Special thanks to AC Douglas, for flagging this bitter little resumÃ© of the state of poetry. And extra-special thanks to “Abiyah,” “a locally acclaimed hip-hop artist,” for touching, in one ill-written paragraph, on everything that has gone wrong with aesthetic theory in the last couple of centuries:
Certainly, there are basics of poetry that may need to be learned, but the learning of these techniques may inhibit rather than enhance the Hip Hop poets ability to express himself or herself. Academia or academic settings tend to discourage the Hip Hop poet, especially those who are innovative and experimental. Poems cannot and will not be created by recipe. In a classroom setting, particularly one focusing on creative writing, pre-emptive judgment calls by an instructor on the validity of a students poetry can be extremely detrimental. The instructor must be well-versed in cross-cultural contexts in order to fairly interpret each individual students poems.
Put aside the question of how one is to know that one is original by cultivating a studious ignorance of the history of poetry. Like Keynes’s proverbial madman who hears voices in the air, Abiyah assuredly has no idea what a profound debt she owes to academic scribblers, a bunch of late eighteenth-century German and English aestheticians in her case. “Innovation” and “experimentation” did not spring, like Athena, fully armed from Zeus’s breast. Until quite recently poetry was generally conceded to give words to the familiar: “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.” Folk poetry like The Iliad is this way practically by definition.
The Elizabethans did not especially prize originality. They often rewrote each other’s poems, trying to improve them. (This tradition, ironically, survives in hip-hop in the remix, although for rather different reasons.) One of Ben Jonson’s best lyrics, “Drink to me only with thine eyes,” is a translation of Philostratus, an accurate one, the scholars say, though lacking Greek I cannot judge. The theory of the organic imagination originated, probably, with Herder and Schelling at the end of the eighteenth century, and was popularized, plagiarized, and jargonized by Coleridge — “esemplastic imagination,” “assimilative power,” “coadunating faculty,” and the like. The mind of the genius was supposed to be not like a mirror, reflecting an agreed-upon external reality, but like a plant, taking mere nourishment from reality and recombining it in strange and wonderful ways. (Shakespeare, its best illustration, largely owes this theory his exalted reputation.) Hence originality is the true mark of genius. It is a small distance from originality to shock, and from this theory to Ã©pater les bourgeois.
Our locally acclaimed hip-hop artist is certain the purpose of poetry is to express oneself. I’ve got a news flash for you, cupcake: nobody cares about your precious personality except your mother, and maybe not her either, if she’s anything like my mother. Self-expression, too, is a relatively recent development in aesthetic theory, heralded by the ever-grandiose Wordsworth in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, in which he defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” which makes it sound a good deal like road rage. The more spontaneity, the better, according to J.S. Mill: Natural poetry, the best kind, “is Feeling itself, employing Thought only as the medium of its utterance.” Naturally technique and study are positive hindrances to spontaneity; our hip-hop artist reminds us that “poems cannot and will not be written by recipe.” This whole business so irked T.S. Eliot that he called for “the extinction of personality”; too late. The spiritual descendant of Wordsworth and Mill is Picasso, with his “Whatever I spit — that is art.” And here we are.
*The definitive work on the evolution of these ideas is M.H. Abrams’ The Mirror and the Lamp, although Abrams appears not to recognize the disastrous consequences of the ideas that he chronicles so thoroughly.