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Atrophy and Entropy

December 20, 2011

The Bard (ca. 1817), by John Martin

A long time ago, poets would come up through their schooling and be forced to learn thousands of years of formal poetry, reaching back not only to the days before wide-spread literacy (and thus almost exclusively “aural” poetry) but to the time when poetry was invariably accompanied by music, often a harp of some sort, probably because it was an instrument that required little musical skill to make pleasant sounds on while concentrating on reciting hours of material in meter and rhyme.

Ezra Pound might have been noticing a transition when he said

Music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance… poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music.

The twentieth century produced two fairly extensive shifts in what were once linked art forms:

First, “artistic” English-language poetry lost much of its classic form, to the point where you can go to a college writing class and other students will argue that anything that rhymes isn’t poetry, it’s “a rhyme,” and they’ll write only free form poetry. Some of them are good at it. Most are not. Rhyme isn’t native to English poetry, so no big loss there, but for people who write freeform verse to suggest that the mere presence of rhyme invalidates something as poetry is the world turned upside down to me. These people are imitating other rule breakers who decided that even meter (which has been present in all evidence of written English poetry going back to the 7th century) was not necessary for poetry. Those innovators learned the rules and then went their own way. It’s become counter-cultural in the poetry world to do anything resembling, well, poetry, instead of being prose with funny line breaks. A lot of poetry resembles visual art, a a result of poetry being read and not recited.

A second shift was in art music, which also lost some of its interest in form, such that many long music pieces lack a strict dramatic structure that can be heard in a Beethoven symphony. Think of the blank verseness of a Phillip Glass piece or the incredibly complex time signatures and antimelodic nature of many small ensemble pieces performed by the likes of the Kronos Quartet. I’m overgeneralizing, of course. Because we all know that these did not completely disappear, which I’ll get to in a second. It’s simply that among people who delve into art very deeply, greater consideration was given to experimental pieces that break the mold so drastically that they can barely be recognized by the plebes. Too many disparate elements occupying the fringes and the center erodes.

Playing one of these and singing in a nasal voice does not automatically put you in the running to be one of the greatest poets of the 20th century.

The odd thing is that the classic forms had to adopt a disguise. An impression of ivory towerism gave “poetry” a bad name, so some people who had classical poetry forms bouncing around in their heads ended up writing songs. Thank goodness for Bob Dylan, because he gave all those folks a haven that didn’t really exist until 1963 and wasn’t widely accepted until much later. (Of course, then everyone who lacked his genius with language picked up on everything that was secondary about Dylan and ran with it, thinking that by channeling his lesser attributes listeners would forgive the lack of his best, and an awful lot of people did, creating legions of annoying, pale imitations. That’s a rant for another time and place, I think.) Dramatically structured music went to the most logical places, the stage and screen. Every once in a while, people will try to analyze pop art as “serious art” and the results can be a mess, because, no, not all pop art is serious art. But this leads to the impression that all pop art is devoid of seriousness, and because pop art is now the home to older and familiar forms of poetry and music, those forms are guilty by association.

The worst thing to me is when an artist breaks an established form in pop art and observers take that as a form of laziness. I’m still utterly shocked that there are generalizations made about rap as being a “bad” art form because it doesn’t use traditional song forms or melody. This is also throwing out the baby with the bath water. Bad lyrics are bad lyrics. Adding a melody to bad lyrics doesn’t make them less bad. The opposite is true, too. Analyzing the melodic merits of a music form that eschews melody is laughable. Don’t like that particular type of song? Then move on. But don’t try to invalidate it as an art form.

I say this even though I barely listen to any rap. It’s the pathetic and mean-spirited nature of the criticisms that bothers me. There are overtones in the criticisms that make me uncomfortable. Criticism is supposed to be helpful.

But that’s essentially arguing that critics changed enough tastemaker minds to create a schism between art and pop. Critics aren’t powerful enough (no matter what they think) to change more than a few minds, and artists are notoriously contrarian and iconoclastic. So something else must have happened.

