One of the great practical uses of the literary disciplines, of course, is to resist glibness—to slow language down and make it thoughtful. This accounts, particularly, for the influence of verse, in its formal aspect, within the dynamics of the growth of language: verse checks the merely impulsive flow of speech, subjects it to another pulse, to measure, to extralinguistic consideration; by inducing the hesitations of difficulty, it admits into language the influence of the Muse and of musing.
via David Graham, on the New Poetry mailing list
No sooner have I returned from Amsterdam (more on all that later) than juicy morsel falls straight in my lap for the neglected Quotīdiē. Wendell Berry is not the most interesting poet to me. I find him much like our current Poet Laureate Ted Kooser—Intelligently stated, but with nothing particularly compelling to offer for theme or diction. Not all bucolics have to be as majestic, as, say Vergil's, but I think more of our poets should look to (to give a parallel example) Horace for an example of how to personalize bucolics while still keeping them interesting.
But the quote is not from Berry's poetry, but from his prose, and it compels me to seek out more of Berry's philosophical essays. Many commentators have noted the role of poetry in presenting ideas in a form that requires such care to digest that they become more clearly communicated to the reader. This is so even if, paradoxically, obscurity is one of these tools of clear communication. Obscurity slows things down in the reader's apprehension in order not to lose the nuances. A perfect antonym of poetry from this viewpoint is the sound bite, and I think this comparison is also a good argument as to why poetry is as important today as it has ever been.
Poetry for new media culture
The problem has always been how to make the reader accept the braking effect of poetry on the digestion of information. I don't think it's engaging in too much Luddite hand wringing to say that these days people prefer their information in easily (and indeed trivially) digestible form. This is in part a natural reaction to high volume ("information overload" in the jargon). Most people, even among the trendiest of techies, are quick to praise the resource that presents a topic in both depth and breadth, and in coherent form. They find such treatment a necessary check on the dissociating effects of the contemporary knowledge feed—rapidly evolving blips of high sugar information. They accept a slow-down of perception and carefully read such resources, but only when advised by their peers to do so. They slow down because the "buzz factor" has compelled them to do so.
Poetry serves the same end, and buzz can certainly be important for leading people to poetry, but what really makes it compelling enough for the reader to accept the slow-down in apprehension is concentrated beauty of language. If the musical force of the words is strong enough, the intelligent reader will be obliged to dig more deeply. The reader will have gained a superficial aesthetic reward from the piece, in the sound, and such a reward as they never receive from their more quotidian resources. This reward is very satisfying, even if superficial, and it promises of richer reward, in the matter, once one has taken the time to consider the piece more carefully, most likely through multiple readings, and discussion with peers. And with the best poetry, we learn that the reward in the sound is not really superficial at all, but is the key to better memory of the idea as well as greater enjoyment in its presentation.
This is all well and good, of course, but the question is exactly where will the mastery come from to work new media concerns into compelling poetry? Is any such venture doomed by popular stereotype of poetry, especially its association with the mid-20th century cadre of slovenly, mentally unstable, kvetching pop art beatniks? From what I've heard and read of Paglia's Break, Blow, Burn, she opens up a useful discussion along these lines (yet another book on my really-should-read-soon list). I must also say that the same discussion leads me to question whether she has the critical acumen to help direct the class of potential poets who can serve the world in this time of great need.