Sunday, January 17, 2010

Orchids... and in defence of poetry lovers...


Orchids..., originally uploaded by Snowdrops in Spring..

There is sweet music here that softer falls,
than petals from blown roses on the grass...
Music that gentlier* on the spirit lies,
than tired eyelids upon tired eyes.
Music that brings sweet sleep down
from the blissful skies...

--- Lord Tennyson, "The Lotus Eaters"

*Originally I had "softlier" in place of "gentlier" as I typed the above simply from memory, until a quick double-check tells me that it was indeed the latter. Still, I always thought that "softlier on the spirit lies" works better as a line because of alliteration, but that's my humble prejudice and The Lotus Eaters remains one of my favourite poems of all time.

Edited to add (from the late hours of the 17th to the wee hours of the 18th January)(although I did promise myself to not rise to the bait, but feck it, it feels good to vent)(those of a sensitive disposition, look away now):


Noticed recently a blogger's gripes about how those who professed to love poetry and literature are often pretentious snobs who lack the quality of what makes a true intellectual (I paraphrase and exaggerate, of course). Methinks she doth protest too much. Anyway, I think it is weird that there is a certain ingrained Chinese mentality (can we blame Confucius for this? I think so) which holds that reading, even (or especially) of fiction and poetry, is not an end in itself but a means to an end -- whether it was the means to become one of those mandarin-bureaucrats in ancient China through passing scholars' exams; or as a conversational prop to serve the self-aggrandising function of modern-day snobs, who name-check the usual suspects from the literary canon to cover up the fact that they are mere philistines in reality.

Not only do such thinking conveniently glosses over the fact that millions of people around the world genuinely enjoy poetry and can recall their favourite poems not out of ego-driven affectation, but because poetry speaks to them on a personal level; but the people with such a mentality also rather self-servingly forget that poets (as well as poet-wannabes, comme moi) and other intellectuals have never professed themselves to be above the average person.

Intellectuals, whether in the East or the West, including those who are greatly acclaimed, are human beings at the end of the day, the size of their intellects granting them no more immunization against human foibles than others who are less cerebrally-inclined, and they hate and they despair and they get jealous and they get angry and they get bored and they get lonely and they get frightened and they get frustrated just like any other ordinary joe out there who wields not a pen but a shovel or a spanner or a spatula. They never profess to be saints, just humble scholars, and often times not even that. It wouldn't have been possible for poets to produce any work of value, work that has resonance and meanings for others, if their own emotions are on an even keel all the time and if they don't feel the things that mere mortals like you and I feel, warts and all. The only difference between them and the masses is that poets and other intellectuals happen to have the rare gift of being articulate enough to express their thoughts and feelings and ideas and visions in words that constitute sheer evocative poetry, whether those words happen to form lines of brilliant reflective verse or pages of elegant, eloquent prose. (Of course, their other ability is to transmute ordinary everyday experiences into something approaching art, which is the point that Woolf made about Austen's writing as discussed in my other blog-post.) One can get jealous of the poets' ability to do this, but to label people as pretentious and self-regarding those who profess that they are in awe of such amazing talent really boggles the mind.

I mean, so what if ordinary folks decide that they like the sound of some of the poems they hear and memorise one or two lines and incorporate them into their everyday rhetorical repertoire? Is this really so bad? Why should they be deemed pretentious just because they don't happen to be professional intellectuals? What's wrong with, for example, football managers quoting Kipling's "If" as a way of motivating their teams? Why is there a problem if engineers cite examples of Tang poetry as inspirations behind their technical creations? Or an abstract artist who paints to express the insights she gleans from Rumi's poetry? Or a teenager who peppers her conversations with favourite lines from Emily Dickinson? Who are you to call these people pretentious? Wouldn't it be actually worse if poetry and all the big books of the world are left only to the elitist few who proclaimed that only they have the "right qualification" (invariably Oxbridge) and the "right attitude" to study these with any so-called "intellectual rigour"? That only when one has chowed through enough big books of the world in the right institutions and being conferred with the right certification could one dare claim to aspire to any sort of intellectual empowerment and enlightenment?

