by Kirby Congdon…….
Our propensity for poetry in this country is almost self-evident. The beat movement did not come out of our schools. A whole generation gravitated toward poetry on its own in a spontaneous way on many levels of our society. This includes voices that had no immediate connection with any literary source.
What was there to write about? Almost anything. Love poems have been the most obvious and prevalent subject as young people find ways to express what is happening to them. Later the elegy takes their place as our own survival exposes us more and more to chance and to the inevitable loss of influences that we had taken for granted. Our sense of reality is disrupted. The need to repair the damage persuades us to turn to the quiet intimacy of words.
The elegy lends itself easily to the category of the inspired poem. It is personal and the writer needs the outlet to relieve his loss if indeed it can be relieved. The reader has probably already anticipated my remark that the need and the ease of the elegy often results in second-rate poetry because its service as an outlet supersedes any concerns about the art of poetry itself. We have to leave it at that. We get back to art, beauty or history in their own time. We need poetry when we need it. Let history, evaluations and criticism wait. Grief is a private emotion. It is not a time for aesthetics. There still remain other uses, other standards, to involve us in other subjects for poetry.
It is interesting that if a particular person is named in an elegy the substance of the idea takes on a private and indifferent aspect. We can appreciate someone else’s sorrow but we seldom share it except in the sense of empathy which is not the same thing. Also if a public, or historical figure is mentioned, the elegy becomes a document. It takes on the task of honoring someone but it is not a poem. As early as Walt Whitman grief was handled as a new political problem in a war but he does not personalize his subject. If he were to do that, then the poem becomes a personal experience rather than a universal statement. Those blades of grass are each of us but none of them have a name. We can fit our own name in his purview but if he had mentioned anyone in particular, then we are automatically left out. Nor do we think he could handle a personal responsibility for the enormity of a social distribution of affection, sanity or civilization itself. He copes with the unfathomable by being, in effect, rational in his overall accommodation of gross and finally inhuman treatment of men toward each other.