Poetry is Dead. Long Live Poetry! Some Thoughts on Poetry in the American Public Sphere – by Susan B.A. Somers-Willett

Everybody knows that poetry is dead. We have a vision of its pine box, nailed shut. We may not have heard the funeral dirge or witness a dove marking the sky over its grave, but we know that it’s moldering down there somewhere, six feet under. Our collective American voice says poetry is some long-lost ancestor, replaced by newer, fresher generations of novels, blogs, reality television, and memoirs.

How do we know that poetry “has passed on,” “has ceased to be,” “has joined the choir invisible?” Because when we browse our ailing bookstores for signs of poetry on the shelf, or we look to our high school curricula for its evidence, or we peruse book reviews in major newspapers and magazines, poetry is relatively absent. These signs relegate poetry to a novelty, pure artifact—certainly not essential part of anyone’s reading diet. When teachers assign poetry on their syllabi, students conjure a vision of dusty texts akin to the Dead Sea Scrolls. In a post which shares the title of this essay, one witty journalist, writing articles for a tongue-in-cheek “musepaper” on the Poetry Foundation blog in 2009, likened poets’ careers to stints in debtor’s prison and sightings of their verses as fabled as those of UFOs over Roswell.

The discourse of poetry’s death is nothing new. It was nearly twenty-five years ago when poet and critic Dana Gioia most famously declared poetry dead to the general reader in his 1991 essay “Can Poetry Matter?” published in The Atlantic and later collected in an eponymously-titled book. He claims that Americans lived at that time in a “divided literary culture”—that of academics who read and practiced poetry and general readers who did not—leading to “the superabundance of poetry within a small class and the impoverishment outside it. One might even say that outside the classroom—where society demands that the two groups interact—poets and the common reader are no longer on speaking terms.” Poetry was only to be resurrected, he argued, by bringing it outside of isolated academic practice, taking it beyond the small presses and anthologies in which poets publish other poets for means of tenure and promotion and actively court a public audience. “It is time to experiment, time to leave the well-ordered but stuffy classroom,” he concluded. “Let’s build a funeral pyre out of the desiccated conventions piled around us and watch the ancient, spangle-feathered, unkillable phoenix rise from the ashes.”

Gioia received an overwhelming response to his essay—in the way of both messages of support for his argument and scornful criticism from some in academic creative writing programs. For all of the timely vinegar his argument produced, American poets and critics have actually been lamenting poetry’s death for at least the last century, as noted by Executive Director of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs D.W. Fenza in his essay “Who Keeps Killing Poetry?”  Gioia’s essay fell quick on the heels of (and was first drafted as a response to) Joseph Epstein’s 1988 editorial in Commentary, “Who Killed Poetry?” Epstein’s essay echoes some of the same arguments of critic Edmund Wilson, who in 1928 asked, “Is Verse a Dying Technique?” All of these critics recall the granddaddy of American poetry Walt Whitman who mused in 1892, “To have great poets, there must be great audiences too.” So when we look to our bookstores, our Kindles, and our newspapers for evidence of poetry, we are not alone in thinking it is dead. The experts have already said as much.

But perhaps they—and we—are not checking in the right places for the vital signs.

In the midst of this handwringing over poetry’s relationship with the public, poetry did indeed have a healthy practice outside of the academy.  In 1986, a Chicago construction worker-turned-poet Marc Smith was experimenting with performing poetry in white, working-class Chicago bars, mixing cabaret and vaudeville traditions with verse. One night when he ran out of material for a set, he decided to hold a mock competition, asking the audience to judge the poems performed on stage with boos and applause. The model proved so popular that he repeated it, eventually adding a nod to the Olympics by asking the audience to rate each poem from 0.0 to 10.0. Thus, the poetry slam was born—the competitive practice of performance poetry that now includes three national tournaments, the largest of which draws over 75 ensemble teams from the U.S., Canada, and a few nations abroad to represent their home turf.

Even before that, in the mid-seventies, rap laid its claim to poetic territory as emcees like Kool DJ Herc rhymed over disco tunes at South Bronx block parties, in step with the Caribbean traditions of toasting and dub music. The resulting hip-hop culture that emerged is now global and ubiquitous—but it also is evidence of the popular practice of poetry. Rap is poetry with a difference, poetry with music behind it, poetry that mugs for the camera, but it is poetry nonetheless. The intricate methods emcees use to lay their lyrics on top of and against the beat of 4/4 music—which is the very same strong-stress tetrameter line we know from Beowulf, as hip-hop scholar Adam Bradley notes in Book Of Rhymes—is I think the most innovative formalist poetry being practiced today. At least once before I die, I want to replace a Norton Anthology of Poetry on my syllabus with Yale’s The Anthology of Rap. I bet students reading the latter will be more practiced in prosody, if not more enthusiastic about understanding and employing this essential tool of poetic craft. Considering the rhetoric of death surrounding poetry, old school Philly DJ Lady B’s closing lyrics of “To the Beat, Y’all” ring prophetic: “I’m saying when I die, bury me deep / Plant two turntables at my feet / Put a mixer near my head / So when you close the casket I can rock the dead.”

