BLACK AND WHITE AND READ ALL OVER
Every time there is a shift in society its first emergent art forms tend to be judged harshly, ridiculed for their superficiality, and declared absolutely positively definitely not art! Every new movement is tasked with proving its worth, both as an expression and a commodity. From the Cubists, to the Surrealists, to the Beats, to the Minimalists, over and over again, society’s gut reaction always seems to be, “my 5 year old could have done that.” Its awkwardness mistaken for lack of depth and complexity, its unfamiliar point of view seen as a lack of perspective. But simplicity, like beauty, is surely in the eyes of the beholder, for what is deemed crass, silly, and lacking merit by the establishment might be most thoughtful and meaningful to a new generation.
So then why is it, for literature, and especially poetry, to be respected it must be out of reach and hard to understand? Is it as Oscar Wilde said, All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling. To be natural is to be obvious, and to be obvious is to be inartistic? In his new piece, Matthew Mapes discusses the controversy around the emergent state of poetry as the great communicator in the digital age. Through what is known as Insta Poetry, the art form that was once again dubbed as dead is having a resurgence, but this new generation of poets have ruffled some traditionalist feathers, to say the least.
Whatever you might think of their work, they are popular in an age when poetry was all but forgotten to the average person, at least after the 10th grade. “It’s easy to find on Instagram, it’s easy to read and understand. It speaks very directly to a sense of contemporary romance and faux-deep emotional complexity that defines the platform it’s expressed on. One might say, it’s not doing very much. It emerges more like a statement, (or worse, a caption!) it doesn’t ask the reader to engage beyond the very basic information the words convey, and to a lot of people that deeper level of engagement is one of the key elements of poetry. For those in favor, it’s immediate and expressive and identifiable. For those against, it’s plain and uninvolved and devoid of depth.” Read more of Vice Versa.
But then again, being accused of lacking depth might be just the trick it needs. When we spoke with City Lights Books founder, poet, and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, he too defended poetry once accused of superficiality:
“So many poets have big reputations, but their poetry is incomprehensible to the average person. In fact, I am always accused of my poetry being too clear, too lucid. I have made the sin of too much lucidity. Therefore I am not very profound because you can understand me too easily. There are really two kind of poets. Some have public surface, which anyone can get because they have non literary references, just a common sensual subject matter, like a dog walking down the street, or a naked man on a bus, or something that everyone can understand and yet you can still make it something profound. I like a poem to have a public surface. In order to be more than journalism, though, you have got to have other levels, like a subjective level, and hopefully a subversive level. Without it, the establishment can be too obscure. The great poets of this country have always had this public surface, like Walt Whitman. If you bring a twelve year old to a poetry reading and baffle him, he will never go again. But if you can turn him on somehow, like a poem about masturbation or something, you have got him hooked for life.”
So as it’s easy to discount these Insta Poets, isn’t it a good thing that more people are reading poetry, even if it is quick, emotional, vague and via Instagram? Market research has shown that as sales of these poets’ collections skyrocket, poetry sales on the whole increase as well. If you start with Insta Poet superstar Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey and move on to, say Charles Bukowski’s On Love, and then maybe stumble upon Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, then in the long-run you’re helping to keep poetry alive. It's no mere coincidence that more than a million poetry books happen to be sold in 2017.
The obviousness is exactly what makes Insta Poetry popular and just because it's popular doesn't mean it's not good. It's a tad pretentious to only like things because they're obscure, hard to understand, or brutally academic. How many people looked at Jackson Pollock’s paintings and saw only drips and drabs, or said Bukowski’s poems were crude? How many people thought Sylvia Plath nothing more than an hysterical heartbroken narcissist? Even as Andy Warhol is now considered one of the most important American artists of all time, one must remember that his soup cans and celebrities were somewhat looked down upon until shortly after his death.
Just as Mapes describes, “You have this huge new thing, Insta Poetry, dominating the modern literary scene, but is it poetry? That’s a hard question to answer. Even if you get people to agree that Insta Poetry is in fact poetry, the next step is deciding whether or not it’s good poetry. And as art criticism is subjective, there is no definitive standard for what’s good or bad.” The straightforward, non-metaphorical aspects of social media influencer poetry is exactly what makes it popular. But what they may lack in complexity they certainly make up for in Valencia-filtered typewriter font aesthetics.
Looking back, even a classic like Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass was subject to the shock of the new."Before Whitman, poetry had an implied set of rules. It was metrical, formal, and relatively limited in terms of subject matter. Leaves of Grass eschewed most of the formal constraints and started to introduce subjects such as sex, common work, and a characteristically American common man." So maybe these art directed and curated Instagram poetry posts are something else all together. Maybe they aren’t poems, but merely pictures of poems, the kind that people can access without having a master’s degree, that is, until you need to write the captions.
As the new influencer poets might find their patron saint in Walt Whitman, their intentionally designed verse enslaves the words to a platform where pictures themselves have become the new language. An element of poetry, it’s intentional visual structure has inadvertently dragged this emotional literary genre into the viral age. But what if the opposite were true? What if the poetry led the way and the pictures were enslaved by the verse? This was the concept behind a book project dreamed up by George Macy when he thought to commission Edward Weston to produce a series of photographs to illustrate Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman.
After the success of California and the West, Weston’s profoundly beautiful images of the American landscape and its characters seemed the perfect way to capture the same peculiar essences. But not so fast. By the early 1940’s, photography was officially moving from popular craft to being itself considered serious artwork, and Edward Weston, along with the likes of Ansel Adams and Walker Evans, were creating their own visual poetry, speaking their own new language. As Weston wrote to his publisher after Macy realized he had no intention of being literal:
“Dear Mr. Macy, I’m sorry if my subjects gave you fright, but I’m glad you mentioned it so if there is any misunderstanding we can put it straight…that the 54 photographs were not to be tied in to specific lines of Leaves of Grass but rather the pictures as a whole were to embody the kind of vision of America that Whitman had. It is my feeling that the only photographs worthy to go in an edition of Leaves of Grass are those that will present the same kind of broad, inclusive summation of contemporary America that Whitman himself gave…and to make pictures that just fit is not even properly a job for a photographer. There is one clear limitation on the photographer—one field that belongs to him—his job is to photograph the world around him today…”
And so he went on to photograph his vision of America, that is until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and reality cut the the journey short. But in the meantime, Weston produced an incredible body of work, documenting both the natural and the manmade, once again challenging our perceptions and asking what is art? What is is beauty? and what it means to be American. So go ahead and caption that.