Poetry is dead (again)

>> Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Oh no! All the depressed teenagers in America have abruptly vanished!

No, wait. Nevermind. No, poetry is dead (again) because Newsweek says it might be, and Newsweek heard it from the National Endowment For The Arts, and the NEA got the news from a survey. Fiction is on the rise, you see, but poetry readership is at its lowest point in sixteen years.

A leaflike survey
Blows past on cold wind, crumples
Powder underfoot


That is, I regret to say, the best I can muster. In high school and even into college I wrote quite a bit of, to borrow a phrase from Morrissey, "such bloody awful poetry." Now I can sort of cobble together bad haiku, especially if it concerns Dungeons And Dragons, which isn't even a parody of a sham of an art, but more of a now-that's-just-sad-isn't-it.

But I digress. Just how bad is poetry's imminent demise? Well, even Newsweek is obligated to point out:

Of course, poetry has been supposedly dying now for several generations. In 1934, Edmund Wilson published an essay called "Is Verse a Dying Technique?" Fifty-four years later, Joseph Epstein chimed in with "Who Killed Poetry?" and former NEA chairman Gioia gained fame with a 1991 piece titled "Can Poetry Matter?" In answering their titular questions, all three to some degree concluded that poetry's concentration in the hands of specialists and the halls of academia was bad for the art form's health.

Former poet laureate [Donald] Hall, who published an essay called "Death to the Death of Poetry" in 1989, has heard it all before. "I'm 80 years old," he says. "[For] 60 years I've been reading about poetry losing its audience."


This before helpfully concluding that "poetry seems likely to persist, in one form or another." Really? You think? Are you sure?

Oh, honestly: the Newsweek article is just filler, really, but with a self-important and eye-catching title, "The End of Verse?" They go on a bit about the NEA study and then conclude with, in effect, "or maybe not," which is a bit meaningless. It's the long-awaited/dreaded demise of poetry we're talking about, not the likely extinction of Tasmanian devils from a plague of cancer, after all. Poetry has been dying for years, centuries, probably. In ten or fifteen years expect another announcement: "Poetry is really, really dead and we mean it this time."

There is one pertinent observation I'd like to make, though. A chunk of the Newsweek article is about efforts to rescue poetry.

The dismal poetry findings stand in sharp contrast not only to the rise in general fiction reading, but also to the efforts of the country's many poetry-advocacy organizations, which for the past dozen years have been creating programs to attract larger audiences. These programs are at least in part a response to the growing sense that poetry is being forgotten in the U.S. They include National Poetry Month (April); readings, lectures and contests held across the country; initiatives to get poems into mainstream publications such as newspapers; and various efforts to boost poetry's presence online (poets.org, the Web site of the Academy of American Poets, even launched a mobile version optimized for use on the iPhone).


Here's an unsolicited tip: making something the intellectual equivalent of eating your Brussels sprouts is about a good way as I can think of to kill it deader than Bobby Van Winkle's musical career. Seriously. If you want to keep grown-ups away from something in droves, set up a lecture series where participants talk about how vital and relevant it is. Do you know who shows up for those kinds of things? People who already think poetry is vital and relevant, that's who. And newspapers? Really? Yeah, that's a thriving industry that's swiftly adapting to the new millennium, alright.

Do you want to know why fiction is surging? I hate to say it, because it's a little embarrassing and I'm not a fan. I mean, she's alright, and I thought she was great in The Color Purple but her talk show kinda gives me hives. Yeah, her. Ms. Winfrey. Oprah.

I'm not really knocking The Big O (no, not the robot, I'm still talking about Ms. Winfrey--and I'm not talking about orgasms, either): Denis Leary, of all people, did a pretty surprising defense of her in Playboy a few months ago that made some points about Ms. Winfrey's awesomeness that I'm not prepared to dispute. Not that Denis Leary's opinion means that much to me, just that it was a fairly persuasive piece and I don't think Bill Hicks wrote it. Anyway, I'm not knocking Ms. Winfrey, and in fact I'm giving her a bit of credit here: I do think she's done more than probably any other individual out there to make reading fashionable and fun. Some people might say Jeff Bezos deserves a slice of credit off that loaf, but personally I haven't actually seen a real physical Kindle (and yes, I know people who own one--they're all far away and all I've seen are pictures), but I've seen plenty of "Oprah Book Club" logos stuck on paperbacks tucked into purses or tucked beneath women's arms.

Enough to explain the NEA surge? I couldn't say, and anecdotal evidence isn't really evidence. But even if the surge consists entirely of women buying "Oprah books," the more important points are (1)that reading has a way of being contagious--people see other people reading a book, that makes it okay for them to read, too; and (2)that Ms. Winfrey did it by making books--relatively serious and ambitious books, if not necessarily Great Books books, too--a part of pop culture again.

