[Note: this thread was originally posted in April 2008, but I thought it was worth a bump up to 2011.]I'm going to crawl out on a limb here and make a case for why most modern academic poetry will not endure beyond this generation.
This morning, a traditional folk poem was published in our morning paper (York Daily Record, 10 April 2008, 6A) as part of "Save Those Clippings," by Richard Bowers, a column on aging and how older people seem to collect clippings and other stuff throughout their lives; the author even mentioned Emily Dickinson's penchant for collecting things: "After her death they found volumes of scraps with thoughts (her own and others) that were like seeds from which grew her marvelous poems."
Bowers suggested that his readership pour themselves a cup of coffee, sit back, relax, and read the following traditional/folk poem on aging:
[Bracketed words were added by Pete Seeger for a song of the same title.]How do I know my youth is all spent?
Well, my Get-up-go has Got-up-and-went.
But in spite of it all, I'm able to grin,
When I think of where my "Get Up" has been.
Old age is golden, I think I've heard it said.
But sometimes I wonder as I crawl into bed,
With my ears in a drawer, my teeth in a cup,
And my eyes on the table until I wake up,
'Ere' sleep dims my vision, I say to myself,
"Is there anything else I should lay on the shelf?"
And I'm happy to say, as I close my door--
"My friends are the same, perhaps even more."
[But nations are warring and business is vexed
So I'll stick around to see what happens next.]
When I was young, my slippers were red,
I could kick up my heels right over my head.
When I grew older, my slippers were blue,
But still I could dance the whole [night] day through.
But I am old, my slippers are black,
I walk [huff] to the store and [I] puff my way back.
[But never you laugh, I don't mind at all
I'd rather be huffing than not puff at all]
The reason I know my youth is all spent,
"My Get Up and Go has Got Up and Went."
But I really don't mind when I think with a grin
Of all the grand places my "Get Up" has been.
Since I have retired from life's competition,
I accommodate myself with complete submission.
So, I get up each morning and dust off my wits,
Open the paper and read the obits,
If my name is missing, I know I'm not dead,
And I eat a good breakfast and go back to bed.
This poem, published in a market of about 350,000 people, probably received more views on one day than any published modern chapbook in its entire life cycle.
Now why is that?
"My Get Up and Go Has Got Up and Went" is certainly not "great" poetry; it doesn't play with language, doesn't stun with great metaphors and imagery, doesn't pretend to be the unknown poet's grand opus.
It's just a poem that focuses on the human condition and in a way that the Uncle Lyles of middle America can understand and enjoy. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" does the same thing, but in a way that does not reach everyone.
Now I love Prufrock, but I must admit it has taken me several readings to get there, and I still don't understand everything in that poem. But I'm an academic, and I'm expected to engage in a poetic struggle with Prufrock and his problems. But the average poetry aficionado can just get up and leave. And does. And will continue to do so. Now T.S. Eliot's work will endure, simply because the academy says it will by continuing to publish his poems in anthologies and imposing it on college freshmen. Perhaps Eliot's work endures because he was the first to wrestle with language in that long meandering manner, with vivid metaphors and similes, so he gets a pass for getting there first, just as e.e. cummings has been forgiven for all the imitative lower case "i" poems that have dogged his work.
But here's the deal: once my students move on from Prufrock, most of them will forget him or only remember him as that strange old guy with the thinning hair, talking of bugs struggling on pins, yellow fog rubbing its back, crabs, peaches, women coming and going and speaking of Michelangelo.
Now back to "My Get Up and Go Has Got Up and Went." I remember this poem from my childhood. Being raised by grandparents, I was privy to aging issues from a very young age. For amusement, my grandmother often dragged me to funerals of distant acquaintances and even strangers just because they were "from the parish." My grandmother loved this poem and knew it practically by heart. Of course, I'd roll my eyes and wished I could hang with younger people, but guess what? In an odd way, this poem has stuck with me. When I read it in this morning's paper, it struck a chord and brought back a past that no longer exists.
I can read a New Yorker poem by a famous poet, and five minutes later, it's gone. No footprint at all. And it doesn't even matter if the poem is a linguistic masterpiece or just an exercise by a tired well-known poet. Something always seems to be missing.
