The Coherence of Poetry (and Sarah Palin’s Tweets)

In a reprise of William Shatner’s spoken-word rendering of excerpts from Sarah Palin’s Gubernatorial resignation speech, the actor of Star Trek fame returned to NBC last night, at Conan O’Brien’s request, this time to interpret Palin’s Twitter Tweets as “poetry.” Take a look:

Sadly, this is what so many Americans have come to believe is poetry: expressing the banal (“no rain, no rainbow”) with gravitas and, preferably, an upright bass and bongos in the background. This bizarre fusion–of beatnik hauteur, the self-indulgence of Twitter tweets, and the incoherent, wink-to-camera narcissism of Sarah Palin–symbolizes so much of what has gone wrong with our society’s appreciation of the four-thousand-year-old tradition of making art from words.

Entertainment, and especially humor, is virulent online. As the competition for our attention increases, forms of increasingly immediate gratification would seem to be winning out over art. After all, art asks something back from us in precious attention. And, while poetry may well be one of the shortest formats in the literary arts, good poems, unlike good jokes, do more than make us laugh. Often, they emphasize the uncertain and contradictory nature of human existence. At minimum, they challenge our perceptions in some way. And, like most salarymen on a Friday night, I can understand just wanting a good laugh.

However, in a world of increasing fragmentation, poetry also promises to be one of the most coherent forms of address. It is this coherence that I crave, like nutrition. And it is because I believe such a craving to be as fundamentally human as seeking out something green to eat after a long stretch of gorging on junk food–that the propagation of mental junk food in modern times actually encourages, rather than disheartens me.

Such coherence is an antidote to, for example, cheesy politics. What makes Shatner’s sketch funny is the disparity between the trite tweets and the self-seriousness with which he delivers them. Yet there is some degree to which we are expected, by the Palin campaign, to take this same disparity–between Palin and her words–totally seriously. And so, the piece becomes a threefold parody: a caricature of Palin, a send-up of beatnik culture, and a dig at self-importance in the digital age.

Clearly, simply calling a collection of words “poetry” does not make it art, any more than Shatner’s posturings convince us of his seriousness. Yet the term is bandied about online as an ever-cheapening currency–largely, because it seems to be viewed as a form of self-expression. But the poetry that matters, to me anyway, goes beyond that. It speaks to us in ways sound bites, or reality-television-style confessions simply can not. It gets past–not only our email filters and learned habits of incessantly scanning text–but past our perceptual filters as well. A good poem can speak into us in ways that a million tweets can not. And it doesn’t need bongos behind it to make its deep rhythms felt.