Poetry and Utopia

Charles Simic in the New York Review of Books:

NewYorkStreet_jpg_470x425_q85In 1972, I found myself on a panel whose subject was the poetry of the future. It was at the Struga Poetry Festival in Macedonia. I wasn’t scheduled to participate, but the American poet who was supposed to, W.S. Merwin, begged me to take his place, since he wanted to visit some monastery with his girlfriend. Being older, much more famous, and immensely admired by me, he couldn’t be refused and I went to the morning panel without any idea of what I was going to say. To my horror, the other panelists had come well-prepared, reading either from copious notes or as in the case of a poet from the Soviet Union, from a lengthy typewritten text that confidently predicted a golden age of poetry in a world turned Communist and living in harmony for the first time in human history.

My turn came next, though I was in near-comatose condition from uninterrupted drinking, smoking and talking since my arrival to the festival after a twenty-hour long journey from San Francisco with barely any sleep. Nevertheless, roused back to life by the drivel of the previous speaker, I said that predicting the future of poetry is a total waste of time, because poetry has not changed fundamentally in the last twenty-five centuries and I doubted it would do so in the next hundred years. Since that was all the energy I had, I fell silent and didn’t open my mouth again for the rest of the session. As for my fellow-panelists, I have no memory of any of them responding to anything I said as they continued arguing with each other about the future of poetry.

What I said that day was as much of a surprise to me as it must have been to the other people in the room, for I was then known as a surrealist poet, someone who routinely proclaimed a belief in the avant-garde. I and my friends were like those old-time Marxists who were sure that they understood the laws of history. We were convinced that abstract painting was an advance over figurative painting, that free verse was superior to meter and rhyme. To me, novelty was an essential requirement in the arts, and it still is.

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