Saturday, June 25, 2005

'Elephants pushing'

Middlebrow and High Touch Mega Store have been discussing whether poetry is valued by people these days. I've weighed in at Middlebrow's by referring to an essay that was published back in December in The Sun. I inaccurately called it "The Penis That Killed Johson County" but that was wrong. It is entitled "The Penis That Killed Jeffrey City." (The link is to a PDF file of the essay.) Basically the essay is about the experiences that its author David Romtvedt had teaching poetry in rural Wyoming. Although he does not address libaB's question directly, I believe that it does connect to the notion of poetic value, since he describes a situation that throws poetry right into the real world--a small hardscrable Westen ranch town:
The residency had not gone well so far. The students seemed worn out or beaten down and hadn't expressed interest in poetry of any kind, cowboy or otherwise. Even the sky over Jeffrey City looked depressed, as if it were hanging on and hoping for a better day. (27)
The students he is teaching are a practical lot, mostly, and are similar to other students he has taught:
One of the bigger, tougher boys looked hard at me and said, "Are you famous?"
"I want to know if you're famous."
We'd had a lesson eaqrlier in the week on oxymorons, those paired opposites, like "burning ice," "jumbo shrimp," and "compassionate conservative." I thought I'd make a joke and let myself off the hook at the same time, so I said, "'famous poet' is an oxymoron."
"Oxymoron, my ass," the boy said. "No bullshit. Are you famous or not? 'Cause if you're not, I got no time to be out licking trees."
You're not like us is what he meant. And if you're not famous--i.e., rich--then we dont' have to be like you. (24-25)
He was trying to get across the power of senses and the power of extraordinary actions, so he asked them to go out and lick at tree and write a poem about the experience.

I kind of see the tree licking as a metaphor for poetry itself, in this case. The student didn't see the value in something bizzare like tree licking, and sure as hell didn't see the value of words laid out on the page in a strange fashion. Ultimately, it seems, the idea of poetry is not seen as a new way of perceiving, but as a strange activity done by people who "live far away in big cities, or are dead" (27).

Even the cowboy poetry that folks in the towns he visits like enjoy is not particularly useful other than to entertain in doggerel. Poetry is not something important to them, in other words, it is just mere decoration: paint on a barn. Any of you who have visited the West will acknowledge that most barns and outbuildings are not painted as they are in the East and Midwest. They are usually left bare, as if painting them would both cost money since it would have to be done often in our hot sun, and is therefore impractical.

I would argue that those folks who don't paint their barns in the West that they are wasting money and being impractical since the elements tend to rot bare wood, even if it does take a long time. But, of course, that would cost money, and when you're living life on the edge in a frontier, you best keep your wallet closed and not worry about wood falling off the side of a barn in 30 years.

I am making an anology with poetry and painting a barn here. By that I mean that poetry is not mere decoration, but is vital to our lives. How is it vital? Well I won't proclaim any sort of grand expertise other than just living, but poetry gives us a way of looking at something in different ways. It also gives us a method of expressing something that is difficult to express. A life without poetry, in other words, is a unpainted barn exposed to the elements. Ultimately it will decay faster and become useless.

Marianne Moore puts it like this:
I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond

all this fiddle.

Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one

discovers in

it after all, a place for the genuine.

Hands that can grasp, eyes

that can dilate, hair that can rise

if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because

they are

useful. When they become so derivative as to become


the same thing may be said for all of us, that we

do not admire what

we cannot understand: the bat

holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless

wolf under

a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse

that feels a flea, the base-

ball fan, the statistician... (Poetry 1-21)


  1. Interesting. I think you might have something about barns out west. But isn't there a kind of beauty to bare, worn wood? I'll have to check out the essay.

    I love "oxymoron my ass." I'll have to find an occassion to use that one.

  2. Anonymous4:08 PM

    I like that entry. And though I don't read much poetry, I think you are right. If I take your idea liberally, then it applies to much of my thinking about why so many supposedly 'impractical' things are really important--is theology or philosophy any more acceptable to that audience than poetry?

    I also agree that, in the long run, without poetry, or music, or any other such (necessary) thing, the reasons for the immediate and practical become meaningless--remember "I Rivet-head"?