Don’t Get Me Wrong
I love poetry; but as far as the public is concerned, poetry died with the modernists.
No poets ever filled their shoes. And though there remain a number of minor masters and one hit wonders, few passing pedestrians could name a poet from the last 50 to 60 years – let alone the same poet, let alone the title of a poem, let alone a first line. Even though I’ve never watched a single game of ice hockey from beginning to end, I know who Wayne Gretzky is. And even though I’ve never watched more than two holes of golf, I know that Tiger Woods is not just a gifted philanderer, but a great golfer.
Ask anyone to name a novelist of the last half century and names will come tumbling.
How about JK Rowling?
Ask anyone to name a contemporary poet and you will be lucky to scrape by with John Ashbery, notwithstanding his much ballyhooed publication in Library of America. I know because I’ve asked friends, acquaintances and perfect strangers. Try it yourself. Harold Bloom made the comment that “since the death of Wallace Stevens in 1955, we have been in the Age of Ashbery.” And when you think about it, that’s about as back-handed a compliment as he could possibly make. If Ashbery is a virtual unknown among the larger public, what does that say about the generation scurrying around his ankles?
John Barr, President of the National Poetry Association, described much the same in his article, American Poetry in the New Century:
The need for something new is evident. Contemporary poetry’s striking absence from the public dialogues of our day, from the high school classroom, from bookstores, and from mainstream media, is evidence of a people in whose mind poetry is missing and unmissed. You can count on the fingers of one hand the bookstores in this country that are known for their poetry collections…
Or consider About.Com. The web site offers a TopPicks index that includes the top ten contemporary novelists, but not a word about the top ten poets. Type <Top Ten> into Google and see how long you have to scroll before you find anything about contemporary poets or poems. (I finally quit scrolling.) Why? Because few people could name so much as one poet, let alone ten. And if ten were listed, who would recognize them?
The Need for Darwin
The recent death of Ruth Lilly got me started.
The event made me think of two things, Frank Deford’s Sports “Curmudgeon” and Darwin. Here’s how the Poetry Foundation expressed their gratitude to Lilly:
Thanks to Ms. Lilly’s munificence, the programs of the Poetry Foundation bring poems to 19 million Americans who would not otherwise read or hear them. From the annual $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize honoring a contemporary poet’s lifetime accomplishment, to five Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowships that go to aspiring poets, to ensuring Poetry magazine continues publishing in perpetuity, to a host of new programs and prizes established by the Poetry Foundation since receiving the bequest, Ruth Lilly’s legacy will allow millions of readers to discover the great magic of poetry for generations to come. ¶ “Poetry has no greater friend than Ruth Lilly,” said Poetry Foundation John Barr.
Lilly’s generosity is praiseworthy but… but… what if she had generously donated such wealth to the NFL, Pixar, or Random House? Why bother, many would ask, they’re already successful. The Poetry Foundation, on the other hand, was headed toward irrelevance, at best, and oblivion at worst. Lilly’s contribution (and contributions) to the Poetry Foundation are the only reason it is what it is today. In other words, it’s not through any intrinsic or hard-earned merit that the Poetry Foundation is surviving and flourishing today, but because of a drug baron’s fantastic wealth.
The Poetry Foundation indirectly admitted as much. Without her, they tell us, 19 million Americans would not otherwise read or hear them. Without her, there would be no annual Poetry prize honoring contemporary poets. Without her, there would be no Poetry fellowships. Without her, millions wouldn’t be able to “discover the great magic of poetry for generations to come.”
Of course, the last assertion begs the question, if the magic of poetry is so great, why in God’s name did it need $200,000,000 dollars to rouse it from its death rattle? Apparently, it’s not the magic of poetry that will bring the thrill of poetry to millions of readers , but the magic of 200,000,000 dollars. Will the organization be made any better for the money? – remains to be seen. Would they have survived without it? – who knows… Did they deserve to survive? – maybe not.
The survival of the fittest has been thwarted.
