Years ago, a friend of mine was trying to make a casual reference to his wife, who he loved dearly, and I knew from the church fellowship we were all attending at the time. The phrase he was trying to avoid was “the little woman”, but then it was immediately clear that saying “the big woman” wouldn’t do either, and so what he ended up with was the awkward and funny [even to her] “woman of moderate size”….
So here, in a somewhat similarly awkward vein, is someone trying to decide if poetry is a lively art, a hobby, a craft, or, by a particular definition, a “minor art”: a craft whose audience is mostly other practitioners of that art…..
Poetry in the twenty-first century is like pottery, woodworking, or the making of carrot carnations. Sophisticated verse was never a major art, and having lost even a small non-practitioner audience, it has lost its status as a minor art. At hobbyist conventions, celebrated practitioners of a craft address an audience made up of other practitioners of the craft, who will then go home and work at the art themselves. Poetry has more residual cultural prestige than carrot carnation making and other hobbies, but that is only because most of the poet-hobbyists are professors with MFAs, while there are no professors of table-setting. — From Poesey to Carrot Carnations
I suppose he is talking about “pottery” in the sense of the craft practiced in studio art programs, and “woodworking” in some sense that is similarly rarified — but if you walk around fine craft shows, there seem to be quite a few non-practitioners who come to admire, gawp, collect, and natter. The audiences for these items still do include outsiders: There are people who love a beautifully-sculpted chair arm whether or not they’ve ever picked out a spokeshave from the Veritas or Lie Nielsen. There are degree programs in interior design. There are blogs featuring elaborate tablescapes and business models based around floral sculptures made of fruits and vegetables.
The population of people who talk about politics may be larger [that’s Mr. Lind’s main audience and source of income], and it may be that these days you can get more notariety [or more dates] if you perform in that arena rather than in poetry. But I don’t think the system of political pundits talking about/at/with each other is any less insular [and potentially prone to omphaloskepsis] than specialized communities of discourse in other segments of life or art. I remember my piano teacher, who traveled around the world on the basis of her skills, telling me once that she had started reading business magazines [Forbes, Fortune, etc.] to see if the world of finance was any less ‘silly’ than the music world….and she came to the conclusion that it wasn’t. If the inhabitants of humanities departments get more mileage [tenure, grants, etc.] by making pronouncements about pop culture than about poetry, that’s not just a “sense of cultural responsibility” owed to one genre over another — it’s just a human desire to be wherever the action is….
Until, with typical human perversity, it becomes more interesting/authentic/hip to be running off in some other, probably opposite, direction. I believe that’s what the Smart Set aims for in its articles most of the time, anyway: a provocatvie contrarianism that reifies the status quo of some earlier time.
And yes, that was a rubbish previous sentence. Time to get some sleep!
Music: “She’s Actual Size, but She Seems a Lot Bigger to Me”, They Might Be Giants
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