The Current State of Poetry
A speech given by Jack Foley
in May, 1993 as part of a panel at the
World Congress of Cultures & Poetry in San Francisco.

                       Experimental poets—are we not all / exiles?

            Mary Rudge has asked me to talk for ten minutes on “the current state of poetry.” Ten minutes is of course scarcely enough time to do anything like justice to such a subject, but I’ll do what I can. Poetry is not an absolute entity. It changes constantly. What might have been a “poem” for someone in the eighteenth century would perhaps be for us nothing but greeting-card verse. What is for us a “poem” would very likely be prose for someone living in the eighteenth century. There is always a wide range of what constitutes “poetry,” but the range by no means necessarily includes exactly the same elements. What is poetry now?

            In order to understand the current state of poetry it is necessary to go all the way back to the beginning, and I will have to ask you to bear with me in this sketchy historical excursion.  In the West the beginning of poetry is represented by the figure of Homer. Whatever the facts as to the “real” existence of that legendary poet (or, as some argue, those legendary poets), one aspect of Homer is very important. Homer is always represented as being blind. This means that Homer was not, and could not have been, a writer. Though Homer’s poems were later written down, Homer himself could not have conceived of them in that way. A blind person of Homer’s time had no access to reading or writing. Braille had not yet been invented. Nevertheless, Homer was a poet and in fact the very symbol of the poet for the West.

            It may seem odd to us because we tend initially to encounter poetry in books, but, at the beginning, poetry and writing were quite separate activities. Poetry begins as something rooted in physical presence and in sounds. The Greek word for poet simply means “maker,” and the word can mean the maker of anything—a table and chair, for instance. The German word for poet is closer to the truth of the Homeric figure. It is Dichter, and it goes back to the Latin dico, dicere, I speak, to speak. The poet is someone who speaks. At its beginning, poetry is rooted in physical presence and in sounds—particularly in the sounds of speech.

            Of course, poetry eventually gets written down, so it is perhaps pointless to go on about its ancient history. We want to talk about what poetry is now. Yet history is not something which happened “back then” and made a difference for “those people” and not for us. It is a living, active presence which is constantly determining our attitudes, passions, and beliefs. Anyone who has read James Joyce’s Ulysses or Ezra Pound’s Cantos or HD or Bertolt Brecht or J. R. R. Tolkien or Jack Kerouac knows that the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries are by no means finished with Homer. We live in the most literate of ages, an age which is flooded with books. Yet much of modern literature is haunted by the presence of a non-literate bard who spoke his poems centuries ago. The energy of the “Spoken Word” movement is nothing but a (re)discovery of some of the energy of the Homeric figure.

            Many of the most memorable passages in Plato’s works have to do with his quarrel with Homer—with poetry. This quarrel has many ramifications. In The Republic Plato has Socrates say, “We shall do as people who once were in love with somebody, if they believe their love to be no good to them: they don’t want to give it up, but they must...we shall listen to [poetry] but while we listen we will chant over to ourselves this argument of ours,...careful not to fall again into that childish passion which the many have. We will listen,...knowing that we must not take poetry seriously...Great is the struggle, great indeed, not what men think it, between good and evil.”

            This “struggle” of Plato’s was a struggle with the culture in which he found himself—a culture which was, in his time, in a profound state of change. In his struggle, Plato was trying to align himself with the forces of the new, and the new meant the opposite of everything Homer represented. What Homer represented was the culture of orality. Socrates was never a writer. Though he spoke at great length and on many subjects, he never wrote anything down. Plato was Socrates’ disciple and a member of the next generation. Unlike his mentor, Plato understood himself to be a writer. We can see in the figure of Plato the shift from an oral culture (Homer, poetry) to a writing culture.

            To be sure, Plato wrote a famous dialogue, The Phaedrus, which is to some extent an attack on writing. This is hardly surprising. At the very beginning of writing, some of the limitations of the art were understood and enunciated. This becomes, however, knowledge which no one wants to know. The ability to read and write becomes the fundamental mode of access to our culture. As such, it receives a good press which would be the envy of any politician. After Plato’s dialogue, very little is written about the limitations of writing.