It begs the question, just who is being a right pretentious knob/bitch here? The person citing lines of his/her favourite poetry or the person who automatically deems those who do so as pretentious snobs and bores? How interesting that the most judgemental people in this world are often those who protest loudest at others' seeming pretensions. They forget the old adage: it takes one to know one. Like in the (decidedly low-brow) movie There's Something about Mary -- it takes a phoney to spot a phoney. So for a blogger to haughtily disparage the presumed pretentiousness of other people for simply sharing their enjoyment of a particular subject that she personally happens to find difficult, perhaps she needs to take a wee look in the mirror herself.

Actually, I just realise that the people who hold such snobby attitudes about those who profess their love for poems probably have never read any Irish "outsider" poetry by Thomas Kinsella et al, and so they cling to the false belief that poetry is only written by and for members of the aristocratic class rather than the common man, and thus can only countenance having poetry as a past-time enjoyed solely by those of so-called "noble breed". Hah! As if! These people also fail miserably to realise that, since poets never proclaim sainthood for themselves, it is inherently illogical (not to mention downright unfair) that lovers of poetry must be seen to be morally upright and saintly or else they'd be condemned as frauds, their taste for poetry sneeringly portrayed as a pretentious fig-leaf to hide their innate uncouthness. These self-righteous critics have probably forgotten how Du Fu wrote social commentary into his poetry to give voice to the dispossessed and the powerless (and indeed, Chinese poetry has continued to serve that function in the modern-day proletarian struggle against exploitation by the rich and the powerful); and they probably couldn't remember that a central appeal of Li Bai as a poet stemmed precisely from his non-conformity towards the straitjacket conventions of polite society in his time. Did Li Bai, a self-professed (and widely acknowledged) raging alcoholic, care for a second whether he's held up as a paragon of virtue for the masses? Most likely he'd have laughed heartily in the face of those who proffer such a silly notion and tell them to get a life!

Knowledge is power and I can understand why some self-styled elites of this world would feel an instinctive need to protect their so-called cachet against mere plebs and scoff at the latter's enjoyment of anything intellectual. You know, that "others must only be pretending to like this stuff if I don't happen to like it and in fact find it such a hard slog" attitude; or even worse, that idea of "how dare others with apparently lesser claim to intelligence than I declare themselves to enjoy poetry if a towering intellect such as mine don't friggin' get it!", leading them to conclude that "these poetry lovers are such friggin' show-offs and liars!" without pausing to reflect that perhaps this projection was merely a psychological defense against a perceived threat to their ego, which induced an almost Pavlovian "I must be ultra sarcastic towards these presumably self-regarding egotistic pretentious pseudo-intellectual (add a thousand elegantly concealed expletives) SNOBS as otherwise I can't face the fact that I'm not nearly half as clever as I once made myself out to be" reaction.

Oh, the irony. It's almost enough to make me pity the poor dears. Except...

If you're suggesting even for one second that plebeians can't do poetry precisely because we are plebs and if we so much as admit that we have indeed read the odd poem or two, or use a line of poetry to pepper our speech (or our wee blogs!) or even, God forbid, dare claim that we like poetry and blatantly share our favourite poems online, that to you we must then by definition be pseudo-intellectual snobs pretending to be someone that we are not and having notions above our stations, all I can say is you can take your elitist attitude and shove it right up your behind.

Don't you dare try to drive an artificial wedge between people on false intellectual grounds, dividing the population into unhelpful and frankly offensive categories according to their perceived intelligence or lack thereof (that in essence according to your worldview we're all either snobs or morons and those who disagree are at best not being realistic and at worst fail to admit to our deep-seated pretensions, while you and your "truly intellectual" friends are the few rare exceptions that prove the rule -- a funnier thing I haven't read in a long time if only it isn't also so sad), and in the process roll back decades' if not centuries' worth of progress in democratising knowledge and expertise and learning (if even Confucius himself was open-minded enough to claim that education is for all -- albeit only for men, but we shan't quibble over this -- and is never wasted on anyone, surely you can do it?).

