In previous times, Ron Silliman and I have had a debate about the "public character" of poetry, about its "communal" values. Ron believes in a poetry that reflects the predominant political and social realities and issues of its time, a poetry that "engages" and reflects the struggles of disparate communities and partisanships. It is true that poetry has always been a mirror to the times in which it was written. Despite themselves, poets will inevitably express problems and interests common to their societies, and the cultural presumptions which guide the spirit of their age.
There is doubtless much truth in this notion about the germination and significance of artistic enterprise, but it's not one that's ever appealed to my imagination. The writing of poetry, or music, is mostly a private process, one in which the solitary writer or composer creates a sequence of words or notes (or brush strokes, as with painting, etc.) which reflects his/er engagement with form, the world, and meaning. But this process is not a social phenomenon. It is not conducted in public. It is not a "shared" experience or melding of more than a single mind. (It's true that jazz performance often facilitates the extemporaneous invention and inspiration through interaction and exchange, but that also may have an ephemeral existence, unless there are sufficient recording devices to "save" the result. But this is the only meaningful exception to the solitary profile of the artist engaged in the production of an artistic product. There are some who might claim that literary "collaboration" is possible, and again, there are exceptions such as poems written by two authors, or fictions which are the collaboration of two people. Ellery Queen. Auden & Isherwood. But usually in these instances, there is a division of labor which enables each party to write separate portions of a work, pieced together out of separate creations.)
One major problem I see in the expansion of media over the last 100 years, is the confusion between performance and composition. We have had [public] theater for thousands of years (since ancient Greece), and no one disputes the power and value of performance of the spoken word, and of music. Opera blends the two streams into one medium. Before the last third of the 20th Century, poetry (as we think of it, as a rhythmic construction organized around a sensibility of keen feeling and tuned thought) was rarely read in public, though much dramatic poesy is in fact poetry simple, albeit appropriated towards a specific dramatic purpose.
Dramatic writing is intended to animate human characters through an action in real time and space (performance). Fiction and narrative poetry may be read publicly, but this was not regarded as an effective manner of presentation until, as I note, the latter part of the last century. We have precious little report of poets or playwrights "reading their work" in public in previous centuries. In religious service, much of what passed for sacred service was a kind of poetry reading, but the idea of reading poetry in profane or secular circumstances is quite uncommon. It wasn't until the rapid growth of media--radio, television, movies, internet, with their attendant promotional and celebrity spheres--that the idea of writers--both prose and poetry--reading to their respective "publics" developed. There are obvious reasons for this development: Publishers' desire to advertise authors as marketable commodities; the appearance and growth of writing workshops and programs throughout the institutions of higher learning; the movement to marshall public sentiment through political rallies and gatherings underwriting partisan readings; and, recently, the encouragement of extemporaneous spoken word expression (as "rap" or "hip-hop" rapid-fire jive talk and crude rhymed lyrics).
Poetry has traditionally been thought of also as a "sullen art." The romantic picture of the "tortured" writer, locked in his garret, in torment over the dramatic effort to produce a masterpiece, is familiar to all readers of poetry. In the Modernist and Post-Modernist era, this fantasy has been augmented, even rejected, by artists and writers who openly and solemnly spit upon the muse, claiming that "serious art" is a myth and an illusion, and that humor and chance and burlesque are the best means by which to get at the underlying meaning of modern life. There are still some, of course, who demand a poetry or a music of solemnity and commitment, for whom the devotion to an art of high purpose and moment requires a seriousness and even a gravity of approach.
The figure of Dylan Thomas [1914-1953] provides a perfect example of the writer for whom the official, romantic concept of the tortured poet, driven by a powerful inspiration, and an excessive lust for living, destroys his own talent in a death dive of self-destructive indulgence, even while he is slaying audiences with the eloquence and fatal charm of his daemon. In Thomas, the fatalistic doomed artist-type, the lionized celebrity, and the literary front-man are all conjoined, making the myth of the lyrical persona acting out the role of possessed hero for swooning fans.
