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EPIPHANY (1 Viewer)


It’s the word poets misuse the most. It means “something invisible that emerges from something visible.” Most forget it’s religious and requires divine intervention. Instead, it’s any eureka moment that offers a warm personal gesture of appreciation to a poet from herself.

Since solipsism leads to uncertain outcomes, I’m against it. The classic case is “pnevma.” Ancient Greeks reasoned that pnevma, “breath,” was life’s essence, since it went obviously missing when someone died. Later, Greeks abstracted “breath” into “spirit,” surmising that, at death, breath went somewhere in particular. Byzantine Greeks morphed “spirit” to “Holy Spirit.” The route “breath” took to become “God” demonstrates how debasement of a single word can upend 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 the likes of Emily Dickinson or John Berryman, 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 choices, which explains why there’s so many of both. If you doubt this, consider that the best selling American poet of the Twentieth Century was Rod McKuen or that one-third of Americans believe what Trump says. Consequently, few read poetry and fewer buy it, since there’s no profit in reading what’s pretentious, conceited, narcissistic, jejune or confessional from someone dull.

Absent need to be interesting, poets here leap on moments that seem transcendent. This favors a single form, lyricism. Martial, dramatic, tragic, comic, religious, pastoral, satiric, epic, didactic, pensive, political or epigrammatic forms are . . . where?

Their egg hunt for epiphany is as self-absorbed as examining lint in a naval. The last time I looked, there were 328 Creative Writing programs in the U.S., each producing and hiring epiphanists. Since there are 16 poetry jobs per year for 2,500 graduates, most will work at what they never trained for. In Iowa’s Uniform Commercial Code, this is called “fraud.”

The lucky haunt universities where they work at hatching large rare eggs, preferably gold. Chicken husbandry like this has been going on since Paul Engle invented certified public poets. His university went along because Master of Fine Arts programs generate surplus that buys released time for faculty to do research that no one wants to sponsor. The result is unmerited prestige that spreads like avian flu. In 1967, Stanton Arthur Coblentz called this a “poetry circus;” it still is.

That schools can create poets raises guffaws in France. Sure, poets need to know their craft, be familiar with best examples and learn how to smell roses, but they won’t become poets in school. One has to get out of herself. Talent isn’t enough after age 21, says Helen Hayes and T. S. Eliot.

Poetry retains its ancient function, to create culture in the act of transmitting it. It’s not the fault of our poets that media have usurped this function. It is their fault that Creative Writing programs consist of apprentices lambasting one another, which turns half of them into under-achievers. Every other profession has abandoned the apprentice model, because it transmits idiosyncrasy and has no knowledge base uniquely its own.

Rules won’t improve the situation, though standards must exist; there must be a reason quality leaps like a marble 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, live.” MFA programs give opportunity to do so, but so does life.

Political correctness holds that everything has merit, as long as it has redeeming social importance, but this impugns aesthetics. Soviet insistence on Social Realism proves art that’s useful isn’t art at all; all the Russians got was ugly statues. Oscar Wilde was right: Art is perfectly useless. Stalin was wrong.

Around here, aesthetic Stalinists insist 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.

Its been decades since the Internet changed poetry, just as it changes everything. 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.

Our Poetry Circus faces existential threat from outside, particularly when a university faces existential threat during pandemic. The alternative is for poets to move into the life of their time, as with rap; but in Toon culture, this won’t improve quality, which 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. These aren’t epiphanies, unless you believe in Muses or Moroni, but can produce a “high plateau experience.” Writing makes poets happy. That’s the good news. The bad news? Poets are irrelevant; that’s also good news.