May 04, 2005

Good times, bad times

Well, I had a swell time in the WNYC recording booth, and you can hear the result this Sunday at 11:00 if you're a fellow New York City dweller; if not, here's a list of other radio stations that carry the show, or check here for an archived edition you can listen to online.

As for the poetry debate...bleh. I lost by a vote of 7-4, with a few abstentions. It was a frustrating debate, since my opponent, the unpleasant J.R. Taylor, spent much of his time arguing an entirely different point than I was arguing. His contention was, basically, that poetry did not matter anymore because it is no longer as popular as it once was. I agree that poetry is not as popular as it was 200 or even 40 years ago. My contention was that this was irrelevant -- if we cede our entire cultural identity to the entertainment choices of the majority, then pretty much all the arts are irrelevant except for movies, TV, pop music, and hip-hop. Is that the way we want to define ourselves as a people? I don't sit around thinking to myself, "Oh, I guess Arrested Development isn't that great a show after all...I mean, not that many people watch it." But my opponent never engaged in any debate on the point of whether poetry could matter in any other way than by a metric of popularity. The audience apparently felt that his definition of "mattering" was the meaningful one -- but why even have a debate if that's the yardstick by which we are measuring poetry? Is there anyone who could honestly say, oh, no, poetry is as popular as it ever was?

J.R. earned my animosity for many, many reasons, including constantly interrupting Rose when she was trying to ask a question, because she was my wife and therefore obviously hostile. He also made a smart remark at the end of my closing statement, apparently needing to have the last word in addition to insisting that the order of the debate be changed so that he could speak first. Some of the questions I got from the audience were pretty aggravating as well, including the one from a guy who got affronted that I described a modern poet as using proselike rhythms; he asked me to define poetry. I mean, god, we can't possibly discuss whether poetry is relevant unless we get into an idiotic semantic discussion about what poetry is, can we? What are we, stoned in someone's dorm room? All in all, a hellish experience I wish I had avoided.

Posted by Francis at 12:49 PM | TrackBack

Blaargh, what a profoundly irritating writer and person he sounds like. A depressing, stupid evening all around, it sounds like.

Posted by: Col at May 4, 2005 01:10 PM

JR: Cheater! Lame-o! Interrupting cow!

Poetry: Matters.

Me: I thought I was sorry I was missing it, but now can just revel in the glory I imagined you were creating. I'll stick to my imagination and congratulate you on a job well done.

Posted by: Amber at May 4, 2005 01:56 PM

Using JR's popularity yardstick, here are some other things that don't matter:

Classical music

Posted by: Doug at May 4, 2005 02:04 PM

I hate to say it, but when you mentioned the topic, my first thought was "if I were in opposition, I'd win by defining 'matters' purely in breadth of impact, that is, popularity and mass appeal, and also make damn' sure I wasted the other side's time making them define poetry."

Glad I wasn't there.

Of course, if I had to defend poetry 'mattering' I'd say that unless the other guys could prove that nobody anywhere was affected by it, then it mattered, and then give examples of a few famous decision-makers who liked or at least talked about liking poetry, which ain't fair, either.


Posted by: Vardibidian at May 4, 2005 02:13 PM

Poetry matters
Like a tornado raging
J.R. can suck it

Posted by: Jim at May 4, 2005 03:13 PM

It sounds like you were expecting to be able to debate reasonably. I applaud your optimism.

Too late now, but for next time perhaps you should spend some time studying woolly-headed rhetoric:

Posted by: BadAunt at May 5, 2005 03:10 AM

I was there, and maddening it was.

I wish I'd committed this poem to memory (a plan that might strike you as funny, kind of, once you read it) so that I could've asked a "question" that was really an argument with a yes or no at the end, as some of the audience members did. As it was, I tried to ask JR about his definition of "mattering," with examples of different, noncommercial ways of mattering, and he skirted the question at least twice.

So my not-a-real-question question would have been:
I will now recite "Forgetfulness" by Billy Collins, a poem that matters to me in that it reframed my thinking about memory and hit my emotions hard, as it did for other readers when we reprinted it in Harper's years ago.


The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

That's the end of the poem, JR. Does it matter?

(poem copied from this page:

Posted by: Alexandra at May 5, 2005 11:53 AM

Jeez, I certainly hadn't anticipated it being hellish when I organized the debate, but I think JR was partly doing schtick; that most of the audience agreed with you, Francis, that poetry can be powerful but probably felt (pessimistically) that they are a powerless and unpopular minority; and that most people enjoyed it regardless of the final vote tally one way or the other (I know I often have trouble remembering how the vote went months later while remembering amusing moments from the debate). A doubled thank-you, then, for going through the poetry-bashing ringer (I would have predicted the vote going the other way right up until I did the hand-count, by the way, if it's any consolation).

Posted by: Todd Seavey at May 9, 2005 02:47 PM