The modern media hero--musician, actor, director, comedian, entertainer, sports hero, sex symbol, poet/writer, with all the familiar cross-fertilizations--is a phenomenon almost unknown before, but it is a tradition that already seems deeply entrenched. Contemporary fame (or notoriety) may be fleeting, but the machines which create it and foster its continued development seem capable of consuming a steady stream of short-lived stand-ins.
The transformation of the Modernist media (radio, TV, print media, public events), by the internet (or World Wide Web) and hand-held communication devices, means that a new paradigm of awareness is appearing, one built out of immediacy and the real-time exchange of information. The blurring of edges between public and private, relevant and trivial, data cooked and data raw, suggests that the organization of cultural categories is shifting.
Theories about the relationship between society--the political and social institutions and arrangements--and art in the latter half of the 19th Century and the earlier part of the 20th, held that art (especially the written and spoken and performed word) occupied a crucial place in the development of historical alternatives through time. Art reflected politics, and vice versa. Shaw is a social reformer, while O'Neill is a poet. Odets is a propagandist, while Wilder is a Classicist. And so on.
Poetry, of course, cannot be conjured--or conducted--in public. And yet one senses that a poetry contemplated as a private compulsion, and appreciated as a private pleasure, seems under direct assault in our culture. Novelists, or short story writers, or poets, or music "rappers" who do not "perform" in public, risk being thought irrelevant, or selfish, or obscure (as if obscurity could be cultivated only in private), or pathetic. It seems unlikely that Edgar Allan Poe ever read his poetry in public. or that Keats did, or that Samuel Johnson did (except the brief illustrative couplet to close a point), or that Milton did. Shakespeare undoubtedly had some experience as an actor, and probably did read his own "poetry" to theater audiences, but that was clearly a theatrical expression, not the broadcast of a single voice alone.
The ability to make poetry or prose "come alive" as spoken or sung speech is a special talent, which may be native, or acquired through training. The quality of voice is largely a given inheritance. The uniting of poet and public speaker may on occasion suggest--as with Dylan Thomas's example--that an ultimate perfection of intention and fulfillment is possible in a single figure. It is an ennobling instance when it happens, which we should feel gratitude for.
But too often, we tend to think that the desire to project the role of inspired poet can be manufactured out of will power. Too often, it seems a kind of self-delusion among writers, that the power of the spoken word can simply be assumed, like putting on a special jacket. Or, following along the lines of the social reformers of the 1930's, that the necessity or calling of history demands performance, indeed that inspired performance will naturally follow from correct political sentiment(s).
I see dramatic reading, and the ability to write effective prose or poetry, as flowing from different places in the mind, and I tend to regard great aptitude for public speaking as either a gift, or a skill one learns through training. Great dramatic performances in the theater, or great readings of texts as such, can be impressive. But literature has never been about the ability to make a good speech, though poets occasionally may be convincing speakers, and even readers of their own work. It seems a kind of an aesthetic choice which flows from opportunity (talent) or professional experience. Dylan Thomas had the rare ability to make his own writing compelling and powerfully lyrical in effect.
But most poets don't possess this ability. It can certainly be learned, through training and practice. But is such performance a proof of the validity or value of what one has written? In our hyped-up media culture, the visual and aural validation of personality seems just another shorthand for the counterfeit of cheap notoriety which the media feeds off of, and consumes, even on the vastly reduced scale associated with literary audiences in our time.
Thomas's poem "In My Craft or Sullen Art" is a famous example of the expression of what I am addressing here. Its modesty, even its sullenness, seems an ultimate apology for the vanity of wishing to usurp love in the place of young hearts, acknowledging in the end that this labor is practiced in vain.
In My Craft or Sullen Art
In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.
Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.
Few people alive today, can have heard Thomas reading in person, so all that we have are the electronic recordings of his voice, made in studios or with the crude technics of the time. After Thomas was safe in his grave, the phenomenon which was his presence quickly faded from memory, and as attention focused on his writings, it was seen that they were not as substantial as his renditions of them had convinced people at that time that they were. Was Thomas as good as Shakespeare? There were some who thought at the time that he was. Who are the good readers of our time? Are they as good writers as they are public speakers? Do we care? Will posterity?