Distractions of an Age

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The Trouble with Ed

In an arrogant, former life, I once remarked “That which cannot be said through poetry probably isn´t worth saying.” 

With hindsight, I accept I should have followed up by explaining that what I meant was that poetry offers us a medium to say as much with a few stanzas as a full chapter, if not a full book. It is raw, exposed, and when the writer is cognizant of the effect that each line can have, the verse is a game changer. It´s a love letter, a political call-to-arms, a punch in the face, an oil painting too rich to be real. It can make the dead immortal, the living vulnerable; concrete swathes of urban abhorrence can suddenly flow green with wind through pastures that once were. 

But, let´s not get too carried away. Let´s be honest. As a form of creative expression, the poets are struggling to share the limelight with musicians, actors, comics, and artists. We are drawing swords with Netflix, Youtube, Spotify, Amazon, X-Box and Facebook. We are donning gloves and going 12 rounds with happy hour at the cocktail lounge, Champions League on the big screen, and Ed Sheerin. Oh, Ed. We watch on from the battlefield as televised talent shows and their perverse hunger for embarrassment eat our children. We live in an age of distractions, of continuous consumerism; of the need to exist online to exist at all. And therein lies the problem. The world does not move backwards.

Traditionalists and Pioneers

The literary critic Richard Ellman, in his book Yeats: The Man and His Masks, labelled the Irish poet W.B Yeats as someone torn between “the man of action lost in reverie, and the man of reverie who could not quite find himself in action.”  That is a sentiment, I feel, which can easily be applied to today´s poets and the crossroads at which they find themselves standing. There are the traditionalists amongst us for whom the page is sacred; for whom the creation of a poem is a love affair with patience. With this, I mean that we question the necessary, pare down the word count by guillotining articles, adverbs and conjunctions. We substitute ourselves with the nouns and see what impacts the adjectives have on our skin, fully aware that those words will outlive us. We put ourselves into the shoes of the reader, change the angle as often as we can to get a well-rounded picture. 

Then, there are the pioneers amongst us for whom poetry is a vehicle to exist in the present. Slam poets, rappers, spoken word artists – they don´t have a page to hide behind. They don´t worry too much about the word count, nor dare I say, do they pay as much attention to simile, metaphor or subtle allegory. Their message is loud and clear. It has to be. Unlike the relationship between a reader and writer which is a marriage of time, convenience; something to hold on to for as long as both parties wish – the relationship between a speaker and the audience is, in comparison, a wild one-night stand. They have meter, assonance in abundance, alliteration amply allocated, a chime of rhymes: all the tools necessary to keep the attention of an audience armed with smart phones and the ever-present temptation to check an email, or record the event rather than listen.  

Getting the word out 

Until recently, my arrogant former self would have rolled my eyes at the pioneers. You will note my use of the “We” and “They” in the above paragraphs, as I feel more comfortable slotting into the mould of the traditional. I´m Generation X, or whatever it is us children of the 80´s are called. I get frustrated at constantly being asked to update an operating system, synchronize a device, download an app in order to view a file, create an account and yet another password so I can submit a poem online. I´ve been accepting cookies for 3 years straight and I haven´t seen a single cookie for my troubles. So, as far as writing is concerned, on which existential plain am I standing? The answer? The answer is: it doesn´t matter. 

What matters is the poem, the writing, the words that get into the heads of the people and say something, make them think, stop what they are doing, wherever they are. What matters is getting the poem out there – in a book, on a webpage, at a slam, a free postcard at a café, the advertising panels on metro systems, hospital corridors, even a stanza chalked on a pavement. What matters is constant innovation to compete against the distractions of an age to safeguard the survival of a genre. It doesn´t matter if you grab a microphone and vent your political fury at a crowd of fist-shaking like-minded anarchists, or if Luddites like me read from a carefully selected page to an audience of 12, half of whom have one eye on the wine reception that will follow. We share the same goal. We want to connect.

What´s it all about?

So why do we write? Why do we sign up for open-mics? Do we validate our worth based on the number of publications or how loud the applause is? Are we bringing some sort of valuable input to the table? We could argue that poetry is important as it offers a much-needed form of expression or escapism in a world whose politics and media seem hellbent on dividing us, distracting us as best they can; we might put forward the case that poetry is important because it´s an artform as old as cave paintings and the tradition should be carried forward through whatever aforementioned medium necessary; perhaps we could go so far as to suggest that poetry is there to inspire, simply inspire. Maybe it´s a combination of all of these and many more, but there is one fact that cannot be overlooked:

Poetry is only as important as its audience. And it´s the job of the poet to find that audience and to keep them coming back for more. 

Neil McCarthy is an Irish poet and critic living in Vienna. His first book, Stopgap Grace, was published in 2018 by Salmon Poetry. His follow-up collection, Little Empires, is forthcoming from the same publisher.

Bildnachweis: http://communitywordproject.org/news-and-events/meaning-freedom,370/

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