At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.
He knew that he heard it,
A bird’s cry, at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.
The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above the snow…
It would have been outside.
It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep’s faded papier-mache’…
The sun was coming from outside.
That scrawny cry – It was
A choristoer whose C predeeded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,
Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality. – Wallace Stevens “Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself”
It is almost certainly not wholly your fault if you hear the words “poetry,” “criticism,” and “culture” and your brain shuts off immediately and you start thinking about whether doing the dishes piled up in the sink would really be that much less fun than surfing this portion of the internet. Much of literary culture, and literary education from the middle school to the graduate school level is designed, intentionally or unintentionally, to bore the crap out of you and make you hate anything that smacks of high culture. Whether intentionally obscurist or simply tedious, literary education, literary criticism and indeed, contemporary literary culture are designed to valorize the obscure and totally irrelevant over the pressing and immediate, explain to you why the people you actually read are not important and often, to take the fun out of your books.
I’ve told this story before, but I think it bears repeating as a good example of why people don’t read poetry. Some years ago, my cousin, now herself a teacher, brought her high school English homework to a family event and asked me to help her with it. The contents were a long list of literary terms, and a thick sheaf of poems, all ostensibly about trees and nature. Her job was to find three examples in the poems of each of these literary practice, and then write an essay comparing two of the poems. Sitting down with her to look for foreshadowing in three poems, and then zeugma (yeah, I had to look it up too ;-)), I could see why my cousin informed me that she had absolutely no intention of studying English in college beyond what was absolutely mandatory.
When she asked me for help with comparing two poems (here initial proposed thesis “they are about trees.” ;-)), I suggested that she consider why both Frost (Birches) and Wordsworth (Nutting) felt it was so important to write poems that were ostensibly about trees, but had an enormous amount of content about masturbation. She initially didn’t believe that content was there – she had read the poems, but had also been taught so long that high culture was boring that it never occurred to her to look for anything fun. A brief dramatic read-along made it kind of hard to believe otherwise, though (yes, I know you want to go look them up, so go ahead, this piece will still be here.) In the end, she, probably correctly, did not feel such a paper would prosper with the kind of teacher who sent one a sheaf of tree poems to find instances of foreshadowing.
That kind of English education, and the high academic style that focuses on trivialities to the exclusion of the point (I should be clear, not all academic studies of literature fall in this category – indeed, many don’t) are both to blame for the fact that things that aren’t actually boring or all that difficult get treated as though they are. All of the commonly lamented reasons why people don’t read “serious literature” are true – we watch too much tv, we play too many video games, we are in many ways a post-literate culture. But were our serious books and our poems as engaging as much low culture writing actually is, I doubt we’d bother making the laments.
The project of good teaching about literature, then, I find, is mostly about un-teaching people what they’ve learned – that is, that one does not love books because of their importance, or the author’s self-importance, or because you’ve been taught that they are important. One loves books because they are funny and engaging and brilliant and moving and angering and arousing and dirty and comic and fierce. Teaching Shakespeare, for example, is partly about teaching people to understand Shakespeare’s language, but even more about unteaching them the reverence they’ve been imbued with for Shakespeare the high culture genius and replacing it with actual affection for Shakespeare the very funny and moving writer. It has been a while, but I have stood in front of a room full of students trying hard to get them to laugh at the scene of the noble heroine, so pure and glorious that cast into a whorehouse because she’s so damned annoying, she converts the whores to nuns, and they sing hymns to the horny sailors below. It is a tough sell until you break the mystique of Shakespeare, and then, they laugh.
What’s perhaps not surprising is that the same false impression that your average 18 year old has of high culture writing – that it is good because it is obscure and focuses on high minded ideas rather than the actual realities of life – seems to be what most critics think makes a good novel these days. A Professor of mine, Paul Morrison once observed that never in all of literary history has there been such a violent distinction between “Good literature” and what people are actually reading. The literary movements of the last 50 years have been confined entirely to an increasingly smaller educated class of people who have actually bought the “obscure is good” bit, and an entire industry exists to promote the literary works of writers whose main claim to fame is that they are hard to read and spend their time meditating on important things like the emptiness of modern life.
