Handling the Fiction, Nursing the Wounds
1. There is a ludicrous complaint I’ve heard poets make for as long as I can remember: “If only poetry didn’t have to compete with TV.” What is it that makes this fantasy so durable? With a little re®ection, those who make this comparison would be hard put to claim that a permanent electrical outage would send droves of people to poetry as an alternative form of entertainment. A more cogent point of comparison would rephrase Pound’s dictum about poetry being as well written as prose: poetry should be at least as well written as a network television episode. What is misleading about aspirations by poets to compete with television programming is the corollary that poetry is an entertainment medium. There was a time when poetry was read as bite-sized moral edification; but the moral was gone long before TV encapsulated the edification into the half-hour sitcom and the hour-long dramatic series.
This was originally delivered as a talk for the Sulfur Conference at Eastern Michigan University, March 26, 1988. Writing it with no thought of publication, I did not retain page references for all the citations. While the force of its critique of mainstream poetry has been blunted by developments in the 1990s (as outlined in Chapter One), I have let the text stand unrevised as the polemical index to a moment worth documenting (not least because the moment is not over).