Perhaps you didn't realise that the spectre of the pseudo-intellectual that you so caustically castigated in your blog-post is actually your own shadow, hard though this observation may be for you to swallow. Just don't malign the rest of us intellectuals (sorry love, but such is the complexity of life and the real world that we fail to fall into your neatly dichotomous rhetorical categories between plebs and intellectuals, for we are often one and the same as we'd never be so foolish as to put ourselves up on a pedestal, unlike those hankering after the image of a smarter-and-holier-than-thou false ideal) simply because you're suffering from a bad case of sour grapes (not that I'm saying you're necessarily jealous over the size of others' intellects, merely that you feel threatened by them for some reason; and more precisely there is an unmistakable sense of sourness over the fact that you can't for the life of you relax and enjoy poetry for its own sake and can't fathom how others do it without affectation just because you yourself are incapable of doing same).

Perhaps when you realise that enjoyment of poetry has nothing whatsoever to do with one's intellectual prowess -- whether self-assumed or perceived by others -- then maybe you would one day loosen up enough to get past your self-inflicted bogeyman (not to mention an overly inflated ego) and can stop insulting those of us who do enjoy poetry as mere pretentious snobs.

Ta.

(Wow that feels good!)

(But yeah as usual I didn't link to the offending blog. Well, I don't have time to get properly into an online row with someone so it is just as well that I just said my piece here and leave it at that).

(Oh not forgetting to plug the fact that I already blogged about how anyone can become a poet as long as one has the power of speech two Christmases ago)

(Finally, an anecdote about intellectual snobbery. When I was studying in NYC I was once introduced to a friend who graduated cum laude from Harvard, but who wouldn't tell people in social functions where she'd studied, just deprecatingly explained that it was "just somewhere in Boston", preferring instead to talk more about the books and the shows that she was interested in as a way of getting to know people in parties. When I got to know her better and asked why she did this she said she didn't want to give people certain expectations just because of where she studied. When I heard that my first reaction was like, Are you mad? Shouldn't you be broadcasting to all and sundry you studied at an Ivy-league institution and with such good grades too? But that was precisely why hers was such a refreshing attitude, especially in the context of the usual NY schmooze-fests that characterised many of the parties and receptions at the time (which was almost a decade ago, or maybe it was only the ones I'd been to which were like that). I thought this girl had real class compared to all the other "blue-blood wannabes" keen to compare ostentatious notes about which schools they'd been to at every opportunity as a way of establishing one's class provenance and thus social value (note I deliberately did not write "intellectual provenance" and "societal value"). What these people didn't realise is how sad they actually looked to others. Or maybe that's just me.)

(One last thing - really! - I do understand how incongruous my rant above is with the serene and calm picture of the white orchids at the top of this post. It is a bit of a shame that I saw fit to sully this otherwise lovely post with my rant, but then, on second thought, it was all done in defense of a gentle breed of people who'd normally not answer back quite so heatedly and so I guess the spirit of this post is noble enough to merit being accompanied by such a soul-cleansing image of white orchids.)

(I must confess I kept tinkering with this post over the course of today (the 18th), cleaning up and adding to my sentences and in the end turning what was originally a relatively short and bitter rant into a rather long -- but hopefully less bitter -- rebuttal against intellectual snobbery. Perhaps it was I who doth protest too much after all. Anyway am going to stop now. Time is 00:46, 19th Jan 2010).

(Oops, spoke too soon. Fixed several lines again at 09: 10 on 19th Jan 2010)

(Saturday, 30th Jan, 2010: Added link to modern day use of Chinese poetry by Hong Kong construction workers to boost morale in their demonstration against exploitation by their powerful employers)

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