In 1988, Lorenzo Thomas (not the Civil War general, the poet) delivered a lecture as part of the Poetry Project’s Symposium “Poetry of Everyday Life”; here it is, courtesy of wood s lot (where you will find much more of Thomas in the Jan. 14 entry). A few excerpts:
The relationship between poetic diction and the vernacular utterances of everyday life is adversarial and parasitic in both directions. Poets become poets because we, this happy breed, have—through dint of genius—figured out an alternative to the “Shucks, I cudda had a V-8” syndrome. We live in an age of growing illiteracy in a nation determined to destroy regional dialects and accents and impose a bland least-common-denominator “standard,” “broadcast,” or “edited” American-English on its inhabitants. Curiously, “English as an official language” is the project of a political regime that prates about a philosophy of government decentralization and non-intrusion into citizens’ lives. In any case, I am here to say that poetry is not and cannot be vernacular expression.
No matter what it may pretend to be—and pretend is the signal word—poetry is, by definition, heightened speech. It is the stuff of dreams and nightmares, not dimly unpremeditated slips-of-tongue around the water-cooler. When poetry attempts to depict “everyday life” it is either ventriloquy (and often ironic) or documentary (and usually polemical and satiric)…
Poetry that attempts to depict “everyday life” is really a critical examination of (1) the relationship of candor and premeditated performance, (2) traditions of discourse, and (3) where you live. Williams’ Paterson and Pound’s Cantos approach dailiness in a polar relationship. One man’s ephemera is another man’s civilization. Yet both Pound and Williams, to many of us, are old fogies rummaging in attics: and “everyday life” to some folks is the possible visit to Attica.
Once again, Amiri Baraka pointed out long ago that “the view from the bottom of the hill” is not the same as the view from the top, but that those at the bottom had been sold on the concept that “God don’t ever change.” Right or wrong, that really doesn’t matter. What does matter is understanding that, in this country, “everyday life” depends on who you are and where you really live. “English as our official language” aside, dailiness is various and if poetry can do anything about it, it is to document and celebrate the variety of the American quotidian.
Pound and Williams are not old fogies to me, but of course I’m an old fogy myself; “to document and celebrate the variety of the American quotidian” is a goal worth pursuing in the face of the bland least-common-denominator “standard.”