From the Whistler
A Small, Quiet Place
In his short narrative poem Parisina, Lord Byron vividly describes the beheading of Hugo, Parisina’s lover:
These the last accents Hugo spoke:
“Strike”—and flashing fell the stroke—
Roll’d the head—and, gushing, sunk
Back the stain’d and heaving trunk,
the dust, which each deep vein
Slaked with its ensanguined rain;
His eyes and lips a moment quiver,
Convulsed and quick—then fix forever.
The whole scene is more akin to a Hollywood movie than anything that can be found in our contemporary poetry. Of course, in Byron’s time, there were no movies. Theaters and novels were the only other major purveyors of swashbuckling adventure and melodramatic gore; and theaters were only found in large towns, while novels were just coming into vogue and were not as attractive to illiterate listeners (the lines could not be remembered as easily). So poetry was king of the entertainment biz two hundred years ago. Though it’s hard to imagine today, in 1812 a book of poetry like Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage could inspire the same kind of frenzy as the movie Titanic or the latest Dan Brown novel. Poetry nowadays, though freer in terms of language and structure, is a backwater affair, flitting about a very narrow pigeonhole indeed—chiefly short lyric poems of personal experience. Reading the latest collection by Mary Oliver or Charles Simic may illuminate a small, quiet place, some private corner of the soul, and you may very well discover subtle ideas and beautiful imagery—but I guarantee there will be no beheadings.
No one should be surprised in this turn in the fortunes of poetry. Is it even worth lamenting? Simply put, other mediums came along that could do tragedy, adventure, romance, satire, nonfiction, and many of the other poetic subgenres more effectively than poetry itself. As reading became commonplace, novels, easier on the reader if not the listener, began to upstage narrative poetry. Then films and television came along. Which makes me wonder—is prose fiction next on the chopping block? After all, it’s easier to view a story than read it. In the past television stations were limited, and you had to go out to see a film; both were shown only at certain times. But now you can view films and shows in your home pretty much whenever you want; you can’t quite curl up with a good movie yet, but you can snuggle up to the remote and flit from chapter to chapter, or watch a scene over again. The tactile sensations of turning the pages of a book, or scanning the printed word, seem natural and pleasurable to us, but subsequent generations may not find them so. There still remains one significant limitation for video: production costs. There are only a few dozen new quality shows or movies to be seen in any given month, while an almost unlimited number of books are being published.
Other print mediums have also been in upheaval in the last twenty years or so. Newspapers and encyclopedias are quickly moving the same content into a different medium—the internet—while reference books are being replaced by databases. Is there really no going back? Old mediums sometimes do reassert themselves after the fad of a new technology has worn off or circumstances change. A book, for example, requires no power source and cannot catch a virus. Some experts predicted the demise of the newspaper when the first telegraph was sent. Instead it is the telegraph that is now obsolete. As for the little kingdom of poetry—there may yet come along something that can better convey those intimate moments, those little benedictions of our day, and give expression to our continuing love affair with language. But I don’t see that ax falling any time soon.
- Joel Van Valin