So, today, on the way to a conference, I tried to figured out why most people feel so removed and even alienated from modern poetry, which is often well crafted and even deeply personal.
I decided that "My Get Up and Go Has Got Up and Went" would be a good poem to deconstruct, to figure out why this simple poem has endured among the masses, even touching folk singer Pete Seeger enough to write a melody for it. I came up with these reasons:
1. The poem rhymes. Readers love to read and listen to rhyme. Back in the day when most people couldn't read, rhymed poems were easy to memorize and pass down to the next generation. Also, there is something about poetic patterns that is appealing and comforting.
2. The theme is universal, easily accessible to all readers. Even as a kid, when I was rolling my eyes, I understood, at least on one level, what aging meant to my grandparents, and this poem "explained" it in a way that I could understand. Modern poetry tends to be so overly personal, almost to the point of being obtuse to most readers except for the poet's inner circle. This navel-gazing trend became popular with Sylvia Plath's works ("Daddy," "Edge," and "Ariel"); her poetry (which I love, by the way) practically requires an accompanying compendium of her life. But "My Get Up and Go Has Got Up and Went" requires no bio, cultural, or historical background.
3. The poem offers humor. Readers love to laugh and tend to shy away from works that are too dark. Modern poetry tends to offer too little humor, not even dark humor.
4. It's sentimental and smarmy. People love poems that make them cry and remember back when--nothing like a good tear jerker to get your day started. I really noticed this in Macedonia, at parties where the rakjia flowed, the hankies and guitars came out, and the sad songs about lost love and lost nations were sung and wailed. These people were intellectuals, too, but they weren't ashamed of their beloved folk songs and poems.
5. The poem is predictable in its rhyme, diction, structure, and, yes, cliches. Poetry that allows the reader to remain in his/her comfort zone is going to stick with him/her emotionally, even intellectuals.
6. The poem tells a story, the narrative about the slippers (red, blue, and black) ties the story together and actually depicts the aging process, using the slippers as a sort of extended metaphor.
7. The poem is generally upbeat in tone and actually has a warped happy ending: I'm not listed in the obits today, so all is well with the world. Wow! Why not go out and celebrate with breakfast at Denny's? It's a glorious day to be alive and not a good day to die! What's not to like about that?
8. The poem is timeless, no tedious references to popular culture that will fade within a few years and require extensive footnoting. Its meaning will be as accessible in 2108 as it is today.
9. The poem is slightly ribald ("Of all the grand places my 'Get Up' has been"), but not so much that grandpa couldn't read the poem to his granddaughter. The double entendre allows the elders a "wink, wink" moment as the kiddies have fun with the rhyme and wordplay. Hell, you could read this poem in church.
10. The poem is simple--one does not need pages of literary criticism to decode meaning--it's all right there on the surface. Yet the poem doesn't speak down to the readers; its language is simple, yet descriptive enough to paint a glad-to-be-alive moment in the speaker's life.
It would be so easy to sneer at a poem like "My Get Up and Go Has Got Up and Went," but in an odd way, this poem has and will continue to endure because it deals with a very common aspect of the human condition: aging. Anyone who is fortunate enough to get older will face the very issues the poem covers. For more of intellectual exercise, one might read Stanley Kunitz's "Touch Me," which covers some of the same themes, albeit on a higher level--although with some multiple readings this is still an accessible poem.
"My Get Up and Go Has Got Up and Went" will continue to appear on the pages of daily newspapers (whether it's a print version delivered at one's door or appears on a computer screen), whereas most modern poems with all their sophisticated LangPo techniques will fall into obscurity, buried in old dusty and unread books.
One last note: Robert Frost's work endures and will continue to endure because of its layered nuances. We all know that "The Mending Wall" is not just about a fence between two neighbors, nor is "The Road Not Taken" just about a walk in the woods and trying to figure what literal direction to take. Yet a young or less astute reader may very well enjoy those poems on a surface level.
Thus, Frost offers the best that a poet can offer: popular enjoyment and intellectual appeal.
What are your thoughts?