Saturday, November 17, 2012

Modern Poetry

I have been attending a course on modern poetry, an online class available in the website Coursera, featuring videos where an esteemed professor and his students discuss specific poems, a highly effective format in understanding today’s poetry. The session starts with the usual greats: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickenson and Robert Frost then moving on towards poets in the 40’s, 50s, 60s and so on. The sessions on the today’s poets offer an interesting glimpse on the different modes of expression. For example, one poet takes pictures of things like card catalogues, or folded pages in a book; arranged by the poet-photographer to elicit a kind of poetry from the materials or words at hand. Hence, the distinction between photography and poetry is blurred as the artist fashions her work on these materials which require the literary skill of a writer and the visual-technical skills of a photographer. Others recite their poems in a sort of performance art where poetry need not be written but listened to.

These people are not your father’s artists – now using different modes of expression with today’s technology. Last week I watched a video series from PBS called ART:21 about artists in the 21th century. An interesting show where people like Richard Serra or Maya Lin were presented – artists who combine the discipline of architecture, sculpture and social service with their work. It seems that today’s artists are multidisciplinary – adept at different modes of expression as well as having expertise in different fields. ART:21 focused more on visual art while the modern poetry course focused on literary art but the main theme seem to be the emergence of multi-disciplinary artists. What does that say about the modern age? Does it mean the university’s focus on specialization is no longer valid? Instead a more generalist frame of mind is needed – a master of all trades? Hence, the fox is triumphant and not the hedgehog.

Art is supposed to act like a canary in the coal mine – to give signals of the subtle changes in society and culture before the change becomes apparent and widespread, where artists act like shamans who proclaim an emerging trend before it becomes reality. Perhaps that’s the lesson of the recent election where the incumbent (writer, community organizer, offspring of white and black lineage, who grew up in Asia and US, senator and president) is a mold of diverse mixes against the challenger (Mormon, scion of rich and successful parents, brilliant and technocratic, self-made multimillionaire and white) – a man who seem to embody traditional values, the John Wayne generation that’s receding from view. The incumbent won perhaps because his team was more attuned to today’s diverse electorate than the challenger who seemed wedded to an older model. One seem to evoke poetry while the other an efficient machine.

The election result was met with vitriol and astonishment especially by the conservative establishment, as if the walls were breached by barbarians, like the world no longer made sense and the mix-up threatens the status quo. But the world now belongs to the multidisciplinary man, someone adept in different fields; he can make sense of the disparate threads swirling in today’s culture. White is black and black is white. Imagine a conservative attending an avant garde show, totally bewildered at the performance, preferring to stick to his own world of certainties while the changes sweep the world and upend his neatly constructed world. But there is freedom in change and one just needs to let it sweep through; this is the feeling one gets listening to modern poets like experiencing a breeze of fresh air.

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