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Postmodern Village
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What's Really Wrong with Poetry in America 2.0
by Lael Ewy


The real problem with poetry, of course, is that we value money much, much more. Reading and understanding poetry takes time and effort--time and effort we would much rather spend making money. Poetry itself bakes no bread; it produces nothing saleable, and its study cannot, in itself, make one wealthy.

The lack of respect for poetry has nothing to do with our educational system, nothing to do with morals, especially, nothing to do with "saving" our "culture." The disrespect and misunderstanding of poetry in our culture comes simply from the fact that we do not value it. There is nothing in our Pantheon of quintessential American values that includes poetry. Poetry is scary because it smacks of Continentalism; it smells of those deep European roots we are proud of in name only. To become American we have traded that European history for material gain. We have turned away from a system oppressive but culturally rich to one ostensibly free but culturally barren. America is about making money, and only about making money, and poetry, traditionally a pursuit of a leisure class, doesn't enter into that equation.

That is why universities have taken up its cause. Poetry has of late become every bit the museum piece that 19th century art is, that prehistoric tools are, that paleontological digs unearth. They are vital only in what scholars can learn from them: they have no direct bearing on the marketplace ("Sue" the T. Rex notwithstanding, being probably the exception that proves the rule), which is America's core culture. Universities, since their funding is not directly from the marketplace, take up these causes.

More important to the universities, however, is the fact that taking up the cause of poetry gives the university faculty another outlet for their snobbishness. This is important simply because of the academic's alienation from the marketplace. Without a direct connection to the core culture, the academic feels a lack of importance or power within her society. She is forced to invent an importance, so she creates for her position a sense of being the keeper of a necessary cultural component (art or literature), a sense of delving into the purer realms of human knowledge (research in the sciences), or an idea of being a nerve-cell in the collective memory (history or archeology). This invented sense of importance is shaky, however: every academic is still always at least subconsciously aware of her own marginality. This leads to over-compensation: her field becomes the important field, her work the most important work. Her sense of propriety is heightened as well: there is but one way to succeed in the field and it is her way. All else is sub-par at best, a dangerous degradation of serious scholarship, a harbinger of the End of Art, the End of Science at worst. This coincides with and reinforces the natural recalcitrance of all institutions, and a subject of study, once it becomes part of the academic system--and only part of an academic system--fails to grow, and perhaps even reverts to a primordial--more "pure" as one doing the studying would put it--state.

The saving graces of the sciences are discovery and application: technology affords a viable (and usually marketable) outlet for discovery, and discovery itself being an end, science has an incentive to march on, to change, to grow. History is saved by its constant creation: things happen and history must be there to record it. Literature and poetry also continue to happen, but, being as they are already part of the institution as they are created, having been taught there and supported almost exclusively by institutionalized journals, they have absolutely no incentive to grow. Formulae that worked for an author's first poem will work just as well for his last: he has no public to demand originality, only an institution whose rules have failed to change in the intervening span. Furthermore, the writer, if he wishes to keep his place within the institution, because of the paradigm of "publish or perish," has no incentive to jeopardize his plumb position by doing something experimental. Since the editors of the institutionalized journals are at least partly responsible for keeping the rules of what makes good literature in place, they have no incentive to change either lest their journal lose respectability. An author's experiment could very well mean his downfall, both artistically and monetarily.

We have created a system that is very good at employing poets. Unfortunately, we have also created a system that is anathema to poetry. I am not contending that poetry should be beholden to the marketplace: that would be disastrous in a nation that thinks only with its wallet. I am contending, rather, that poetry should not be beholden to the institution. This is the only way it will be allowed to grow, even if it is appreciated only by a tiny number of literati. Instead of producing it exclusively to appear in literary journals, we should produce it in our homes, amongst our friends, in our actual lives. We should share our work for the sake of sharing it, not for critique or refinement (since good poets will do that anyway).

A shared poetry, valued by those who produce it as something more than a means to an academic position and a method of retaining that position, might even begin to become popular. It might even begin to fulfill a need for poetry that exists in our society, a need William Carlos Williams was aware of--a need that goes beyond the cold walls of the ivory tower.

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