... Poetry’s unpopularity, or anyway the unpopularity of the kind of poetry I want, is part of its cultural condition and so part of its advantage. Its unpopularity may even be popular; that’s poetic logic for you. How about saying that poetry is the research and development wing of verbal language, better understood as collaborative thinking and investigation, at least for some of the practitioners? It doesn’t necessarily express an individual author’s biographical feelings in a conventionally lyrical manner—a great deal of poetry does that, but a great deal doesn’t. The elitism is not poetry’s, but commodity culture’s, which says that value comes exclusively from the market or audience share. Forms of culture that are not immediately accessible to a mass or popular audience also matter. Difficulty is not an obstacle, it is a material means for engagement with the social real. Yes we can.
'Don't use such an expression as "dim lands of peace". It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer's not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol. Go in fear of abstractions.' - Ezra Pound, 'A Few Don'ts' (1913)
'Go in search of abstractions', Pound might have written had he really had his finger on the American pulse. For over a century now, a major strain of American poetry has flourished precisely by ignoring Pound's directive; in fact, by doing its opposite. Turning to specific practitioners, one thinks of John Ashbery, who throughout his career has found his 'dim land of peace' in places like 'the mooring of starting out' and 'the delta of living into everything'. Or T.S. Eliot, who wrote so stirringly in his youth of 'the conscience of a blackened street/ Impatient to assume the world'. Or Wallace Stevens, with his 'complacencies of the peignoir’ and ‘green freedom of a cockatoo'. One could play this sort of trick with almost any American poet. The apparition of these faces?
Which is not to sell short the clinching astuteness of Pound's avant-guerre pronouncements on the dos and don’ts of modern poetry. After all, every student of modernism knows why the disgraced phrase 'dim lands of peace' is weak. But how many know where it comes from? In fact, it comes from the pen of Pound's sometime mentor, Ford Madox Ford:
Past all the windings of these grey, forgotten valleys, To west, past clouds that close on one dim rift The golden plains; the infinite, glimpsing distances, The eternal silences; dim lands of peace.
Like all true doggerel, these lines from ‘On a Marsh Road (Winter Nightfall)’ might be forgotten but their spirit lingers on. Charles Bernstein, for one, has made a career of mining the experimental potential embedded in this kind of bad writing. Indeed, Ford’s much-maligned ‘dim lands of peace’ offer a handy organizing conceit for a study of Bernstein, the undisputed master of atmospheric doggerel. . . .
The ordinary is always elusive—"near is / and difficult to grasp"—even as it is the most present actuality. And my sense, when talking about the ordinary, is always how extraordinary it is. Paradoxically, any attempt to fix the ordinary pulls it out of the everydayness in which it is situated, from which it seems to derive its power. . . .