Sunday, March 27, 2011

Amateur Radio, Poetry, Hardcore

Dominic Rivron wrote a post recently about his love of amateur radio, with some details about what amateur-radio enthusiasts do and how the whole thing works. It reminded of something I have been thinking about for several years now—a passage from "Poetry and the Problem of Taste," an essay by Brian Phillips that appeared in Poetry in September 2007. Here, Phillips is discussing a "line of thinking" exemplified, for him, by Dana Gioia's essay "Can Poetry Matter?", which leads him to the comparison that has stuck with me:

Starved of a general readership, poets are writing only for other poets, like shortwave radio hobbyists who build elaborate machines on which they can only reach each other.

I've been pondering various ways of thinking about this comparison, but only Dominic's post made me wonder what the passage might sound like to "shortwave radio hobbyists," who are surely being disparaged here (not by Phillips, of course, at least not directly) as providing nothing of value to the larger culture.

One of the lines of thinking I have been following is to wonder whether it might not be better for poets to embrace their similarity to "hobbyists" of various kinds—embrace, that is, the idea that we are only talking to each other and not to the rest of the world. In the light of Robert Archambeau's recent discussion of Tennyson, Yeats, and Eliot, which I commented on in my last post, such a self-isolation (whatever its merits in terms of reduced anxiety for poets might be) would reduce the poetry that we produce (by eliminating the productive tension between hermetic aestheticism and various forms of desire to have an influence on the world).

But last night I went to a hardcore concert. I do not usually listen to hardcore, though I enjoy hearing it live once in a while, and I wanted to go to this particular concert because my friend Andreas's band Flimmer was playing, and I have been wanting to see him play for years. And one thing about hardcore is that it is a world unto itself: anyone who plays hardcore does not do so because of any ambition to be a success with it in the larger world. The only reason to play hardcore is that you love it.

Similarly, the only reason to do amateur radio is that you love it. And what if poets stopped worrying about the age when Tennyson sold zillions of poems that clarified and confirmed the world to his readers, and instead focused our attention on the joys of talking to each other? Writing "inspired notes," as Tranströmer said.

There's more to say about the comparison between poetry and radio (and poetry and hardcore), but I'll save it for another day.


Dominic Rivron said...

Wow! Thought provoking stuff. Great when blogs spark off each other like this.

In a nutshell, I think that though radio amateurs only communicate with each other:

(a) there are others, "Short Wave Listeners" who listen in to what we do,

(b) although what we do is "specialist" we are forever encouraging people to join us (there is even a van, GB4FUN that goes round schools encouraging children to get involved - there are amateurs as young as 8 I think)

(c) in doing what we do -specialist or not- we are doing something positive for the human sense of community.

Without writing at length here, I think all these points translate pretty directly into the business of poetry.

Incidentally, give me Bunting, Pound, et al over Lawn Tennyson, Betjeman et al any day.

And finally, sort of off the point, Stockhausen said that musicians were radios. Are poets radios?

The Ringleader said...

Interesting....I hear what your sayin-- “A hobby is hard work you wouldn't do for a living."

But, I ran across this article today- Inventing, Hobby of the Famous in People. Popular Mechanics - Vol. 94, No. 4 - 312 pages - Magazine search in google books--
Made me wonder if inventing was a hobby that made money why should radio and poetry be so different?


Andrew Shields said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Archambeau said...

An interesting proposition! The hardcore/hobbyist position would certainly get rid of a lot of the anxiety many poets have about publication: right now, the dominant U.S. model is really professionalism, with "publish or perish" being the paradigm for many poets. But if it's not about prestige or tenure-worthy ratification, self-publishing, online publishing, etc. would lose their stigma.

Of course there are still people who yearn for a market-based model of success: selling lots of books. Or for a kind of will-to-power model: influencing the public. But conditions aren't right for success on those models, at least not often. The trends all point the other way, and people like Gioia remind me of Yeats' Cuchulain going crazy and battling the sea with his sword.



Andrew Shields said...

RA, it's worth noting that in the music world, there is no self-publishing stigma at all.