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.
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"?
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
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.
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
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
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
"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.