There are some important exceptions to this in contemporary writing, mostly from writers writing in English from Africa, India and the Caribbean, but England, Canada and the US have created a gulf between people we read and people we pretend we read so vast that it is nearly impossible to ignore it – or would be if more than a minute percentage of the population actually gave a shit.
When high culture writers do actually get read, it is often, these days, because they abandon their traditional forms and write books that more closely resemble the genre fiction that most people actually read. And the genre they most often take up, given the scope and pressing nature of our collective crisis, is the apocalyptic novel. If you are Philip Roth, for example, and have already dragged out the personal disaster of aging as long as humanly possible, through an extended meditation on incontinence and impotence, what’s left, except an alternate history disaster story? After you’ve already killed everyone off in _No Country for Old Men_ why not actually kill everyone off, in _The Road_. It is not accident that these books were real best sellers, rather than the kind of best seller usual to high culture writers, ie, that created by someone creating a household buzz about a book that no one reads (this is what book reviews are for) but often gives to one’s relatives that one doesn’t know very well. If you are Ian McEwan who has already meditated lengthily and with no obvious results on what, Iraq, Terrorism and potential toilet paper shortages, mean to very dull people, why not go on to climate change and sell a few more books by being RELEVANT?
These books represent an attempt to grapple with the great crises of our time, to step out of the irrelevance of high culture psychological writing, and actually get at what’s coming, but they represent failures in a number of ways. The Road, (which I think may win prizes for most over-rated book of our times and also for unintentionally-funniest-moment-designed-to-horrify that fails miserably – who doesn’t love a good baby-on-a-stick) goes where just about every man has gone before – to the end of the world. Unsurprisingly, what he finds there is pretty much nothing good. The same is true for Roth, whose deepest message might be best described as “good thing it didn’t happen” or McEwan whose final message is “If we think a lot about these things, well, thinking is nearly as good as doing.”
There is, as yet, no literary writers who can get at where we’re going, who don’t fall into the trap of the end of the world. I find this disappointing, because such a literature does exist – we have literatures that derive from deep suffering, from the unmaking of a world and reconsittuting it in difficult times. We have the literature of Holocaust Survivors, and the survivors of the medieval and renaissance black deaths. We have the body of literature written by the world war generations, seen the world torn by conflagration, and by the poets who lived through the unmaking of monarchic society and revolutions in England, France and. We have the poetry of war-torn lands, of Apartheid and slavery. That is, the canon of literature is overwhelmingly a body of work whose best creations came when the world was radically transformed, when it did not seem as though there was a comprehensible future. Unlike the present, though, that literature was usually popular and literary simultaneously – that is, it was written for the people whose world was being unmade, by people who could tell stories – stories to explain, stories to inspire, stories to move to laughter in the face of terrible events, stories to use as a guide to navigate through hard places.
As far as I can see, that is not true of most contemporary poetry and fiction – in fact, it is the contrary. Most writers are not writing for the people who are living through the beginnings of our trauma – they know that the people who are already struggling, already impoverished, already losing their homes will not read them, and while some struggle with this, most seem so accustomed to the radical division between people we read and people we don’t that they don’t grasp that it matters.
I began this essay with Wallace Stevens, who in many ways is, I think, the patron saint of th division between high and low culture – and the architect of one kind of (failed, but interesting) attempt to push through the barriers. Stevens, the archetypical high culture poet, preoccupied with language, with abstraction, with the role and importance of the poet in an industrial society that was rapidly determining that the poet had little importance at all, turned, late in life, to the question of how a poet gets at something real, that actually matters. The poems he wrote from WWII on were materially different than the ones he wrote before, an attempt to grapple, awkwardly, at a distance, two steps forward and one back, recoiling in horror at harsh reality, with this question of what poetry can do in the face of something truly terrible, how the poet, frozen in language and distance can finally get real.