Both the poetry slam and hip-hop are grand examples making a larger statement: poetry is, indeed, all around us in the public sphere—it’s just not necessarily reaching us through a book. Think of a group gathered to hear a conference paper on the blank verse of Shakespeare and Milton (masters though they are), and then think of a multitude of youth bobbing their heads to Nas or Missy Elliot. In each case, I marvel at the sparkling use of metaphor, the slant of the rhyme (what Eminem called “bending the word”), the intricate craft of working with and against the beat of the line/measure. Perhaps even more importantly, these more recent modes of verse attract younger audiences, and in many cases, they convene critical communities who have deep commitments to lyrical practice. This poetry is popular, so why not acknowledge its reach? Dana Gioia, to his credit, does so in his 2003 essay “Disappearing Ink,” in which he calls the popular emergence of poetry slams, hip-hop, and other communities where poetry is practiced in extraliterary ways “without a doubt the most surprising and significant development in recent American poetry.”

Of course, the argument of quality is quick to be employed when considering such examples, which often gets confused in the critical sphere with the definitional aspect of verse. Harold Bloom, for instance, famously deemed poetry slams in the Spring 2000 issue of The Paris Review “the death of art.” This new poetry isn’t as masterful, such critics imply, or Because it doesn’t work on the page, it can’t be real poetry. Both are utter canards. Just because such verse may reach us through different media, through performance or video or Internet streaming, doesn’t make it less of a poem, or less of a good poem. The artists who operate through media other than print have to be even more savvy about their craft, knowing what can or cannot work with a live audience, how gesture and tone can influence and audiences, or how to visually and orally represent their work in multimedia venues. Such practices certainly produce poetry that succeeds or fails in ways different than its text-only counterparts, but it still is poetry that can succeed on its own terms. I think this difference is something to be celebrated, not condemned.  

Let’s not forget that print has not always been the standard medium of poetry, or even the most revered model. When anyone laments to me the sorry state of poetry’s readership, I am quick to note that Homer’s Iliad wasn’t a fixed text for nearly two centuries, and during that time it was distributed by any number of nameless poet-performers, adding their own improvisations and sense of craft. Add to that the traditions of the bard, the griot, and the troubadour; even Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales—a text that pre-dates widespread literacy in Western culture—is presented as the reported speech of a cast of characters performing their histories in verse. In many ways, our literary culture still works by word of mouth, by deed of body, by vow of image and beat. As a scholar of poetry in performance, I send praises to YouTube for being my Alexandrian Library that will not burn (even as I smolder in the five-second purgatory of advertisements).  A more concerted effort to collect such ephemeral work is the Performance Poetry Preservation Project (P4), which, once it finds an institutional home, is poised to become the most comprehensive multimedia archive of performance poetry in the world. Other efforts include From the Fishouse, which  focuses on sound recordings by emerging poets, and Charles Bernstein’s initiatives the  Electronic Poetry Center at SUNY Buffalo and Penn Sound, both of which explore avant-garde sound and digital poetries.

In the wake of recent debates over poetry’s death, a number of initiatives have emerged to both highlight and improve poetry’s standing in the public sphere. In 1992, The Poetry Society of America initiated Poetry in Motion, which brought short poems to bus and subway passengers in metropolitan cities, printed on their subway tickets and posted in the spaces where advertisements usually appear. (The program, most famous in New York City, was on hiatus for four years in the Big Apple, but it returns this April.) In 1996, The Academy of American Poets launched National Poetry Month, celebrated every April since with posters, a series of events, publicity, and practical resources to encourage the public’s engagement with poetry year-round. In 1997, U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky used his office to initiate the Favorite Poem Project, which asked people across America to submit videos in which they recited poems meaningful to them. The project resulted in a two anthologies, a textbook and curriculum guide, a DVD, and an interactive website where public audiences could watch and discuss the poems being read by everyday citizens. Riffing on poetry’s celebration during the cruelest month, poet Maureen Thorson established National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo) in 2003, during which writers pledge to write a poem a day throughout the month of April.

