In 1871 Arthur Rimbaud wrote a poem called Les Chercheuses de Poux (The Nit Pickers) . It is one of the few pieces I would include in a very slim anthology of truly all-time great poems. Rimbaud was 15 at the time. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7HDznbYwjw He subsequently, with a self-confidence that makes modern rock stars look lily-livered, trudged across the war torn fields of Northern France and went to Paris to meet up with Paul Verlaine.
Rimbaud’s first foray into poetry was obviously heavily based on the work on the Charles Baudelaire, whose style he had already mastered and to a certain extent outdone. Verlaine was also working on furthering and radicalizing the Baudelairean legacy, but his work was cramped somewhat by the Parnassian mode in which he chose to operate.
The two famously became quarrelling lovers. Rimbaud would later give up poetry to pursue a career as an arms dealer and Verlaine’s subsequent mediocre literary output was forever overshadowed by the scandal. Only in the next century was Rimbaud’s radical slash and burn approach to poetry (or for that matter Verlaine’s radical if somewhat mincing minimalism) taken up with any degree of seriousness by the modernist, Dadaist and surrealist movements.
Modernism too, however, would go astray in the desert or give up the ghost in the bistro and, with a few notable exceptions—Ponge, Plath, Berryman maybe—poetry would go back to ploughing the increasingly elitist increasingly lonely furrow it had always been inclined to pursue.
In 2016, the ageing singer song writer, Bob Dylan, was controversially awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Rock star style, he refused to turn up for the ceremony and cribbed his acceptance speech off the Internet, as if in a deliberate last-gasp attempt to shrug off his critics.
Debate in literary circles circled superciliously around the question of whether Dylan was a worthy laureate. Snobbery apart, different, for example, from his contemporary Leonard Cohen, who died the same year, he had never actually written anything purporting to a novel or a poem. But perhaps that is precisely why the judges in Stockholm chose him over Cohen—an apparently much more worthy candidate. Dylan was Rimbaud. Cohen Verlaine.
Dylan obviously moved in Beatnik circles in the late 1950s and is clearly influenced by this literary style. A similar driving force unfurls the long rambling lyrics of Like a Rolling Stone or Desolation Row.
I am an enormous admirer of Bob Dylan, but I opposed his being awarded the Nobel Prize. He is not a poet or a writer and, even if he were, true to his radical pacifist roots, he should have rejected the accolade, established as penance by an arms peddler. Perhaps he felt the pull of his Rimbaudian roots.
There should be an Oppenheimer Prize for literature. That might focus minds more closely.
This Christmas I discovered Dandelion Radio https://www.dandelionradio.com/index.htm , which purports to continue the time honored tradition of the late John Peel’s democratically culled Festive Fifty best independent music tracks of the year.
I am struck by how so much of it is now Parnassian-style techno-music, but also by how a counter-cultural tradition still persists through this diverse genre. Gavin Osborn’s folksy, Billy Bragg influenced “I am European” made me cry for the first time in years.
I was especially impressed, however, by the number of ‘charting’ songs that involve a kind of dead-pan pared down poetry accompanied by a musical backdrop rather than singing. In the case of the No. 1 song, Paul Rooney’s Lost High Street, a lengthy and amusing discourse recited to both a musical and various sung backtracks.
However, it is questionable whether these arty pieces or Dylan or Cohen or even rap for that matter truly constitute poetry, if the words are dissociated from the music. For me, a defining feature of poetry is that it should stand up independently of any musical accompaniment, specific performance or recording. Poetry, I like to say, is ‘music without sound.’
It is worth noting that both Dylan and Cohen were failed writers who turned to popular music as a way of making more money and reaching a wider audience. The same goes for Morrissey and many other classics of popular songwriting. Rooney, like many of the artists in the contemporary indie scene, hails from an art school background and his work is arguably more video installation than the product of a master songsmith. I shall leave rap to one side for now, as I think that it is a special case that deserves special consideration in a separate post.
Previously on this blog, I have reflected on why contemporary poetry has taken such a different and much more conservative route from that taken by contemporary art. The same question could be asked regarding contemporary independent music.
Independent (or Indie) music grew out of the 1970s punk movement and evolved as an explicit rejection of the highly commercialized and hence conservative form that popular music and youth culture had already assumed by that time. Indie music, as the name suggests, is normally produced by small-scale record labels and its artists and producers are more interested in artistic quality and/or political messaging than in profit-making or widespread popular acclaim. History will probably judge these works much more highly than their mainstream pop and rock contemporaries. But that is for time to tell. The indie music scene is nevertheless a thriving cultural movement often explicitly linked to left-wing political activism, feminism and environmental issues. Contemporary poetry is not.
In my previous post on this subject, I argued that contemporary art differs from contemporary poetry primarily in the way it radically and playfully subverts the relation between surface and support. https://oudeis2005.wordpress.com/2015/01/25/why-poetry-didnt-go-dada-the-waste-land-of-contemporary-english-language-poetry/ The very provocation Dada originally posed, flirting with the scorn of the masses, eventually turned this scorn to its own advantage and it has now found a comfortable and lucrative niche within mainstream culture.
Indie music has operated differently, but no less effectively. Although there is some deviation from the norms of mainstream music, much Indie music is in fact structurally quite conservative, compared to rap, for instance. Indie music continues to thrive because it has consistently tapped into an undercurrent of otherwise voiceless popular discontent and successfully created social networks of performers, producers, DJs, political activists, visual artists and the disaffected underclass in a way that contemporary poetry could not even dream of doing.
I put the title of this post in the form of a question without a question mark. It is indeed a question that is more rhetorical than literal, a fact that requires no real explanation. Contemporary poetry could, if it wanted to, move more in the direction taken by contemporary art and indie music and would be much the richer for it. It has simply chosen not to do so. It has neither challenged tradition nor reached out to a wider network. And no matter how much writers whinge about short attention spans and poor literacy (complaints that are as hackneyed as they are untrue), there is no getting round the fact that poetry does not nowadays enjoy the same cultural status as popular music or the visual arts (or film and TV for that matter) because it has opted not to seek out this path. Poets have no-one but themselves to blame. And, given poetry’s long history of radicalism and relevance, it is a crying shame.