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Raw Realism:
a Poetry Manifesto

by Gary Beck

The nature of poetry has evolved since the innovation of free verse and now should allow vast latitude of expression. Too many self-appointed guardians of the realm of poetry presume to righteously define the boundaries valid for exploration, arbitrarily excluding what may not appeal to their particular sensibilities.

When some of the French Symbolist poets, in particular Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Apollonaire and Valéry, shattered the forms used for centuries and created free verse, resistance was automatic from the academics who scorned them. Those poets are venerated today as a vital part of literature.

The last major disturbance in the tranquility of poetry was caused by the Beats, who were dismissed as ill-disciplined, ill-mannered, disreputable advocates of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Now they occupy a respected niche in the cathedral of poetry, having survived alienation from the mainstream despite excursions in autonomous verse, or unrevised stream of consciousness ramblings. Their contribution exploded some of the restrictions on style and content, but their accomplishments have become stratified, while their disruption of incipient ossification has been forgotten. They are now as tame as Byron, Keats and Shelly, other forebears who lifted the torch of rebellion against arbitrary constrictions on subject matter.

Traditionally, the self-anointed custodians of verse attempt to regulate the form, style and content of poetry and deny the validity of differing efforts. Many of the janissaries of poetry, sheltered by universities, grants, or private support, reject the adventurous spirits who seek other directions. The issues of our times are at least as consequential as effusive celebrations of the seasons, laudatory odes on public occasions, or indulgence in self-absorbed introspection.

The ancient Greeks raised poetry to the acme of public attention, with presentations of poetic drama at annual major festivals that were socio-religious-political-artistic competitions, with a laurel wreath for the winner. Today the most energetic presentations are poetry “slams,” crude performances of diverse material in rapid transit deliveries that contradict the fundamental needs of poetry: careful attention, time to consider the meaning and an atmosphere conducive to understanding rather than raucous burlesque.

The only way to sustain poetry in the Information Age and maintain its relevance is to make it meaningful to audiences conditioned to the internet, ipod, Blackberry and text messaging. The dictum: “Form follows function” is still pertinent. If the duties of the poet can be conceived to include chronicling our times, protesting the abuses of government, raising a voice against injustice, speaking out about the increasing dangers that threaten human existence, it is critical to allow substance not to be shackled by style, content not to be constricted by form.

Rhyme and meter were once the only practiced format of poetic expression. Now they are increasingly marginalized. Perhaps metaphor and simile are not more sacred. We must aspire to emotionally engage new audiences, involve them in the illumination that poetry can transmit, preserve the existence of a vital form of human expression that is being overwhelmed by a saturation of easily accessible, diverting entertainment. We must also develop new voices that may achieve a dynamic readership by offering an alternative to brilliant wordsmiths. We need poets who will offer meaningful and significant truths to a public saturated by confusing information and nearly jaded by ongoing visual assaults on their sensibilities.

Copyright © 2019 by Gary Beck

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