Alongside the Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Society of America, another one of today’s powerhouses in public outreach for poetry is the Chicago-based organization The Poetry Foundation. Affiliated with Harriet Monroe’s venerable Poetry magazine (now celebrating its centenary), the Foundation was established in 2003 after receiving a 200 million-dollar gift from philanthropist Ruth Lilly. The Foundation’s multifarious projects—which include poetry events and readings, digital programming like mobile apps and podcasts, a website with searchable text and audio archives of poetry, publicity initiatives, animated poetry videos, and awards to American poets—all aim to maintain “a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture” and “discover and celebrate the best poetry and to place it before the largest possible audience.” One of those initiatives, the Poetry Out Loud competition, established an annual national poetry recitation contest in 2006 for high school students. In June 2011, the Poetry Foundation opened the doors to a new public building in the heart of downtown Chicago, which houses a 30,000 volume poetry library, a performance space for readings, and permanent administrative offices for Poetry magazine. In establishing a physical space for poetry, the Foundation echoes the Poets House in New York City, which houses a 50,000 volume library of poetry and hosts readings and events throughout the year in its relocated home in Battery Park.

Such a dizzying array of programs and organizations, paired with an understanding that popular forms of poetry are indeed all around us, are more than enough evidence that poetry never really died. And yet I think we still need more of them because, as former U.S. Poet Laureate Donald Hall put it, “Our trouble is not with poetry but with the public perception of poetry.” When I asked my students to write about poetry’s place in the public sphere this semester, all but one of them described poetry as dead or at least in serious need of life support. Yet when we discussed the meters and metaphors of hip-hop music, almost every one of them could recite their favorite rhymes by heart.

One place where poetry’s public image is particularly laced with cobwebs is actually in the academy, especially in K-12 institutions.  Suffering under standardized curricular restrictions of No Child Left Behind and our own prose-centric culture, students are commonly left with the impression that poetry is something “to figure out,” written in inscrutable code that only those with a rare intuition can decipher. Of course, poetry is something to figure out—its compressed diction and associative language requires a good deal of attention and different kind of reading. However, its contemplative nature also invites us to wonder, to discover new possibilities and connections with the world.  In this, reading or listening to poetry is a real-time critical act that challenges us to become better thinkers and stewards of literature. At the same time, our students need to know that although a poem may challenge them, a poem is not a test.

Still, it’s not just the genre, educators, academics, poets, or critics who perpetuate the myth of poetry’s death when it is very much alive. We as readers and listeners have a responsibility to poetry as well—to explore it in its abundance and variety, to discover the voices that turn us on and turn us out. I believe poetry’s public image suffers when we define it too narrowly. In that vein, I invite you this April to explore poetry in a new fashion. If you are a reader of poetry, check out a local reading series or poetry slam. Rent a film about a poet, or check out a poetry trailer.  If you read newspapers, log in to Verse Daily or Poetry Daily for a moment before checking the morning headlines.  If you are a fan of poetry readings or performances, explore one of the recent books published in the National Poetry Series or the Everyman’s Library. If you enjoy traditional narrative verse or received forms, check out work in a more avant-garde or experimental vein (Ahsahta Press and Omnidawn Publishing are both great places to start). Surveying verse outside of one’s comfort zone is not terribly big commitment, and perhaps a new understanding of poetry’s breadth and presence can emerge if we expand our own ideas about what poetry is and does.

Beyond this initial exploration, I also entreat you to share your findings with others, whether through Facebook, blogging, or the simple art of conversation. I think one source of poetry’s public image problem stems from the fact that we often define its reach through the single, solitary act of reading—which it undoubtedly is, sometimes—but that doesn’t mean that poetry shouldn’t inspire discussion, debate, and a vociferous public around its reception. Poetry has and deserves a concrete community of readers and listeners. Imagine what a polis we could create if the next book winning the Pulitzer Prize or the National Book Award in poetry got as much Twitter buzz as The Hunger Games.

On the theme of exploring new texts and authors, I am proud to feature at the Montclair State University Creative Research Center / Virtual Student Center nineteen poems written by present and former students at Montclair State University, all of whom have passed through the ranks of our creative writing concentration or newly-established creative writing minor. Their voices represent the range and depth of poetry being practiced today, ranging from quietly interior to in-your-face, from metered sonnets to free narrative poems, from comedic verse to poems documenting the Occupy Wall Street movement. For many of these students, writing these lines marks the beginning of their entry into the world of poetry, and their practice is proof that poetry can be both timeless and timely, but never expired. In its contemporary reception, poetry can be the child that outlives us. To use the words of one of the poets featured here, Glenn A. Patterson, who writes of a fruit fly’s fatal encounter with a library book: “How tragically perfect, to die in an instant, crushed upon the face of a poem.”

— Susan B.A. Somers-Willett is the author of two award-winning books of poetry, Quiver and Roam, and a book of criticism, The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry. Her writing has been featured by several journals including The Iowa Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Poets & Writers, and The New Yorker’s Book Bench. Her collaborative documentary poetry series “Women of Troy” aired on PRI and BBC radio affiliates and received a 2010 Gracie Award from the Alliance for Women in Media.  She is an Assistant Professor of creative writing and poetry at Montclair State University.

 

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