Which brings us around the long way to the point: if you really want people reading poetry, oh great and mighty NEA, don't do any more of these fucking seminars nobody wants to go to except the people who already go to them. No, if you want people interested in poetry, find your Oprah. It might even be Oprah. You get the ladies on The View or (heaven forbid!) Glenn Beck, say, talking about poems they like, you'll get your surge. (And no, I'm not convinced Glenn Beck ought to be the voice of dirty limericks, much less poetry, I'm just trying to proffer a f'r'instance for you.)

But making poetry like homework? That shit is doomed to failure. We've done homework. We didn't like it. No thank you. Pass.



UPDATE--MARCH 31st, 2009: By a bizarre and unexpected coincidence, today's Salon features "The poetry of Glenn Beck". I stand corrected on Mr. Beck's status in the realm of verse--apparently he should be the voice of poetry.


7 comments:

vince Tuesday, March 31, 2009 at 8:06:00 AM EDT  

Poetry has always been a small market, and always will be. But it continues to evolve. Like poetry slams. They're a great place to hear edgy, fantastic poetry.

Tania Tuesday, March 31, 2009 at 11:46:00 AM EDT  

You really DO read the articles!

Me too!

Eric Tuesday, March 31, 2009 at 1:24:00 PM EDT  

Tania, that made me laugh out loud (I thought about just doing a "LOL" but I've heard that's sooo 2005).

John the Scientist Tuesday, March 31, 2009 at 1:48:00 PM EDT  

I have a pretty even left / right brain split - I scored almost identical scores on Verbal and Math on both the SAT and GRE. I used to write some bloody awful poetry in High School, which interestingly enough ceased abruptly when I hit college and math went from about 20% of my daily processing power to close to 80%.

Nowadays, I still write, still bloody awful, for the wife. Birthdays and such. I cringe to think that my great-grandkids might someday read it, but she likes it because it's written expressly for her. Plus, you know, she's even more left brain than I am, and a non-native speaker to boot, so I think she's not too discriminating. ;-)

Poetry's been in decline since the invention of paper.

The rhythm and rhyme and / or alliteration was a way to memorize long oral histories told as stories. When paper came along, prose started to eat in on poetry's market share, especially in the epic segment. Prose has been gaining ever since, to the point now that no one writes long complicated sagas as poetry. In my extreme JRR Tolkien fanboy phase, I read "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight". It was neat, keeping alliteration up for thousands of lines. But I have not read it since. Give me a good prose history any day.

The Romantics picked up the torch tossed to them by the troubadors' version of courtly love, with baton tosses through several other periods in-between, and gave us what most people think of today as "poetry". But since - I'll go out on a limb here - WWI and the War Poets, I don't think anyone has been looking to poetry to define the mood of a generation. That function passed into song, sometime in the 1920s or 1930s, spurred on by Woodie and Pete, I suspect.

Poetry had a resurgence in the 50s with the Beats, but that was an affectation more than anything else. I think by the 1960s, the more serious form of social commentary had shifted completely to song, and I think it continues to be true today. And what are lyrics relative to poetry? Chopped liver?

I look at this kind of like classical music. Sure, a new great composer could come along, but who's looking for new stuff when there's more good classical to fit pretty much any mood than I can listen to and appreciate in a lifetime? Similarly, I can pick up a volume of Yeats or Auden or Blake or Byron, and get something to suit the mood. I'm not looking to poetry to describe the particulars of 21st century ennui, and I suspect most other people are not either. I'm looking to prose for that, and prose is alive and well.

Similarly to abstract painting, the avant garde of poetry today is not what most people want to consume. I know blank verse leaves me cold. Modern poetry has found its niche. It's pretty much at steady state with regards to readership, and even if Oprah picks it up, I'll bet you dollars to donuts that it will be mostly classics.

But you are right. Turning it into Brussels sprouts is idiocy. The NEA works primarily in an echo chamber, and this is a pretty good example of why command economies don't work. :p

Random Michelle K Tuesday, March 31, 2009 at 6:46:00 PM EDT  

My friend erin (the lawyer with the baby who doesn't practice law) is a poet, and usually had multiple pieces published a year.

I... don't get it.

I like to see/hear Shakespeare performed, but really dislike reading it. When novels present italicized passages of verse, my eyes tend to glaze over.

To hear verse spoken is one thing, but trying to read poetry makes my eyes itch.

Just a datapoint.

MWT Tuesday, March 31, 2009 at 7:12:00 PM EDT  

I tend to just skip completely past any poetry I see in books. Which means that I also tend not to read poetry books. >.>

Hearing it out loud, though, that does make more sense than reading it. And maybe we do still have modern popular poetry, but now it's called rap.

Eric Tuesday, March 31, 2009 at 9:20:00 PM EDT  

As far as reading it goes, it sometimes helps to read it aloud. I've noticed that Poe's poems, especially, is a different experience read aloud (kinda awesome) than he is read (kinda lame).

I don't read much poetry, to be honest, and frequently skip it when I run across it in places like Slate. That said, I love Yeats. So, y'know, I'm on both sides of it maybe. Regardless, I think rumors of poetry's death are as premature now as they were fifty years ago, myself.

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