            A famous passage in the sixth Book of Saint Augustine’s Confessions suggests something more about the culture of writing—the culture in which we live. St. Augustine is watching St. Ambrose in the act of reading, and he notices something which is, to him, quite remarkable. “When [Ambrose] was reading,” writes St. Augustine, “his eye glided over the pages, and his heart searched out the sense, but his voice and tongue were at rest.” Augustine sensed at that moment that a momentous change had come upon the world. Ambrose was reading without moving his lips and without making a sound. Unlike the Homeric “singer,” he was not in the least “performing”: he was moving only his eyes. Augustine suddenly understood that the “new” consciousness was Christian, inward, and silent before the page. Augustine’s “new” consciousness is also our consciousness. We are taught to read like Ambrose—without moving our lips and without making a sound.

            If I were to ask you to “read” a bit of sheet music for me, you might be able to do it. There are many people who can “read” music. But there is no one who would consider the art of music to be defined by the sheet of paper on which the notes are written down. Music is not merely understanding the notes as they appear on the page. Music involves sound, whether the sound of the human voice (which is itself a multiple thing) or of instruments. Without sound, music is incomplete. The art of music is taken in with our ears.

            The art of writing, however, for Ambrose and for us, is taken in with our eyes. Instead of remaining what it may have been initially, a notation for speech as a musical score is a notation for sound, writing became instead an art of silence.

            What is the status of poetry in a culture devoted to an art of silence? “My Song,” wrote Shelley, quoting Dante, “I fear that thou wilt find but few / Who fitly shall conceive thy reasoning” (“Epipsychidion”). Shelley is aware that his poem will be printed. He is aware that his work will be taken in by the eye. Yet he calls his work a “song.” This is often true in poetry. Despite the poet’s awareness that the poem exists in a silent medium, the poem is nevertheless called a “song”—not something taken in by the eye but by the ear. Shelley is conjuring up the oral past of poetry. We are not talking here about “the oral tradition” as opposed to “the written tradition,” as if the two existed side by side. They have never existed side by side. In referring to his work as a “song,” Shelley is being consciously old-fashioned. In a writing culture, poetry, with its interest in sound, is understood as a kind of atavism. It is understood as something which is transcended in order to arrive at a form of “real” value—i.e., prose. The novel supposedly transcends the Homeric epic. The childish habit of sounding out the words as we read is supposedly transcended (and “corrected”) by the habit of reading silently. A writing culture is a culture of silence, and there is little place in it for an art which insists upon “readings,” upon sounds. In a writing culture, poetry too is “written.” It is understood as something of interest to a few nostalgic people who may be allowed their passion but who are not, as Plato says, to be “taken seriously.”

            Yet this is not the end of the story. At the current moment writing is beginning to seem “old-fashioned.” For the first time in its history, writing is being challenged by other media which can do better what writing was for many years the only medium to do at all. If we want the speeches of Thomas Jefferson, we must go to a book. If we want the speeches of John Kennedy, we can find them on records, tapes, film, and video, and these media give us what the book cannot—the actual sound of Kennedy’s voice as he pronounced the words.

            For the first time in history, the young are being conditioned by what Father Walter J. Ong has called “the new orality” of the electronic media. For the first time in history, intelligent young people have grown impatient with the silence of books—whatever the status of books as receptacles of information and experience. The silence of writing—which had been perceived as one of its strengths—seems to have begun to work towards its own undoing. The current crisis of writing (our children, we say, don’t read enough) revolves around the issue of writing’s ability to represent sound. But this has been a central issue for poetry, too. Poetry, relegated by writing to the dung heap of history because of its retrograde interest in sound, suddenly seems relevant. Where but in poetry—historically split between its interest in the auditory and the visual—can the current crisis of writing be most fully experienced? Poetry has a central role to play in defining that crisis, but it is not yet playing it. It has yet to arrive at a proper consciousness of its own powers. “The synthesizer,” wrote Miles Davis in his autobiography, Miles, "has changed everything whether purist musicians like it or not.  It’s here to stay and you can either be in it or out of it.  I choose to be in it because the world has always been about change.  People who don’t change will find themselves like folk musicians, playing in museums and local as a motherfucker."

            Current poetry remains “local as a motherfucker.” But it has within itself the potentiality to be considerably more.

                 This speech was delivered in May, 1993 as part of a panel at the World Congress of Cultures & Poetry in San Francisco. These speculations, admittedly sketchy, don’t deal at all with visual poetry. Dick Higgins’ book, Pattern Poetry, demonstrates the long history of that form, but from my point of view visual poetry can be understood as one of the possibilities inherent in the visual art of writing. Writing—including what I am doing now, on this page—is a form of drawing. It is this fact that visual poetry recognizes and exploits, at times in a fascinating and brilliant way. The focus of this talk, however, is on other matters.

Copyright © 1993 Jack Foley