Saturday, January 23, 2010

Save Poetry From The Professors

Andrew Sullivan points to an interesting blog post about the sorry state of modern poetry. I'm requoting what Sully liked:

The best thing that could happen to poetry is to drive it out of the universities with burning pitch forks. Starve the lavish grants. Strangle them all in a barrel of water.
Couldn't agree more. I studied a fair amount of poetry in college, and still own at least a couple of books of poetry. I can quote some Keats, and thoroughly enjoyed Bright Star. I've written a fair amount myself, and once spent three years working on one poem. But I can't stand most current American poetry. Here's how most poetry sounds to me:

I am a poet (pause, deep breath, sigh)
and you (pause) are who I am thinking of (pause, another sigh)
because (pause)
we are both (pause)

Most poetry seems to be written by people who are scared of their own shadows, and are creating a space for themselves to be still, and quiet, and mostly alone. It's very inward-directed, and seems to be written by people who are anxious about even going outside. That's probably too harsh, and I'm sure there are thousands of great counterexamples. But that's what a lot of it sounds like to me. The writer of this blog post believes that the source of the problem is that many poets are comfortably ensconced in universities, and that poetry journals end up publishing poetry written by and for these university-bound folks.

Again, couldn't agree more. Except that I don't think this is anywhere nearly radical enough in its definition of poetry. It limits "poetry" to what is being published in books and journals. I think that's absurd. The English-speaking world has a great tradition of poetry called rock and roll. Consider this line:

"The highway's jammed with broken heroes on a last-chance power drive."

Millions of people have heard that line hundreds of times each. It's from Bruce Springsteen's "Born To Run." It could easily be one of the most overplayed songs in history. But try to think about that image without the context of FM radio. There's a reason it's overplayed - it's a great line for a rock song.

So I don't think the problem with American poetry is that Americans aren't interested in poetry. I think the problem is that a few people who are decent writers have managed to convince the rest of us that it's worthwhile to subsidize them so they can talk to each other about how special they are. And some of those people have convinved themselves that they are the ones who determine what is and is not considered "art."

What this writer fails to realize is that the disconnect and the concern is mostly one-sided. He's worried that Americans don't connect with contemporary poets. But the concern is not reciprocated. Most Americans don't read poetry because it doesn't speak to them - he's right there. But most of them also don't care that contemporary poetry doesn't speak to them. I'm perfectly capable of reading and understanding contemporary American poetry. I've even bought "Best American Poetry" books before. But I don't read contemporary American poetry not only because it doesn't speak to me, but because I don't care about it. Two sides of the same coin, I suppose.

But I'm falling into the same trap - defining "poetry" as what is published by people who call themselves poets, and is published in poetry journals. It's not that I don't care about contemporary poetry. It's that I don't care about a particular brand of poery.

Marianne Moore said it best:

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
discovers in
it after all, a place for the genuine.

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