#1. Sappho's Knees
There are so many problems with modern poetry, it’s hard to know where to begin, but let’s start with this: Modern poetry has all but totally separated itself from its own heritage. It lives almost exclusively in the present, finding no models or sources of inspiration older than a half-century, and those only occasionally, and often with dutiful reluctance.
It is almost the inverse of the college study of literature before post-modernism, in which students were be-foddered with no material that wasn’t at least a half-century old and therefore had not “stood the test of time.”
Poetry today doesn’t see itself as part of any ongoing tradition: it lives in a bubble of Time Present, oblivious to its own history, and therewith to its own future, to its larger destiny as a point of reference on a long line of literary development.
Creative art-making of course is a function of the present, but modern poets see nothing behind or beyond it. Conversely, there are few painters who don’t accept their work as a continuation of methods or techniques that originated before they went to art school. Symphonic composers similarly can’t help but see themselves as at the business end of a long process of artistic development.
And artists involved with singer-songwriting, an art form generally ignored by poets and critics of poetry, build instinctively on what’s been done before, and would probably be happy if their creations are seen to be rooted in the past. Think of early Dylan, for example.
But with poets, forget it, everything is ex novo or it is nothing.
Not to belabor the point, but check this poem by Sappho. It was discovered rather miraculously in Cologne in 2004 in a papyrus sheet used as cartonnage inside an Egyptian mummy. I’ve translated it rather loosely thus:
The lovely gifts of the fragrant Muses
now are yours, girls, and the resonant lyre as well.
My body, once agile, is old now,
my dark hair has now turned white.
My mind is foggy and my knees, which used
to dance like young fawns, are all messed up.
I bitch about it, but what's to be done?
If you're a human, you can't help but get old.
They say that Dawn, eager for love, carried off
Tithonus in her rosy arms to the end of the world
when he was young and hot-looking—but old-age
caught up with him too, though his wife was immortal.
So it’s 2010, and you’re a white-haired, middle-aged female college English teacher, and now it’s Spring again, and you’re looking wistfully out your office window at the young women dancing around and playing frisbee or quidditch or whatever out in the Quad, and you’re remembering how it used to be when you were young and loved to boogie like a bandit… now be honest, modern poet, could you handle this situation better than Sappho did 2000 years ago?