. I would read a poem, say, form an opinion of its meaning only to have the learned professor so explain the poem that I felt like a certified dunce. The subtext of the earnest teacher’s words were seared into my brain: the poet was a genius and I’m not. So get used to the idea that you had better never try to write poetry. Irony: of course the professor meant to be inspiring us to love literature and read it for the rest of our lives, the notion being that once we were taught the correct way to read one abstruse poem we would be able, on our loney, loney, to read and “understand” true art.
Now Nietzsche himself isn’t exactly hammock reading, to quote another one of my former students, but his point in “The Use and Abuse of History” is clear. By holding up masterpieces to untutored minds and deciphering them, the student is likely to walk away feeling like crap, knowing that poetry sucks, and that he or she could never create anything worthwhile, whether as a poet or composer or whatnot. So, don’t even think about it big boy. Have you considered dentistry? And it pays a lot more than poetry writing. So does plumbing.
But the irony is only half complete. Virtually no one reads poetry for pleasure—it’s “hard work,” to quote our Commander in Chief—but millions of scribblers, usually girls under the age of 17, write stuff that rhymes. No one, apparently, has told them that no one today who knows a lick about poetry obsesses much over rhyming. What used to be dismissed by some as “blank verse” has carried the day, much to the chagrin of some old fogies who once taught, “lit tra chure.”
To help me make my case I summon to the witness box none other than Billy Collins, America’s poet laureate a few years back. He writes in his Introduction to his readers in his influential anthology of contemporary verse, “Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry” (2003).
“I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out.
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with a rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.”
There’s more, much more from the pen of the hugely talented and influential Mr. Collins. I promise to call on him for inspiration often and promise and to quote him and others in the future. So, for now (to borrow the late, great political commentator, Edward R. Murrow’s signature sign off) “Goodnight, and Good Luck.” M.J. Workman has other poets and some people you might not be accustomed to thinking of as poets up his sleeve whom he promises to discuss and quote in future columns. The Lord willing, as my mother would say.