POETRY IN CRISIS??!! The blogosphere has been filled with all sorts of responses to John Barr's essay in the September issue of Poetry magazine. There's also been plenty of other hand-wringing over the "state of poetry," such as this old chestnut brought out for another run up the flagpole. Quick! Someone take poetry's pulse...the old girl is slipping into a coma again. This death knell comes around at least once a year, usually prompted by someone who says modern poetry is dead/boring/all sounds the same/MFA programs are the devil, but never really offers a solution for the resuscitation of the art.
Poetry is not dead...it's just going through a rough evolution at the moment. Poet Charles Jensen says the real problem is that -- here' s a metaphor to chew on -- poetry is basically a pie and only a lucky few have their forks in it. There's a thousand others desperately trying to get a crumb, but those greedy bastards won't move out of the way. Who are these people? They are the "name" poets who journals and mags continue to solicit poetry from because those names will move copies. For instance, Collin Kelley might sell a few copies in Georgia and LA, but he ain't gonna send the masses running to the Barnes & Noble in Wichita. Billy Collins, Ted Kooser, Jorie Graham and five or six others can ensure sales. So, part of the "problem" with poetry lies squarely with the "important" journals. The fact that many of these journals are tied to universities, where the pie-eaters make their actual living, is a whole other issue.
Then there's the MFA programs. I don't have one, don't think I want one, would probably wind up punching some professor in the nose for fucking with my music. Many of my fellow poets have survived MFA programs and come out with their voices intact. They've become more knowledgeable in history, form and the mechanics of poetry. On the other hand, there are plenty of MFA casualties who have been stripped of their voice to please the professor who swears that they "must write poetry like this" to earn their...ahem...credentials. If they want to teach, earn grants, get fellowships and be part of the elite, they must fall in line with today's poetics. You have people like Barr and Dana Gioia (who I despise politically, but occasionally has an enlightened thought about poetry) who in one breath say MFA programs are the death of new poets, then intimates that if you don't have an MFA you're a nobody. You'll always be an outsider looking in at the world of poetry. You won't get grants, win awards or be paid $10,000 to speak at a university. To sum up: MFA programs are bad...mmm'kay...but you better have one, because if you don't you're not a "real" poet...mmm'kay.
Then of course there are the poets themselves who have achieved tenure, won their Pulitzers, edit anthologies and get paid those big bucks for appearances and teaching gigs. They all know their time at the top of the heap is limited, so any whipper-snapper coming up too quickly through the ranks is going to be shown to the back of the bus. After all, the pie only has a finite number of slices and Jorie and Billy will probably want seconds. You've got poets who have achieved recognition, who have become idols of younger poets, but you won't catch them dead at an open mic. If I had a dollar for every "established" poet who's said, "I can't sit through an open mic...it's all so terrible," I'd be living in my palatial London home using 100 pound notes to light my cigars. They seem to have forgotten that their own poetry sucked ass once upon a time. If they were so concerned about the imminent demise of poetry, they'd be out beating the bushes (or open mics) looking for the next up-and-coming young poet to mentor, not waiting for the next crop of MFA students to be harvested. Sure, these poets teach and spread the gospel, but a lot of the time it seems like that scene from Postcards from the Edge where Meryl Streep's struggling actress character says to her acting legend mom Shirley MacLaine: You want me to do well, just not better than you.
There is a inherent snobbishness, elitism, etc. about poetry. The poetry you read in the usual suspect journals, for the most part, has slipped into tedium. But that's my personal taste. Others love it, rapture over it, reprint it on their blogs to show just how much today's poetry really rocks their socks. Occasionally, a new poet will break the surface (Hello, Cherryl Floyd-Miller!) and slip into Poetry. Or Barbara Jane Reyes will win a big award from the Academy of American Poets, but only get a handful of reviews because her poetry is risky and doesn't conform. It's dirty, opinionated, accusatory, and it threatens to upset the apple cart in a big, big way. Luckily, Poeta en San Francisco is selling like hotcakes, so all you tight-assed suckers can eat her dust. And don't forget the new breed of formalists, who are working hard to bring rhyme and meter back to the table, but find that many journals "don't want rhyming poetry." You're damned if you do, damned if you don't.
And then you have the spoken word poets who write that thar "slam poetry." Despite the fact that there is no such thing as "slam" poetry -- slam is a competition, folks, let's try to get that fact straight -- it continues to piss off the academics to no end. My buddy Robin Kemp (a red hot formalista!) says this argument is tired and doesn't hold water. Sadly, it not only holds water, it floats. There is still a large "US vs. THEM" mentality out there, but doesn't need to be. Many "slam poets" think the stuff printed in lit mags is total shit, while the academics think spoken word is debasing the great art of poetry. Who's right? Neither of them. As Cole Porter said, it's just one of those things. It all comes down to personal taste, and you can't regulate taste. Billy and Ted's "accessible" poetry makes some people gag, while others think it's sacred text. Mention Emily Dickinson to some and they yawn. Some still shake their heads in disgust that poets like Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath were ever allowed to publish in the first place. Masturbation and daddy issues...tell it to a shrink, don't share it with the world. Maya Angelou might still rise, but some folks want to beat her down.
Now, I know this next statement is going to make some of you go screaming into the night, because it's one of those things you never really admit. You know what I'm talking about. If you can't handle the truth, you might want to stop reading now and go watch a rerun of Project Runway. It's sorta like The Matrix... take the blue pill and you wake up snug in your bed with a copy of The Paris Review tucked under your pillow. Take the red pill and down the rabbit hole you go. Ready? Okay...here's the red pill:
There is no such thing as "bad poetry."
I know, I know...it's a hard, bitter pill to swallow, but deep down inside, you know it's the truth. That high schooler reading her angst-ridden ode to an uncaring world, so full of cliches it would choke Tori Amos, will strike a chord with other boys and girls in the audience. They will love it, identify with it, and think it's brilliant. Some old man reading a rhyming poem about picking flowers in his garden and little birdies flying past the window, will make some folks weep for the beauty of nature. He, too, has touched a nerve. And some ghetto fabulous woman will scream about the glories of her unappreciated vagina in a slam, and the audience will be shouting their approval and clapping until their hands are raw. These poets -- because they are poets -- have found fans, like-minds, have touched heart and soul...and probably just sold 10 copies of their chapbook. Isn't that what poetry is supposed to do? No matter how shitty someone else thinks it is? Will it win the Pulitzer? Probably not, but then 99 percent of poets will never do that anyway, and some of ya'll (and you know who you are) just need to accept that fact now. You might have a good teaching job, have a contract with a big publisher and write pretty decent poetry, but somebody up at the Pulitzer office is gonna think it's mediocre shit. Deal with it!
As we move deeper into the 21st Century and more and more outlets for poetry appear -- self-publishing, online journals, etc. -- poetry is going to continue to evolve. More people are going to go to open mics, new poets are going to eventually push Ted and Jorie away from the pie with their forks poised. Some great poets will toil in obscurity, trying to snatch a crumb. Some will go to an MFA and lose their voices, some will finish with a stronger one. Spoken word will continue to flourish and literary journals (whether in print or online) will continue to publish. Professors will give their former students first book prizes, hundreds of manuscript submissions will be thrown in the trash, feelings will be hurt, teeth will be gnashed, and yet poetry will continue. Even while another old fart writes poetry's next obituary.