Some off-the-cuff thoughts after I just finished viewing the debate and discussion between Christian Bok, Carmine Starnino, the moderator, and several audience participants.
Bok, in making his case for relevancy, in his challenge to poets, argues that the abysmal state of poetry in the larger cultural world would be ameliorated if poets were to quit talking about their pastoral experiences, and instead comment on contemporary concerns, in contemporary language and contemporary forms.
Broadly, I agree with Bok. The more current CanPo I read, the more I'd be willing to lay 3 to 1 odds that there will be multiple mentions of "toads", "falling light", and "blackberry vines" (or their neighbourly equivalents) in the volume I'm about to read. If the content and music are fresh, with new and interesting angles, I love reading it. But too often the landscape is just a backdrop for the poet-"I" to investigate his or her own interior profundities which don't translate to anything more than "I looked at the afternoon light falling on the rose petal and the world was transformed". Redundant and irrelevant, says Bok, and I applaud his view.
I also agree with Bok's assertion that a big reason for this sad state of repetitious bucolic epiphany is that many poets don't have any expertise or experience in any other field. I underline this view: many poets don't have the expertise because they don't care about more "prosaic" topics. They're incurious. I forget who to attribute the idea to, but it's been said that a good poet is a generalist: an expert in perhaps one or two areas, but also knowing something, or more than something, in a lot of widely separated fields. This also explains the appalling redundancy in the content (and so, form and mood, usually) of their poetry. Page after page is filled with slight variations on painterly description in the woods, for example.
So where's the real exploration that Bok calls for? It's not, as he hopes, by projecting scientific discoveries into the future, and commenting on the supposed ironies and absurdities of the collisions with our "settled" world (whatever that may mean-- we're already living in the fastest paced society in history). To be fair, Bok also laments the fact that recent history hasn't been explored. Where are our epics on the moon landing?, he sincerely asks.
But there's a problem with this prophetic (in the first instance) or contemporary (in the latter case) call. First, as I wrote in my last post, contemporary stances are plagued by guesswork and (often) misdirection, even blatant wrong turns. And when the imagination drifts into the future, all kinds of incorrect scenarios can be solidified, made into an inevitability, at least in the minds of those predisposed to the conclusions. That's not to say that prophecy should be avoided: prophetic vision, denunciation, and admonition have long been a higher staple of poetry. But, getting back to Bok's assertion of incuriosity among our current collective crop of Canadian versifiers ("avant-garde" and "traditional"), how many have the wide scope of reading, experience, integrated understanding, flexible thinking, and original forming of options, backed up by an equally complex (needed for the increased demands made by the content) formal (not understood as "tradition") shaping? The gulf between the ambition and the capacity in realizing that higher resposibility would be laughable among most of the avant-garde poets currently writing today, so I don't see as to how Bok can single out the "entrenched" "traditonalists" for this lack. The 20- and 30-somethings in Shift & Switch are going to create a compelling and highly complex argument, exploring multiple issues in our midst, rooted in historical precedent and understanding, when they've gone from high school to grad school (increasingly sequestered in creative writing programs), to academic careers, and without much in the way of work, life, or wide-ranging intellectual experience, talking to a like-minded social group within their academic circles? It takes a lot of time, a lot of effort, a lot of curious and careful and serious thinking-- alone--, a lot of discussion, friendship, and alliance, in work and play, with all kinds of people, and only then a lot of patient crafting of poetry, to even begin the process of having a glimmer at the revolutionary appeal and accomplishment that Bok impatiently wants to see match the challenge of our times.
As I say in my Dec 2 post, would that the personal anecdote were done in an interesting-- if not exciting-- way first before the Grand Canyon overreach takes hold. Luckily, many poets agree with me since they're still trying hard to get it right how sunlight falls on the wings of the butterfly.
Prophetic poets, highly realized, are in short order for a reason. It takes more than an avant-garde trick of mangled syntax or deleted lexical category. We're lucky to have Shakespeare, Blake, Vallejo.
Still, sometimes I tire of those microscopic studies of spiders and waving wheat. (Hughes and Vallejo wrote microscopically of the spider, but in the first case, it was gorgeous language with frightening suggestion, and in the latter case it had very little to do with the spider at all.)