This question of whether we can get real matters. The truth is, we know our world by stories – we may inquire into truth and attempt to remove bias, but we live in our world through stories. We tell them and listen to them and they organize the meaning we find in events. This is what literature, high and low is ultimately about – and we have not yet, as a people, figured out what kind of stories we will tell. We are stuck between two false ones – the techno-utopian future in which our problems are solved, the consequences disappear and we emerge into sunny perfection, with plenty of time to meditate on our personal alienation, or the end of the world, at which there is nothing, at which even language ultimately collapses.
But there is a story in the middle there – or rather, many stories, waiting to be told. Stories about how we break through our narrow options. Stories about how we will navigate this new world. Stories about how we will tell our history to others. Stories about how we will survive, and how we will die. Stories that are true and stories we will, eventually, come to remember as true.
The only people I know of attempting to do this are those involved in the Dark Mountain Project, founded by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, who have conceived a literary movement driven by precisely our collective crisis, an attempt to grapple with things we have no words or stories for as yet. It is a fascinating project, and one worth doing – I’m watching their emerging thought with curiosity.
It is not clear what, if anything, Dark Mountain and the literary movement it clearly aims to inspire will produce, or whether many people will read what it does produce. I personally tend to think that the best writing is often produced not by those who throw themselves enthusiastically off the edge of the precipice, embracing radical change, but by those who are fearful of the edge but drawn to it, who crawl, hands and knees, towards a shaking margin, drawing back and unable to look away. I wonder if Dark Mountain writers may not be too enthusiastic about the project of “uncivilization” in some ways.
But they are trying, and grasping at something extraordinarily difficult, and the grasping alone is worthy and honorable work. Attempting to find a story between the obvious ones, one that we can actually tell ourselves and go on to tell our grandchildren, that has both truth and the feel of truth and pleasure as well – this is no easy project, and I admire them for the attempt. Just breaking out of the rigid, bony structure that divides us into apocalypse and utopia alone is remarkable, given how strongly we are driven between those two piers.
As I began with Stevens, I will end with him, from one of his very late poems, published posthumously, clearly a meditation on what will happen after his death from its title “As You Leave the Room.”
You speak. You say: Today’s character is not
A skeleton out of its cabinet. Nor am I.
That poem about the pineapple, the one
About the mind as never satisfied,
The one about the credible hero, the one
About summer, are not what skeletons think about.
I wonder, have I lived a skeleton’s life,
As a disbeliever in reality,
A countryman of all the bones in the world?
Now, here, the snow I had forgotten becomes
Part of a major reality, part of
An appreciation of a reality
And thus an elevation, as if I left
With something I could touch, touch every way.
And yet nothing has been changed except what is
Unreal, as if nothing had been changed at all.
The speaker here speaks back to another poem “First Warmth” in which Stevens articulates the coming of something, a warmth, a reality, that he had lost or forgotten or never wholly known. In “As You Leave the Room” he has another speaker ask him the same question – has he been a real person, or has he been so apart from the world as to be unable to matter to it. And this time, the answer comes back not in warmth, but in cold, in snow, like the warmth, touchable, but this time unstable, uncertain. “First Warmth” ends with the sense that Stevens has found the human, found something that will enable him to actually connect. “As You Leave the Room” leaves us less certain – he has connected with something, but it is icy cold and much harsher, and much less certain. But, of course, we suspect it may be more real.
The difficult honesty of Stevens, who at least can acknowledge what he does not know and cannot get at, may be the thing that differentiates Dark Mountain as a literary movement from our disconnected, abstracted literary movements that seem, correctly, to have nothing to do with anything. They do not tell new stories, for the most part, and they do not seem to realize that it is possible to have a literature that actually speaks to the present, even when history inconveniently, moves along an untrodden path. It may be the most honest attempt at literature we’ve seen – and that alone marks it as a kind of success we have been lacking.