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How Dead Is Poetry?

ISSUE:  Spring 1995

In our recent cultural history, poetry has had as many ups and downs as the stock market. Prominent urban newspapers, like The Los Angeles Times and The Houston Post no longer review books of poems. Joseph Epstein, editor of The American Scholar, asked “Who Killed Poetry?” in an extended essay. He took its death for granted. Jonathan Yardley, book critic of the Washington Post, put it this way: “Contemporary American poetry is read by poets, by writing students and by students of literature—and by almost no one else.”

Despite our enchantment with words provocatively strung together, from grafitti to advertising copy, Americans remain ambivalent about poetry. We early find ourselves chanting insults, bouncing balls, choosing sides, or skipping rope in measured and rhymed verses. Yet few would confess to liking poetry in any form, let alone to actually reading it.

Yet, whether we like it or not, poetry is firmly in the American mainstream, even if it gets stuck every so often on a sandbank. The evidence is plentiful and varied.

  • The Book of the Month Club announced plans to offer volumes of Philip Larkin, W.H. Auden, and William Butler Yeats, no casual versifiers. Audiences crowd “poetry” readings in night clubs and community centers.
  • When I asked a colleague who teaches creative writing his opinion of one contemporary poet, he answered by giving me a market appraisal, how many copies he would sell, what his likely income would be.
  • Campuses award tenure and advancement more readily for indifferent poems that get into print than for published scholarship or criticism.
  • Hollywood starred lovable Robin Williams in Dead Poets’ Society, as a poetry loving, heroic prep school teacher misunderstood by his philistine headmaster.
  • Even macho types get into the act. A witness at the Iran-Contra hearings, a Stanford graduate who should perhaps have known better, closed his nationally televised appearance with the reading of a cliche-ridden, lugubrious, plodding summation (a testimonial to Lt. Col. Oliver North) he called a poem.
  • We now have two national prizes for poetry in addition to the Pulitzer. The newly established Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award brings $50,000.The older Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize has just been increased to $75,000, to insure, in the words of its sponsors, that it is “once again the largest poetry prize in the United States.” Promoters of poetry no longer hesitate to sound like hucksters.
  • Maya Angelou composed a poem for President Clinton’s inauguration; the last poet to do that was Robert Frost, for President Kennedy’s. And the appointment of Rita Dove, poet and University of Virginia professor, as the country’s new poet laureate made national news. Both women are black, perhaps another sign of the renewed vigor and relevance of poetry.
  • Poetry is helping political reporters interpret the news. The Washington Post’s Outlook section ran a brief essay by David Von Drehle with the subtitle “I Confess—T.S.Eliot Matters More to Me Than the Thomasons.” He quoted Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Richard Cory” in a try at fathoming the suicide of Vincent Foster, President Clinton’s friend and White House aide, and a fragment from Eliot, putting the Mississippi flooding in the context of history.
  • Respected journals continue to pay tribute to poetry. The New Yorker, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Nation, and The American Scholar, among others, list poems with the same emphasis in their tables of contents as an article or short story of several pages.

Why then the prevailing ambivalence about poetry?

Poetry used to be pure in elementary school. I can still visualize counting the tintinnabulation of the refrain in Poe’s work, “bells” repeated 13—or was it 15?—times, moving my fingers behind my back, as I happily chanted “bells” before a class. I remember my vague confusion when young Lochinvar swam the Eske river where “ford there was none,” thinking that “ford” was a car. We learned a little history in the trochees of “Hiawatha” and the dactyls of “Evangeline.” Poe’s “Annabel Lee” produced a sad, pleasurable resonance. We got prizes for “elocution” when we happily tore an overwritten text to tatters.

In college, poetry classes offered more serious intellectual satisfaction, occasions to immerse oneself in the complexities and ambiguities of a work. You couldn’t properly study Dickinson, say, or Yeats without talmudically explicating a phrase, a sentence, endlessly analyzing sound in relation to sense. No lawyer, scientist, businessman who wants to use language to best effect can do better than to read serious poetry with committed care.

I think we may trace some of the ups and downs in poetry’s appeal to pedagogical confusions. Memorizing fell into disuse because it was mechanical, often a substitute for teaching and learning. Under the pressures of a series of intellectual fashions, the schools (properly) rejected the shallow sentimentality of many traditionally popular works, like Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees,” but foundered in dealing with respectable substitutes. When I once tried to get a class of teachers to respond to the point of Robert Frost’s “Birches,” I found they were at a loss, talking about dendrology and Frost’s biography or how the Indians made canoes from the bark of the birch. It came to be thought corny to read even short poems aloud.

