Giles Harvey considers whether poetry still has a place in the whirlwind world of mass media communication.
…Many have noticed how the emotional miserliness of Bishop’s poetry – that clenched stoical tone that goes on and on accruing interest with each successive reading – distinguishes her from Lowell, Jarrell, Berryman, and those other writers whose passion seems rather spent now. But Bishop’s singularity becomes even more pronounced when viewed within the wider context of our culture’s taste for comprehensive effusion, on talk shows, reality TV, in confessional memoirs, and all those widely disseminated activities that take suffering – and its lachrymose declaration – as the guarantor of authenticity. Television provides an ample platform for an apparently inexhaustible pool of individuals who want to cry and get upset in front of a large number of people. Of course, the effect of being so constantly exposed to other people’s unhappiness – recent talking points on The Jerry Springer Show have included ‘I’m a Teen Call Girl’, ‘Our Brother is a Pimp’ and ‘My Step-Father Abused Me’ – is not to cultivate but to retard sympathy. The precariousness of such a tendency hardly needs to be stated: if we lose the capacity to sympathize with others (and coming to recognize that other people exist and have an inner life must be one of the most strenuous imaginative activities out there) then it becomes dangerously easy to be complacent or cruel or to blow up distant countries.
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