Consider this a memo from a dying tribe.
Imagine a world in which every CD in the world still exists, in multiple copies, but nothing to play any of them on. (A musical variant of that wonderful Twilight Zone episode, “Time Enough at Last.”) No CD players. No iPods. No computers. Nothing. Is that music even there any more, in any real sense?
Now imagine a world in which every poem in the world exists, but nobody knows how to read a poem. That’s not so hard to do; we’re almost there already. These days, everyone wants to write poetry and nobody wants to read it. (I heard recently that an award-winning poet doesn’t read anybody else’s work. What hope is there for the rest of us?) These days, no-one is told at high school what it means to read a poem: high schools teach us to play with imagery and talk about mood, and that’s it. Nothing about rhythm, nothing about sound patterning, nothing about pronouns and tenses and internal progressions, nothing about the imposition of form onto chaos.
Why not? Well, in part because it’s hard. But in part because there’s a pervasive myth about literature, the residue of a misplaced form of egalitarianism. The pleasure great poetry gives is indeed available to all—it’s just not available right away. The egalitarian truth is that anyone can enjoy a poem. The pseudo-egalitarian myth is that no special skills are required. Standard linguistic competence, the myth suggests, should be enough; we should be able to read lyric poems the way we read newspaper articles. If we find ourselves unable to, we are well within our rights to blame poetry (too obscure) and professors of poetry (too snobbish).
Maybe you don’t care that much about poetry, but let me make a prediction: little by little, this will happen to all genres. Today poetry, tomorrow drama, next week the novel. (Someone complained to me once that Toni Morrison spends too long, in Song of Solomon, “getting to the point.” We as a culture have failed to help that person appreciate fiction.)
That poem you love the most in the world will still exist, in one sense, in a hundred years’ time. But if there are no minds equipped to “play” it, it will not exist in any real sense. The human mind is the apparatus on which we play a poem. Or rather, the trained human mind is. If we abandon our efforts to train minds, certain kinds of human pleasure will eventually fall forever out of reach. Poetry will look to us like a technology we no longer know how to use, a dead language we no longer know how to read. Linear A.
It is to the great credit of the human species that it has produced summit experiences available only at the price of considerable preliminary training: climbing Everest; piloting a space shuttle; attaining zen-like peace of mind... Being moved by a great work of art is one of them, but we’re on the verge of forgetting that. We don’t want that to be true. In spite of the wonderfully hilarious results when we try this out, we want to believe that artworks move everyone, all the time, immediately; no prior knowledge required; batteries included.
Somehow we’ve convinced ourselves, as a society, that a literary work isn’t like a CD; it’s more like, I don’t know, a banana. Just peel and eat.