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This, from Stephen Dobyn’s book on poetry, Best Words, Best Order, where he’s talking about societal and artistic change, from the Age of Reason, to today:
Here is a society that believes in a surprise being and the benevolent order of the universe; a society that believes that a person’s life is guided by a clear set of principles and virtues. This is the Age of Reason and the major poetic unit of the period, the heroic couplet, is a microcosmic model of that age.
The twentieth century, on the other hand, has been typified by constant disruption and speed both in the physical and metaphysical aspect of people’s lives. It has seen extreme violence, uncertainty, and the disintegration of the class system. Instead of a clear system of values and a benevolent supreme being, we have a wide range of relative values and deep agnosticism. Indeed, the twentieth century, for all of its discoveries, could be called the Age of Unknowing.
First, a dumb thought, which is merely: Isn’t Oprah our benevolent supreme being?
Or maybe it’s Jonathan Franzen, the way folks are getting all amazed by his new novel, Freedom.
But seriously, the current age—this week, this year, this generation—does feel more like the age of unknowing, or as I’d like to call it, the age of relativity.
Individual tastes and individual ideas are the only things we can lean on, in the face of the travails of life and consumption. We can go anywhere, buy anything, say anything. We are finally, completely, free. (Dammit—back to Franzen again!) No one can tell us what to do or say. We have our own ideas. And we can blog about them.
In terms of the writing craft—we can also do or say or write in whatever fashion we wish. As the common phrase goes, “It’s all good.” This seems especially true for poetry.
And yet, we search. For the great poem or story that exists within us, for the poetic cadence and voice that is distinctly, powerfully, ours, for the memory to be made into the heroic journey that will move our fellow villagers to tears and give them a new sense of how to be in the world.
Sure, people are still judging thumbs up, thumbs down. Critics are still out there, arbitrating taste, deciding what’s good, and what isn’t. And yet, their authority is weary and weak. No one trusts a stranger to decide on taste.
In some ways, it’s up to us—the ones who are making the art and then reading/viewing/listening to it. And if we can entertain our small circle around the metaphorical—or real—campfire with our song, then good for us. Who cares about searching for the grand, meta-audience? There isn’t one out there anymore.
Which is all good. And yet, very difficult.