To encourage children to be “creative,” teachers pushed the merits of free verse. They urged children to do “haiku,” for example, those fiendishly compacted, seemingly off-hand Japanese miniatures, which our Imagist poets tried so earnestly, even desperately, to imitate. “Free” verse was supposed to be emancipated from the old-fashioned constraints of meter, rhyme, and stanza. Anyone can issue momentarily attention catching grunts. I think it nearly subversive to insist that poetic form diminishes richness or freedom of expression, as though Shakespeare found the sonnet restricting.

As too many teachers still prepare their charges to write without first teaching them how to read, too many still detach poetry from content and context. The schools produced generations of students who regard poetry with an uncomprehending, grudging, pietistic awe, work created in the olden days when Shakespeare and somebody named Wadsworth hung out together. Teachers and students look on contemporary poetry with hostility, suspicious that artsy conspirators are pushing a hoax, as they do with Picasso’s and Pollock’s painting.

Perhaps poetry worthy of the name, past and present, simply calls at some point for oral reading and sharing for full apprehension. Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad were preserved by a bard’s chant. The plays of Aristophanes, Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides, achieved immortality through theatrical presentations. With the exception of the sonnets and a few long poems, Shakespeare wrote his great body of poetry as dialogue to be spoken in performance. We recall the best lyrics of Porter, Berlin, Gershwin, and Sondheim through hearing them sung. Poetry, in short, needs audiences.

Might we not revive with profit recitation of the old classics when we teach “communication skills”? Should we not reinstate in early and late classes a knowledgeable, receptive examination of poetry in every form and idiom, classical and modern, public and private, mundane and recondite, plain and ornate, from the naïve to the sophisticated?

It might not hurt for teachers to have children recite, even memorize portions, of such works as “Casey at the Bat,” Poe’s “Bells,” Scott’s “Lochinvar,” Browning’s “How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix,” Kipling’s “Gunga Din,” anonymous ballads, the irreverent ditties of Alice in Wonderland, naughty limericks. It would be one way to prepare them for Yeats and Eliot and Frost and Stevens.

Poets today are not their own best friends or advocates. They form veritable guilds excluding the world at large. Veteran poet and critic Louis Simpson described the situation this way, in the New York Times Magazine:

Poets [in the 1940s] were isolated. There were no creative writing programs and poetry-writing workshops; they just started writing on their own. Poets today begin by enrolling in a creative-writing program in any one of a hundred universities. . . . After receiving a Master of Fine Arts degree they will teach writing workshops and keep in touch with others who do the same. They will support one another and pass on news of available grants and fellowships. If one of them should be so lucky as to become a member of an Academy or Institute, he or she will do everything that he or she can do to bring in his or her friends.

The situation may be even worse than Simpson’s depiction of a noble calling fallen into the hands of self-promoting sororities and fraternities. Fans of what is essentially greeting card verse form vast organizations that hold national conventions. For many high school teachers, poetry is an excuse for assigning mechanical determinations of rhyme and meter. Inexpert college teachers urge freshmen to hunt for symbols, influences, biographical details, sociological import. Robin Williams’s supposedly heroic teacher thoughtlessly (and smugly) turned a sensitive boy’s confusions into suicide, through the power of poetry.

Some university faculty claim their analyses of poetry are superior to the original creations. By regularly publishing merely faddish efforts, editors of highbrow journals bestow on poetry the kind of anarchy in judgment that occasionally takes over the art world.

Plainly it is good to have serious poets recognized with the world’s goods although we may expect as much dispute about the new awards as about the Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes for writers, which so often have seemed to be determined by other factors than intrinsic merit.

But if we’re to take serious poetry seriously in all corners of our national life, to acknowledge the continued vitality of (dare we say it?) one of mankind’s noble forms of discourse, we must guard against glib enthusiasm for fashion or a fascination with the hackneyed, shallow, pretentious, or incomprehensible. As Yeats admonished, we must in some measure separate the dance from the dancer, not becoming like rock star groupies, infatuated by performers. We should keep standards pure, to be able to evaluate fairly and confidently, say, Maya Angelous’s inaugural poem on the basis of universal and ageless criteria.

Above all, we must not turn poetry into a commodity whose marketing is studied in business school rather than its making in literature or creative writing classes.


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