Why Americans Don't Read Poetry And What To Do About It

A new man has taken office with a questionable mandate. That he held the same office years ago lends a scandalous air to his appointment, suggesting the restoration of previously deposed authorities.

Last year, the Library of Congress re-appointed 95-year-old Stanley Kunitz as official steward of that oxymoron of our contemporary national aesthetic life: American Poetry. Officially designated "Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress," Kunitz, according the library's directive, "serves as the nation's official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans." With all due respect to His Laureateship and his serviceable balladry, elegiac trimeters, and autobiographical poesy (W.W. Norton has just published his Collected Poems), Kunitz is an appropriate personification of the aging, quaint irrelevancy of contemporary poetry. "It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably everyday/ for lack/ of what is found there," William Carlos Williams wrote in 1962. Today we live miserably with the dotage of lousy verse.

We don't value poetry in this age or in this country, yet we are swamped with it. Roughly 1,200 new poetry titles are published in the United States each year, culled from the thousands of manuscripts submitted to publishers. Ever more writing programs at college campuses across the country produce thousands of BFA and MFA "poets." Thousands more attend the various poetry writing camps, summer schools, writers' colonies and retreats, all hailing forth their personal muses. The vanity presses and the self-publishers have always churned out forests worth of ars poetica, but in the digital age the swell of poets has reached a new extreme. The catalogs of so-called on-demand publishers such as iUniverse.com and Xlibris.com are engorged with the work of poetasters.

In this atmosphere of literary narcissism, competing avant-gardians hold forth in tiny publications read only by other self-involved poets. Even more vaingloriously bumptious wordsmiths take to the open mic. There is no audience proper at these events, just other poets waiting in line. The cartoonish competition of slams similarly inflates the impulse for celebrity and diminishes poetry. In truth, slams died the moment they left the places that birthed the concept, such as New York's Nuyorican Café, which drew their authenticity and power from performers speaking in native tongues, airing native concerns. Such competitions now lack the genuine connection to community that fueled the originals. "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked/ dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix," Allen Ginsburg "Howl"-ed in his groundbreaking 1956 poem. At today's slams and open mics, one will find the contemporary, well-fed hysterics with their predictable meters, measured breaths and redundant, tired narratives.

No one, other than poets themselves, really gives a damn about poetry. There was a time when daily newspapers published poems regularly. Irish poet and Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney was inspired to begin writing after reading the poems of Ted Hughes in the Belfast Telegraph. What U.S. daily would publish poetry today? These days newspapers rarely review poetry, much less print it. Ask any editor of a periodical devoted to poetry and he or she will tell you that the number of submissions are quite a bit higher than the number of subscribers.

Poetry demands readers who give time to the precision of language, but few of these readers exist. Among the things wrong with U.S. public schools is the lack, the utter irrelevance, of poetry. Iambic pentameter doesn't fit in the standardized test format, nor does it help students master the job applications and technical manuals that much "literacy" education focuses on. The luckiest high school students might see a film version of Shakespeare, albeit one translated into standard English. As readers we are literally artless, autistic. Is it any wonder that most Americans' relationship to poetry comes via the ubiquitous exchange of greeting cards? For this pithy doggerel we need a "lightning rod"?

Robert Pinsky, who immediately preceded Kunitz as the country's poet laureate, was frenetic in his attempts to bring "poetry to the people." Pinsky's regular appearances on PBS and his "Favorite Poem Project" (www.favoritepoem.org), an audience-participation experience that resulted in a coffee-table book of poetry, were like so much other public-broadcasting arts programming: middlebrow fluff for those wanting to consume a little coffee-table cultcha.

Here in Maryland we also have a new laureate -- in February Michael Collier was just named the lightning rod of the Free State's poetic impulses. Collier's day jobs represent another aspect of American poetry's irrelevance to our larger society. His dual roles as chairperson of the University of Maryland's creative-writing program (which, as such programs do, dutifully churns out poets who will publish their little chapbooks for other poets to read) and head of the Bread Loaf Writers Conference (the staid annual poetic gathering in Middlebury, Vt.) allow for a sort of aesthetic and economic vertical integration within the literary world. Few people make money -- much less a living -- writing poetry, so students who come out of university creative-writing programs (no small investment of tuition dollars) end up at such summer conferences, for there is nowhere else for poets to go.

Poetry also attempts to live within an increasingly loud, excessive American popular culture, but the signs are not good. The form requires depth perception; it can't survive in a cultural marketplace dominated by the two-dimensional imbecility of television or the compressed triteness and visual clichés of the movies. In pop music, hip-hop makes the greatest claim on linguistic invention, breathing life into America poetry. However, the music is a case study in how we've lost our way. Inspired cadences sprang from West Indian dub poets in New York. But the energy of griots like the Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, and Amiri Baraka mutated into the Sugar Hill Gang and the "Message" of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five -- and ended up as the puerile rhymes of Eminem. Similarly, the punk energy of a Minor Threat or a Clash end in the desuetude of Green Day and post-grunge, solipsistic lyrical banality. Folk music, once the repository of America's epics, is something you get on recordings from the Smithsonian -- it's in the museum. The poetic power of murder ballads, the talking blues, the songs of the folks happened a long time ago.

Need more evidence of poetry's fall from grace? One measure of the general irrelevance of anything is an official month designated in its honor. In The Republic, Plato famously concluded that poets, by virtue of most effectively shaking up the status quo through their work, would have to be excluded from his ideal society. We would do no such thing, of course; instead, we've made them inconsequential. We created National Poetry Month.

April is National Poetry Month in no small measure because an affected Anglophiliac Missourian wrote "The Waste Land," a poem about the failure of civilization and poetry's irrelevance: "April is the cruelest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain." Yet most people know T.S. Eliot only as channeled through Andrew Lloyd Webber's Broadway hit "Cats," the contemporary translation of Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats."

"The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem," Walt Whitman wrote in the preface to the first edition of his "Leaves of Grass." For the bard of the American Renaissance our poems are less important than the substance of our poetic lives. "I hear America Singing," Whitman begins his poem of that name, " . . . singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs." Yet, in an age when we're filling our withering minds with Survivor, Gameboy II, and Britney Spears, we are lesser beings for our poetic failures. Something has caught in our throats.

"If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that it is poetry," Emily Dickinson wrote. "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that it is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?" No. And from Dickinson's observation we may make a beginning. First of all, we must read poetry, widely, broadly, everywhere, passionately. Second, poets must stop writing poetry for a time. Poets with laureates, sinecures of creative writing, and other epaulets of official verse culture must resign their commissions, withholding their services until poetry matters. At public readings poets must perform the work of other poets. Readers and poets must join forces toppling TV towers and satellite dishes hanging from the windows of the citizenry; they must occupy the movie houses to give impromptu screen-front readings of Langston Hughes, Sappho and Ogden Nash as the opening credits roll. In the schools students will, for an academic year, read only poetry.

We will start our reading with a modest injunction as our opening couplet:

Do you read poetry?/ Your soul depends upon it.

© 2001 Baltimore City Paper, re-published by author's permission.