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Postmodern Village
est. 1999
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What's Really Wrong with Poetry in America 1.0
by Lael Ewy

Once you've read such a title, you might expect another screed along the lines of Dana Gioia or Robert Bly. This is not to devalue anything they've written on the subject since both have very good points to make. This is simply to say that they've missed the mark.

At issue are several things, two of which Bly and Gioia address well and at length: 1) Is American poetry any good? And 2) Why is poetry not popular among readers? What they fail to realize is that both problems are inter-related, and so the approach here. We can't seem to all agree what "good" poetry is, but we can agree that poetry doesn't sell, no matter the quality.

Most obviously, how can we expect it to? Contemporary America is full of brash (and slick--I've been known to watch certain "hip" shows of otherwise no redeeming value just to see the clever ads) advertising, shrill politicians, loud cars, even louder stereos, ultra-hyped movies, ultra-hip video games, the Internet, and precious little time, especially considering how much we work, to enjoy our vast entertainment opportunities. These entertainments, for all that we can say against them in our holier-than-holy towers of ivory, have the distinct advantage of not requiring thought. They are loud or overpowering enough to block out any thinking we might be doing anyway, and thinking is too much like work for already overworked Americans.

So poetry, with its quiet sophistication, with its challenging diction and image of elitism, doesn't stand a chance. There's nothing exactly scandalous about this, no matter what we'd like to think: until the 20th century (or the middle of the 19th, depending on your reckoning) the vast majority couldn't read anyhow; poetry as it was practiced was a game of the elite.

Not much, then, has changed, except that the elitism by socio-economic class has been replaced by elitism by educational interest. Maybe that's ok: not very many literary critics I can think of really seem to care if their work is read by anyone other than other scholars. If they did, they'd bother to publish more accessible work in general-interest magazines as well as scholarly journals, but few do. Since scholarly journals exist to communicate ideas in a given field, there seems to me to be nothing wrong with this.

Since the advent of poetry as an exclusively scholarly pursuit, however, poetry has also begun to appear almost exclusively in scholarly venues: the notable exception is probably the New Yorker, but whether we can really see it as "general" interest is sort of questionable. If the New York Times or the Sacramento Bee published poetry, I might be more likely to concede a general interest status. But this brings up this vital question: should we, as poets, really care if our work fails to go beyond the relatively small circles of critics and other poets?

Historically speaking, I'd have to say "no." The popularity of poetry now is probably greater than it ever has been just in terms of sheer numbers of readers. Its popularity may be proportionally lower, but I don't see that we've really lost that much ground in the larger scheme of things. But provided that we really are concerned with getting poetry "out there," there are some much more serious problems we must face.

First is that poetry has become a soulless enterprise. With the advent of the creative writing workshop and the professional (more to the point the professorial) creative writing teacher, we have created a self-supporting creative-writing scheme. So Gioia et al. tell us, and they are right. But what we have managed to do is create an atmosphere that focuses on the production of poetry, not the appreciation of it. Can we really expect to sell many books of poetry if few--if any--college graduates are trained to read and enjoy poetry? I think it's silly to think so, and yet we seem to assume just that.

Those who contend that the required literature classes most colleges and universities force on their freshmen and sophomores at least give students a chance to enjoy poetry are deluding themselves: students know these classes are required; they realize, therefore, that they shouldn't be enjoying them. They get to pretend to like poetry for the duration of the class, but that doesn't make them really love it. Further, those who seem to have an aptitude or intrinsic attraction to poetry are encouraged to become English majors or creative writers themselves. This leaves little room to build audience; it simply adds more people to the ranks of creative writing professionals.

That, in turn, compounds the problem. In order to gain prominence as poets, in order, especially, to gain employment as creative writing teachers, we must publish. In order to publish, we must write things that are publishable. This encourages writers, once viewed as artists, to take no real chances. No chances mean no innovation. Because of this, contemporary poets, the ones who really have something to gain from popularity, have a tendency to also produce work that is terribly tepid and bland.

Gioia's suggestion that we turn to poetry that is more accessible is no solution. Strict adherence to rhyme and meter and more accessible forms may resemble song lyrics, may be more easily understood, but run the risk of being unsophisticated and trite. We come very near the idea of writing poetry by focus-group: popular, but at the price, again, of innovation and artistic expansion. Do we really want popularity paid for with artistic stagnation? Do we really want another audience, besides the editors of academic journals, to try to please? Is there any room in such a world for individual artistic vision?

Worse yet is that those of us who teach poetry well, those of us who have firsthand knowledge of its production, find teaching graduate students and English majors much easier than teaching those who are required to take the class we're teaching. We shy away from, or out of bitterness do a tremendously bad job of, teaching introductory or "general ed" lit courses. It is always easier and more ego-enhancing to preach to the choir, but it fails miserably to win any converts. If we want to have a more substantial poetry-buying public, we must stop being choirmasters and start being proselytizers.

But being missionaries for poetry requires soul, conviction, and, above all, faith in and love of poetry itself.

Sadly, few of us even have that anymore. How many of us, after all, can say that we've never written anything purely because we needed to publish? Publication has become a means to an end, the end of getting cushy academic jobs, not an end in itself nor a means to communicate artistic achievement. How many of us can honestly say we'd keep writing even if we knew we'd never publish again?

Our lack of conviction is evident in our work. Our lack of conviction is evident in our teaching. How can we expect people to be interested in work that doesn't believe in itself, in teachers who have no faith in what they are doing?

So maybe we shouldn't worry about being popular. Maybe we should worry less about craft and more about authenticity. Maybe, if we really have a passion for what we are doing, those who used to ignore poetry will see that; they will see the art's quiet grace in a sea of screams, will become impressed, and become its patrons.

Continue on to part 2