In the writings of Italo Calvino we find the following:
Overambitious projects may be objectionable in many fields, but not in literature. Literature remains alive only if we set ourselves immeasurable goals, far beyond all hope of achievement. Only if poets and writers set themselves tasks that no one else dares imagine will literature continue to have a function.
As an individual who is alternately bemused and angered by the premium placed on (have I not moaned about it for months?) ‘cool’ verse, a quote like Calvino’s (and, for that matter, much of Adams-Santos’ earlier article) helps me approach the machinery beneath so many paltry manifests. And by ‘paltry,’ I mean of exceedingly low ambition; apprenticed to coyness before import. The truth of Calvino’s hypothesis is written all over high school curricula, as English teachers feel as though they must vie for teenagers’ attention against the TELINTERNET juggernaut.
They’ve lost faith in what created English departments in the first place—the obvious position that certain values blossom in consciousness only by virtue of experiencing brilliant, moving writing in the self’s quiet. Except for the manner in which it aids visual presentations and communication, teachers of English should feel emboldened to utterly ignore media ‘advances’; when an important, new mind enters the literary scene, she will do so without the need for championing or readily ‘tweeting’—she will enter by dint of her work alone.
I knew this as a kid. Most of us knew it. I may have liked my zoned-out time before “Thundercats” or “Roseanne,” but I never felt as though I gained anything more from them than leisure. School stood as a stark opposition to my ‘free’ time, and rightfully so. A 16-year-old does not know how to properly esteem ‘freedom,’ so lazes about mindlessly; the function of teachers and parents is to move against the natural grain of teenage idiocy. Chemisty was a species of sorcery, as was poetry, Caeser, King, Lincoln, calculus functions . . . I was disciple to them, and bent to their tenets, being of inferior sensibility. Teachers comported themselves as shepherds of these disciplines, not men attempting to make them palatable by virtue of relation to televised rubbish.
And this is what a lot of contemporary verse looks like, doesn’t it?—why bother reading a poem when TOSH.0 is ‘wrangling’ with the same issues, looks better on the screen, and has immediate accessibility? We’ve stopped making it our duty, as poets, to go further with our process of thinking, so that most publications are filled with the most bland ‘reflections’ on daily life, the most juvenile emotional pains (expressed with no more than a tenth-grader’s aplomb—check this), or wilfully obscure, non-sequitor, post-structuralist ‘thought.’ As Calvino predicts, this sort of writing has no ‘function’ against quick-access media putting out the same stuff in the same register of language.
Lately, I’ve returned to something Adams-Santos said about a conversation with her father. Speaking to her on the telephone, he said, loosely, “I sat down to try to write a poem today . . . and, man, I can’t imagine how you do it!” I take this to mean, in part, that the act of writing a poem (much more than, say, a note, or a fast narrative) puts pressure on an individual to create; one sits down and suddenly feels responsibility about what he is undertaking; his vocabulary must surface from its pool of recycled phrases; like a line of imposing shades, what poets he remembers loom about the desk, saying This manner of doing is ours. Do you dare?
And as today’s teachers, and today’s writers, break their pact with the gravity (not necessarily of subject, but of writing’s action) of what came before, so literature moves out of ‘function.’ And significant voices become the things of past generations; poetry, the stuff of idle thought.
Well, not on our watch, anyway.