Poetry is Dead - 2013 edition

Poetry has been declared dead – or on life support – for years. I did a search of my blog and found a dozen entries back to 2005 where I've written about some pundit burying poetry before its time. Alexandra Petri is the latest undertaker in a Washington Post op-ed in the wake of Richard Blanco's inaugural poem on Monday. While Blanco's poem wasn't spectacular, I thought it was very good and had some lovely lines. Occasional poetry is difficult to write (I'm working on one right now, actually), so I give Blanco a pass. Encompassing the hopes and dreams of a nation in one poem (written in just three weeks) is an impossible, thankless task.

Petri suggests that poetry "might not be loud enough" and that the last poetry reading she attended was just a bunch of students suffering through it for extra credit. My suggestion to Petri is that she needs to get out a little more. Obviously, she's never been to Busboys and Poets in DC or Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York or even Java Monkey Speaks in Atlanta. She also claims that poetry has lost its radical side by being too academic and "established" by grants. I can't completely disagree with her on that. There are two camps of poetry: the poets entrenched in the Academy/academia and everyone else.

On the Poetry Foundation website today, there's an interview with the new president, Robert Polito. Asked what he's reading or excited about in poetry and he reels off the names of the well-established and knighted up-and-comers (some who have yet to prove their stripes, but have been anointed by their connections). Nary a mention of the real up-and-comers who are being published by small presses or appearing in the hundreds (maybe thousands) of smaller literary journals around the country. There remains that unspoken, but writ large, mindset of it's not "real poetry" unless you have an MFA, have been published by one of the acceptable presses/literary magazines and are deep in the belly of the academic beast. No disrespect to Mr. Polito, but here's another old white guy put in charge of America's leading poetry promoter who doesn't seem to have his finger on the pulse of what's happening outside the ivory tower. Why not take a chance and shake up the joint by appointing someone who would reach across the aisle, as it were? Someone like, say, Patricia Smith? Not that she would necessarily want the job, but it would have been a joy to see her taking the Poetry Foundation outside its multi-million dollar box. The Poetry Foundation doesn't seem to be all that big into taking chances, but maybe one day.

While Blanco was reading his poem on Monday, I was watching my Twitter feed to see what people were saying. There were plenty of morons complaining that the poem didn't rhyme, didn't make any sense and then there was the stone-cold bitchery of other poets who thought they could have done a better job. I've said this numerous times before, but poetry is the tiniest niche of literature. It's a small pond and poets are endlessly circling in hopes of being the biggest fish. Some of the younglings think they can still be "famous." Unless there is a radical re-imagining of poetry, a jailbreak from the academic set and more concern for the art than the desired laurels, then poetry will never regain any kind of footing in the public's imagination. It will be time-locked in text books, the stuff of greeting cards and trotted out for "special occasions" for the public to yawn and roll their eyes at before we get to a lip-synching pop star. Sorry, Beyonce.

No, poetry is not dead. Yes, it still has the potential and power to be transformative. To find it, you must cast a wider net. Look beyond the pages of The Atlantic or The New Yorker. Look at online literary mags, look at what the small and micro presses are doing, go to a poetry slam. Poetry is out there waiting for a larger audience to find it. Look beyond the classroom, look beyond the stuffy institutions and self-appointed gatekeepers. Poetry is everywhere.


Valid points. The criticism I read towards the poem shows how little is read of modern poetry to begin with-- and as you mentioned, his poem contained some nice imagery.

Where do people get the idea that verse must rhyme anyway? Whitman's work doesn't utilize rhyme. Wordsworth has some work that is free verse.

Glad you posted this.
Anonymous said…
I couldn't agree with you more, and you've articulated it beautifully. I've written occasional poems (for my high school graduation and two funerals) and it is very demanding because your mind can't "run free"; you have to keep a very cerebral eye on what's wanted and appropriate for the occasion. I thought as far as these things go Richard Blanco did a terrific job. I realized it wasn't his best work but it certainly made me want to read more of him. Also, my visits to readings in Atlanta have consistently inspired me to continue writing and to try to publish more. Cheers!

Claire D. (the one you got lost in Austin with; Megan V's friend in Baton Rouge)
Lots of people say lots of stuff is almost dead. TV will kill radio and films. Nonfiction fill kill fiction. E-books will kill print books. Everything else will kill poetry.

I think people want to be known as those who were right about what's about to be dead. So, they keep predicting it and, as you aptly show, prove they don't know what they're saying.

cbaustin said…
Thanks for sticking up for us "little guys"

Greg said…
"Nary a mention of the real up-and-comers who are being published by small presses or appearing in the hundreds (maybe thousands) of smaller literary journals around the country." As one of those I thank you very much! Excellent post.

Did you see this?
Maureen said…
Much of what Petri writes in the Post is drivel and this piece was no exception. I'd consign her to annual participation in the D.C. Poetry Tour and a stint in UK schools memorizing poetry. And perhaps a little education about what Wm Carlos Williams really wrote.

I like your points about Polito. I also read the interview and found some of what he said disappointing but perhaps not unexpected. There is so much really good poetry being written that never gets mentioned let alone printed by the likes of Graywolf. I was so disheartened to learn the latter is bringing out James Franco.

Yesterday, my friend A. Jay Adler wrote a fine response also to this dust-up.
Collin Kelley said…
Thanks for the comments and support everyone!

Greg, I did see that in Coldront. It encouraged to write my own response.

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