Poetry today is in a not altogether stagnant state, but one of apotheosis, a post-post- state, in which it seems everything has been done. This itself is the writer’s cliché nightmare: the thought that no matter what he tries, it can never live up to those of great renown who precede him; that it’s in vain, as what he feels is original has inevitably been done before. This too I believe not to be the case – otherwise, maybe no poet would strive to publish at all. Certainly no two human beings in the world see that world in the same way and therefore write about it in quite the same way. But this fact isn’t always so apparent. I trust that other writers and artists can relate to this feeling. And it’s been shown that such a (maybe justifiable) turn of scepticism has been encountered – and countered – in poetry before.
New inventions can and will be made […] Everything has already been thought and said which at best we can express in different forms and give new expressions to. (Goethe)
Such sentiments are probably (and naturally) as old as the art form itself. As Goethe points out, what matters is that it’s up to us as inventors, passionate for our creations, to reinterpret those feelings, perceptions and turns of mind that are as old as intelligent man himself. Don Paterson observes that
If you burned every poem on the planet and you wiped every poem from every human mind, you would have poetry again by tomorrow afternoon. It’s not something you do to language, so much as language does to itself under specific conditions – mainly shortness of time and emotional urgency. Any time that comes up, its grain and structure suddenly become apparent, all its music, rhythm and capacity for invention.
So again we have “invention”. But it shouldn’t be pinned to the sense of new invention, the invention of that which beforehand hadn’t been conceived; but rather the sense of reinvention or reinterpretation – taking what we know about ourselves, the world and our presence in it, and staying true to that propensity which Paterson describes so well: the need for man to express himself, create and leave his mark on the world, regardless of whether that mark lasts, is recognised, admired, inspires or is disregarded altogether. T. S. Eliot put it best when he spoke of poetry writing’s paradigm:
Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.
I recently re-read and was struck anew by Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’. What again amazed me was how much seemed to be contained within those few hundred lines, in terms of both subject matter and style – there isn’t a line that doesn’t strike into the reader’s hooked mind some raw and ready image, and rhyme plays throughout in its best form: not obviously, but subtly enough that it is rendered all the more effective; repetitions feature throughout, to best effect with the “who”s that provide, as Ginsberg called it, the base beat for the first part, moving into the poem’s second part with many “Moloch”s, and finally the conclusive third part, the poet at last “with you in Rockland” – “with you in Rockland” – “with you in Rockland”.
I think what reassures me most when reading ‘Howl’ is its evident boldness and tenacity; the holding back from nothing, and using of all tools at disposal – which is precisely what free verse should be for. What reassures is that it becomes clear that the responsibility of the new, inventing, developing poet doesn’t need necessarily to rely on drastic change or poetical revolution; his responsibility is to understand and thereby uphold that which has come before, that which is prevalent today, and how that evolved inventory of his craft can be put to work the better by example.