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James Hercules Sutton

Poets & Epiphany

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Epiphany



This is the word most misused by poets. It means “something invisible that emerges from something visible.” Poets forget it’s religious and requires divine intervention. To them, it’s “any eureka moment that offers a warm personal gesture of appreciation to a poet from herself.” I’m against solipsism, as it leads to uncertain outcomes.
The classic case is “pnevma.” Ancient Greeks reasoned that pnevma, “breath,” was life’s essence, since it went obviously missing when someone died. Later on, Greeks abstracted “breath” into “spirit,” surmising that, at death, breath went somewhere in particular. Christian Greeks morphed “spirit” into “Holy Spirit.” The route “breath” took to become “God” demonstrates how debasement of a single word can ruin an entire culture. That’s enough to make me careful.
I don’t fault writing about what one knows, since the alternative lacks verisimilitude. Even tiny moments are worth preserving by people like Emily Dickinson, because interesting people write interesting things, no matter how impoverished their lives. Uninteresting people write dull things that crowd out interesting things and impoverish everyone. That’s because uninteresting readers make uninteresting things popular, since there’s so many of both. If you doubt it, consider that the best selling poet of the Twentieth Century was Rod McCuen or that one-third of Americans believe what Trump says. As things are, few read poetry and fewer buy it, since there’s no profit in reading what’s pretentious, conceited, narcissistic, jejune, or all four.
Absent need to be interesting, poets commemorate moments that seem transcendent. This mandates a single poetic form, lyricism. Martial, dramatic, tragic, comic, religious, pastoral, satiric, epic, didactic, pensive, political or epigrammatic poems don’t exist here.
Being on an egg hunt for epiphany is a self-absorbed as examining lint in one’s naval. There are 328 Creative Writing programs producing epiphanists and hiring them. Since there are 16 poetry jobs per year in the U.S. for 2,500 graduates, the rest will work at something they never trained for. In the Iowa Uniform Commercial Code, this is called fraud.
The lucky will haunt universities where they work at hatching large rare eggs, preferably gold. Such chicken husbandry has been going on since Paul Engle invented certified public poets. His university went along because MFA programs generate a surplus that buys released time for faculty doing research that no one wants to sponsor. The result is unmerited prestige that spreads like avian flu. In 1967, Stanton Arthur Coblentz called these programs a “poetry circus;” it still is.
That poetry schools can create poets raises guffaws in France. Sure, poets they need to know their craft, be familiar with best examples and learn how to smell roses, but they won’t become a poet in poetry school. One has to get out of herself; talent isn’t enough after age 21, says T. S. Eliot and Helen Hays.
Poetry retains its ancient function, to create culture in the act of transmitting it. It’s not the fault of poets that media have usurped this function. It is their fault that Creative Writing programs have no curriculum and consist of apprentices lambasting one another, which turns half of them into under-achievers.
Rules won’t improve the situation, though standards must exist, since there must be a reason quality leaps at your ears like marbles from a dryer. Maslow’s “being values” provide a workable aesthetic, but asking poets to study Psychology might deepen depression. The real answer is “read, write, practice, feel, think.”
Political correctness holds that everything has merit, as long as it has redeeming social importance, but this view impugns aesthetics. Soviet insistence on Social Realism proved art that’s useful isn’t art at all; all the Russians got was ugly statutes. Oscar Wilde was right: Art is perfectly useless. Stalin was wrong.
Our fall into aesthetic Stalinism posits that Langston Hughes is as good as Shakespeare. Quality doesn’t matter where the goal is equity; everything else is disposable. That’s inevitable in mass culture where everything is disposable, including equity. Bad drives out the good, and righteousness doesn’t redeem it.
The Internet is changing poetry, just as it changes everything else. Literary magazines are no longer gate keepers; every poet is publisher. Poetry is free for download, as should be, since it was never made to sell. Bloggers help one another without benefit of high clergy. The Poetry Circus faces existential threat from outside. That’s good, because it moves poetry into life of its time, even if called rap. But it’s unlikely to improve quality, because this sinks as participation rises.
“Quality” and “happiness” consist of “doing all you can with all your talents according to the highest ideals,” said Jack Kennedy quoting Epicurus, without attribution. Neither is an epiphany, but either can produce a “high plateau experience.” That’s the good news; the bad news is that few can do it. The best news is few try.

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