"Poetry is the soul of a culture, man," I was told by a Los Angeles poet named Eric Priestley. If that is true -- and it may not be, obviously -- then this is a culture that steers well clear of its soul. Poetry matters remarkably little to us, either on a daily level or on a symbolic, even sentimental, level. No one talks about it, and no one quotes it. No one even seems to feel nostalgic about it. Yet somehow it lives on. Proudly, even defiantly. "After all," wrote W.H. Auden in 1964, explaining the situation from the poet's point of view,
. . . it's rather a privilege amid the affluent traffic to serve this unpopular art which cannot be turned into background noise for study or hung as a status trophy by rising executives, cannot be "done" like Venice or abridged like Tolstoy, but stubbornly still insists upon being read or ignored . . .
The case for poetry was made even more urgently by William Carlos Williams:
My heart rouses thinking to bring you news of something that concerns you and concerns many men. Look at what passes for the new. You will not find it there but in despised poems. It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.
And so, some 40 years after those lines were written, here we are, dying miserably in affluent traffic jams with cell phones glued to our ears. If poetry felt pretty small-time in Williams' day, it feels positively microscopic now. Yet even in the crush of rush-hour traffic, poetry rears its graying head. In April (poetry month), a group called poets anonymous launched a billboard campaign throughout the city. The idea seemed to be that, instead of staring at the latest ads, weary drivers would enjoy contemplating a few lines of poetry in extremely large, commuter-friendly type. Most of the stuff was pretty lame, barely preferable to the sales pitches that surrounded it, but one poem-fragment (by Nikki Giovanni) came close to articulating why an anonymous group of poets might feel desperate enough to put poems on billboards in the first place:
perhaps these are not poetic times at all
PERHAPS NOT. THE TWO THINGS THAT SEEM TO EXCITE Americans right now are toilet humor and technology. Poetry, on the other hand, seems quaint, like starting a civil war or planting your own cabbage. The Serbs like poetry, and look what we did to them -- we bombed them back to the Renaissance, where poetry belongs. "I try not to read poetry, not even dead people's poetry," I was told by Christopher Knight, the L.A. Times' art critic. "It's hard to explain why. I find something embarrassing about poetry. It's such a weird, atavistic thing to do."
But what does it mean to say that these are not "poetic times"? What would poetic times consist of? Endless bloodshed, as in Homer? Kings and queens, as in Shakespeare? The New York art world, as in Ashbery and O'Hara? It's hard to say -- in fact, the term is probably meaningless, since people have produced great poetry under almost all imaginable conditions. Even in Stalinist Russia, when poets were persecuted and imprisoned, poetry thrived.
Still, even if it's impossible to define what a poetic time might consist of, you have only to turn on your television, or stare into the nobody-home shades of the person in the tanklike vehicle next to you, to sense what an unpoetic time looks like. It looks, surely, like a time in which human beings are being slowly buried under an avalanche of marketing and media. When one thinks of contemporary poetry, particularly in L.A., what comes to mind is not poetry so much as the ad campaign for ABC created by the copywriters at Chiat/Day in Venice. It's those ultrahip scribblers, after all, whose brief, carefully worded messages we're always reading. These, you might say, are the lyric poems of the age. "My, what big pupils you have," they taunt from benches and bus shelters and billboards all over the city. In a better world, the copywriters at Chiat/Day would be imprisoned, or force-marched up to the Getty and made to stare at travertine marble until they went blind, but they, not poets, are the contemporary wordsmiths whose work actually influences people.