For me, ‘Relevance’ is a dirty word, it kills the creative impulse and grounds poetry is mechanism.
I thought to add a link to the ongoing discussion about relevancy in modern poetry centred in a critique (Huff Post) of Beautiful and Pointless, a Guide to Modern Poetry. Dadaists and Surrealists would rightly cut up and rearrange a book that sought to ask that very question. The greatest injury to poetry occurs in the mind of the poetry editor whose narrow fear informs mechanistic and remedial poetry lists to the unchallenged buyer of books. We live in an era where challenging poetry frightens the would be avant-gardeist editor, which really is deeply ironic.
The question of relevance in poetry is somewhat allied to a misunderstanding of the form and purpose of poetry, form is a moveable feast (there are many poetic forms) and poetry is generally purposeless but never irrelevant. Of course there is the issue of the poetry editor, who being strapped to questions of tradition and relevance, dismisses the breakers of form. For him, the poem is meant to be soporific, safe. It sells that way. A Babel library of undifferentiated journalese in forty line pops construed by the poet MFAer as a doodle on a rainy saturday. Editors that push that pap are more responsible for the loss of imagination than poets who give not a fuck about fitting in. We should be examining how marketing and PR have killed poetry, rather than questioning its relevance. We should be questioning the relevance of the poetry editor who stands between the reader and the poem hocking his tarnished lists like so many damaged goods.
At this point in my brief diatribe, I could cite the works of many writers (unlike Orr), who understand that in order to read poetry, it is necessary to suspend the question of relevance and enter into the poem as it stands in its unique expression; as an object of eternity. Simone Weil encapsulates this idea in a set of essays published by SUNY , entitled Thinking Poetically (ed Joan Dargan).
In Thinking Poetically, there is just one Weil poem, Necessity, this is no accident. Weil, a poet, writer, thinker and philosopher of the Modernist era endlessly wrestled with the issue of futility in poetic expressio , as a result of her experiences in Spain and in Vichy. Her Necessity is a clarion call for poetic clarity and for human triumph against the evils of war, of violence and of poverty. Her notebooks are littered with aphorisms and unfinished thoughts that seek to wrestle with and understand form. The issue of relevance in poetry is never entertained, as poetry for Weil and for countless other poets and artists has been a matter of survival and of questioning. Whilst the reader of Weil, or Celan or Plath may be stupefied by their simplicity in form, they will always react to the poem on the page which becomes a distilled and profound object of visual art, capable of engaging the reader on many levels .
I heard him
he was washing the world,
unseen, nightlong, real.
One and infinite,
Light was. Salvation.
Once by Paul Celan ( Fathomsuns and Benighted, trans Ian Fairley 1991 , Carcanet Books)
Maybe David Orr is correct that Modernist poetry is irrelevant, he would have some support among those people in England and Ireland who have savagely cut funding to independent presses which form the life source of poetry publication, or maybe his treatise on relevance misses the point altogether: beauty of form is not subject to rationalism, we encounter it on a variety of levels, including the spiritual and the intellectual. Far greater minds than his have more successfully engaged with the necessity of poetry reading and writing.
David Orr’s critical disenchantment seems symptomatic of an intellectual disengagement with poetry and form Vis poetry as an object of eternity, and thus should be considered irrelevant by those poets who are wrestling with form in technocratic societies wherein the ossification of language is encountered as a mythological death in this his language of modernist critique: one that seeks for relevancy as function (utilitarianism), or as a twee by-product of beauty.
David Orr is entitled to question the relevance of modern poetry by C Murray is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at poethead.wordpress.com.
The issue of relevance in poetry, or in any art-form is a relative issue, though one is surprised that a poetry editor should make such a fundamental mistake !