Wednesday

Is Culture Killing Poetry?


A friend from law school I hadn’t seen in almost twenty years invited me to lunch recently.  He asked a question that I’ve been thinking about.

He said, “Where did you get all of this culture?”

I was stunned.  I think many things about myself, but being especially cultured isn’t one of them.  After all, I’m from Texas, where women learn to ride a horse and shoot a gun before we learn to talk. Though to be fair, I do cover my mouth when I sneeze.

I asked him what he meant. He replied, “All of that poetry!”

What is Poetry?

I wasn’t sure how to answer.  I never thought of poetry as cultured.  I mean are the birds cultured when they sing? Poetry is about breathing and telling stories, expressing myself in pain or happiness and touching people.  To me, poetry is to the soul what bluegrass music is to the ear-the language of the people. 

A local Austin paper once named my husband the “Best DJ You Never Heard of.”  He started a vintage country music program on alternative public radio that he ran for ten years. Music lovers debate influences on music, who was the best, what came first, whether new country is really country but almost everyone agrees that Appalachian and Bluegrass music were of the people, by the people and the origins of country music, until country music got culture.  Many of the old guys think culture is what ruined music.  My husband often says to me that the influence of education in America on poetry reminds him of what happened with old country music, originally called hillbilly music.

What is Country Music?

In the old days, the music “powers that be” snubbed their noses at “hillbilly music” as too archaic, unrefined, too coarse.  So, they waltzed right in and cleaned it up.  First, the too personal mournful moans had to go.  Then, the radio executives wanted music not to be too exciting.  They wanted sweet and bland so nothing sounded too different on the radio.  Of course, nothing could be controversial.  Everything had to be smooth and polished, not the raw wailing and gritty lyrics of real life.  My husband has a huge record collection of hillbilly music before it was cultured.  It is amazing what some of those old recordings sound like before the “Nashville” influence.  There were so many amazing soulful artists deemed too rough to be commercial.

Some of the changes were for the better.  They discouraged sentimentalism.  Songs became more polished and smooth.  However, sometimes in polishing songs music often finds itself without anything left that moves the heart.  Too often today’s music all sounds the same.  Flawless much like cubic zirconia stones compared to real diamonds, yet lifeless.

Poetry’s Similarity to Hillbilly Music

There are similarities in the poetry world. In poetry, instead of record executives, we have MFA’s determining most of the poetry contest winners and choosing most of the journal submissions.  They control the gate almost exclusively.  It seems like their job is to clean up and sanitize poetry. However, too often poetry is turned into something that strips the power of the poem and leaves a bad taste in your mouth, or worse no taste at all.

Maybe the problem is that poetry has become too cultured, losing a sense of its history and roots.  Poetry has been with us since the first man looked into the eyes of the first women. People wrote poetry just fine without “culture” to tell them how to do it correctly.  Poetry was of the people, by the people, for the people, until it got culture.  So, to me poetry isn’t about culture, it’s about picking a song on the back porch with a guitar, banjo and harmonica.

Poetry is About the Movement of the Human Heart

If poetry is about the movement of the human heart, as my English professor said, all we are doing is pouring out our hearts to move the hearts of others just like those pickers on porches wailing out their songs. The best thing about poetry is that it will survive culture and the trends that define what is “good” poetry and what is not.  Poetry will survive all of us, even if the delivery methods change.  Maybe hundreds of years from now we’ll express our poetry through telepathy or shoot it from our minds in laser lights full of letters arranged in just the perfect way to touch your soul.

This I know, no matter how they try to sanitize and homogenize poetry, it will always slip out on the back porch and tap its work boot to the hum of a train on the track as grandma sings the feelings in her heart.  Maybe my friend was right, what is more cultured than what springs from the roots of our existence into our lives.  Poetry is the stuff of which all culture is created, real culture, the kind that is often scoffed at by the poetry powers.  Good poetry is the poetry that moves the human heart and who can move a human heart more than grandma rocking her grand baby?

What do you think? I’d love to read your views in the comments below.