I think what happened is, very simply, the increased availability of information. As more information becomes available, our ability to comprehend the swath of human knowledge atrophies. This is a humanistic approach to the physics of information technology and entropy:

There is only a certain amount of energy available for useful work.

This is something I think about a lot. I thought about it enough to use it as the background philosophy for a novel. Essentially, it’s like growing up: As the world around you becomes larger, your part in it becomes smaller and more diffuse.

Back in the days when a poet was expected to memorize the Iliad and be able to recite it accompanied by a harp, it’s perfectly possible that, other than a handful of other stories, there was nothing else to memorize. They could use the same form and meter for anything when something new came around. There’s substantial evidence that many lines in the works of Homer reuse descriptions and a kind of “name tag” like Odysseus the Clever (not to mention those long speeches that are repeated word for word) because they always fit the meter, which means the poet often improvised. And it also saved him the embarrassment of sounding like he got lost.

This dude knew everything. Ironically, you probably know more.

Aristotle was famous for knowing everything there was to know in art and science. If you wanted to know something that could be known in Athens at the time, chances are he could tell you.

I think this helps explain the fetishization of experimental forms of music and poetry. I was a teaching assistant in a poetry class once, and one assignment was to write a poem that sounded like William Carlos Williams. I don’t like his work, but I can’t say he was bad at it, and his stuff looks so simple that it’s one of the little things students can latch onto as “something they can do.” (Sort of like students deciding to use all lowercase letters a la e. e. cummings, a pretension that carries over into the music world. This is again taking a secondary element, a gimmick, and using it as a shortcut for determining where the real magic is.)

Those same students are expected to write sonnets in the mold of Shakespeare and Petrarch, blank verse, sestinas, ababcdcd, experiment with free verse, experiment with prose poetry, imitate a dozen famous poets like Emily Dickinson, make up their own forms, and none of this for more than one or two poems and certainly are not expected to write 154 examples of any given example. Now imagine that William Carlos Williams only had to learn how to do the Shakespeare, Petrarch, and the blank verse. Then he went off and did his own thing.

What changed? Well, there was more stuff around, and it accelerated as more books became published, more people became literate and wanted something new, and more people decided that they could write poetry and afford to live the life of an artist.

It’s getting dangerously close to my suggesting that there’s some sort of class issue. And I think I am, but it’s not a monetary class.

Before the collapse of the music label industry, which was really a network of banks, music artists could spend a lot of time just practicing their art. Now, though, if someone wants to do music for a living, they’re expected to be able to run a business—on top of a killer writer and musician, because there are thousands of people out there who are mediocre enough to pass for good with a casual listen in a bar or on the radio.

There are times when I think that it’s better to work a day job and be a part time musician because even though you’re spending 40 hours away from your instrument, at least when you get home you can practice for a few hours, instead of spending every moment off stage working on getting on stage. My band puts about 12 hours into a one-hour set between two or three 3-hour full band practices (not even counting personal practice time or writing and arranging), online work like the mailing list, and designing a poster sometimes. We could easily put in five or ten times that per show if we depended on this for our bread and butter: postering the whole city, making constant phone calls to friends and fans to get them out to shows, endless open mics, and the time needed to book and plan all aspects of a tour. It’s part of the sophomore album equation, which is the test of whether a band’s writing and practice routine can survive constant touring.

The only other way to do it is to be so extraordinary that other people will want to use you for their own success.

I keep thinking that things will go back to an older model in the music industry. Mozart died poor, you know. But evolution doesn’t work like that. I don’t think there’s anything “wrong” with what has happened, either. Evolution is never “wrong.” It’s possible that in 2000 years, language itself will be so different from the way it sounds now that 20th century poetry and music will sound just as formal and ancient as the Iliad sounds now.

This has applications that go well beyond music. In general, the breadth of knowledge any human is expected to have might be higher now than at any time in the past.

What happens when there is so much to know that our actual organism has not evolved to be able to use it?


One Comment leave one →
  1. December 20, 2011 1:35 pm

    And that last line is the entire crux of the thing to my way of thinking. Are we at that point? Imho, there is nothing like being in the woods to blind you to its vastness.

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