On the other hand, this is precisely what the Poetry Foundation’s founder would have wanted. Wikipedia puts it this way:
Dana Goodyear, in an article in The New Yorker reporting and commenting on Poetry magazine and The Poetry Foundation, wrote that Barr’s essay was directly counter to the ideas of the magazine’s founder, Harriet Monroe, eight decades before. In a 1922 editorial, Monroe wrote about newspaper verse: “These syndicated rhymers, like the movie-producers, are learning that it pays to be good, [that one] gets by giving the people the emotions of virtue, simplicity and goodness, with this program paying at the box-office.” Monroe wanted to protect poets from the demands of popular taste, Goodyear wrote, while Barr wants to induce poets to appeal to the public. Goodyear acknowledged that popular interest in poetry has collapsed since the time of Monroe’s editorial.
In other words, Monroe wanted poets to write without consequence. And when any human being, let alone poets, can act without consequence, the dogs of mediocrity, narcissism and hedonism will be let loose. In the past, public reception was the choke collar that largely kept mediocrity at bay, but when poets were able to create their own audience (themselves) all those checks and balances evaporated.
It’s my own opinion that Monroe’s attitude is toxic and anathema to great art and poisonous to art in general. It’s a shame and the results are indisputable. When poets left their audience, their audience left them.
Monroe’s stance excluded the general public from the evolution of art, but as Walt Whitman wrote, great poetry isn’t possible without a great audience, and if the audience is excluded from the development of a given art from, then it will no longer reflect the audience’s own innate greatness. And that is precisely what has happened. The general public no longer turns to contemporary poetry because it ceases to find itself, its greatness, reflected in that poetry. The general public has been excluded.
So who’s to tell the poet if they’re poetry is good or bad? Poets themselves?
The fact that the Poetry Foundation continues to exist, not because of its intrinsic merit but because of a generous benefactor means that its aesthetic genetics (the attitudes, values and artistic principles) that were probably ripe for expiration, will now continue to exert an undeserved and unearned influence on poetry. John Bar’s own unwitting statement that Poetry “has no greater friend than Ruth Lilly” is a sad self-indictment. It should have millions of friends – none any more or less great than the other.
It might have been better had the organization died a natural death.
Tremendous wisdom can be found in the myths and legends of our past. One of the most profound, in my opinion, is that of the Phoenix – both mortal and immortal. What the ancients knew (or some of them), and which many moderns seem to have forgotten, is that without destruction, there can be no rebirth.
The reason the Phoenix appeals to us is not because it is immortal (mythology is rife with immortal beings) but because it can recreate itself. The Phoenix’s song of death and rebirth transfixes us. Immortality can never hold the same gift and promise of rebirth and renewal.
And it’s precisely this cycle of death and rebirth that poetry has lost.
When poets were required to make their living by writing for the public there was a give and take – a kind of death and rebirth in every public appraisal of their effort. Artists disputed but also encompassed their audience’s demands and tastes. There was a balance, perhaps imperfect but a balance nonetheless. The interaction produced our greatest works of art. Conversely, careers sometimes sputtered, poets starved and some had to quit writing altogether. But that’s the way it should be. This is how art thrives.
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. Cast them out. The current culture, in which poetry is written for and supported by poets has created a kind of state-sanctioned poetry that resists innovation. When and if poetry is ever made to answer to the broader public, then we may begin to see some great poetry again – the greatness that is the collaboration between audience and artist.
As John Barr wrote:
[Contemporary poets] operate on a network of academic postings and prizes that reinforce the status quo. They are sustained by a system of fellowships, grants, and other subsidies that absolve recipients of the responsibility to write books that a reader who is not a specialist might enjoy, might even buy.
There has always been criticism directed at the National Endowment for the Arts, for it’s use of our tax money to support artists who would probably (and otherwise) be in the unemployment line. And maybe I’m beginning to have some sympathy with that point of view. If poets and artists can’t make a living by writing poetry or producing art, then maybe they shouldn’t be writing poetry.
Let the fittest survive.
And, yes, I hold myself to that standard. I live it everyday.
Let Poetry Die
So that it can be reborn, make poets work for their bread and butter by being poets. As it is, the state of poetry is dispiriting. The public is right to ignore it.
Some quotes from the web:
- I asked the newsroom to name a living American poet. A room full of people who write for a living could only come up with Maya Angelou. The Book Club ~ The News Herald
- …the reason why you cannot recite poems from the last fifty years with ease is not because there haven’t been any good ones but because of the system of education: it has both ceased to renew the curricular literary canon and at the same time devalued the teaching of english… a comment at Melville House Publishing