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Does Poetry Matter?

Why does most poetry stink? And why are there more poets than readers of poetry? Answers—we have them!

Being a poet in America makes as much sense as a butt full of pennies. That’s one of the pleasures of being a poet in America. There’s something wonderful, something perversely subversive about being disconnected from the world of goods and services and John Maynard Keynes, if only for an hour or two every now and again. It’s freedom. Poetry is an uncharted wilderness along whose margins capitalism wilts like arugula in the Wedge parking lot on the Fourth of July. Inside its borders, the mind blooms and the imagination yields a bumper crop, yet the marketplace rejects poetry. One given to daydreaming might wonder why, and the answer might be found in the dump of discarded possibilities. This is the predicament American Poetry finds itself in: stranded in the closeout bin of our cultural supermarket because of poor management—management that has chosen to make poetry an unwanted specialty item rather than a staple.

There is an economics to poetry, of course, and even a poetry to economics, yet the numbers don’t add up. (The poetic colossus Wallace Stevens, the insurance executive of Hartford, wrote, “Money is a kind of poetry,” but it’s not a kind of poetry most poets are familiar with.) The nonsensicality of a career in poetry can be explained by the laws of economics. To paraphrase Adam Smith, the founder of classical economics, a livable wage shall be retained if a good or service is provided in a supply that does not exceed demand. Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve, might say the demand for poetry is soft, while the supply is robust. If home ownership, retirement, a cabin by the lake, prestige, and self-esteem mean anything to you, or if you’re practical, pragmatic, cautious, or otherwise uncourageous, please be advised to follow your muse elsewhere. Poetry and economics make a profoundly odd couple, sort of like Sylvia Plath and Milton Friedman.

Poetry registers barely a blip on the national radar, and when it does make the news, there’s often a certain wackiness quotient factored in. During the past 18 months, poetry has experienced a relative media bonanza—which might indicate either a spark in interest or a surge in wackiness. Most recently, a new Robert Lowell collection sent pop-culture commentators scurrying to their keyboards, suddenly writing about poets and poetry. This lavishly praised collection anoints Robert Lowell the potentate of poetry, the latest in a long line—symptom of a perennial compulsion, unique to poetry, to name a figurehead.

It’s not all Ivy Tower cogitation either. In recent months, news of the weird has emanated powerfully from the world of tweed and elbow patches, too: Amiri Baraka, poet laureate of New Jersey and subsidized revolutionary, wrote a god-awful poem that made itself worse by suggesting the Israelis had foreknowledge of the September 11 attacks. New Jersey officials tried to have him decommissioned. In Washington, D.C., the White House indefinitely postponed a literary symposium sponsored by First Lady Laura Bush for fear some poets might take advantage of the occasion and spout antiwar, anti-George rhetoric. Poets cried foul, claiming this was yet another example of the Bush administration’s hostility toward dissenting voices. (Ironically, many poets are intolerant of dissenting opinions among their own ranks.) And possibly strangest of all was the news that Ruth Lilly, the nutty heiress to the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical fortune, donated $100 million to Poetry magazine. Poetry is a well-respected journal but is neither the best nor the most important literary magazine in America. It certainly doesn’t know what to do with $100 million. Who would? To put Lilly’s donation into perspective: According to the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, 261 magazines belong to the association and 175 of those have budgets under $10,000. As I say, money is a rare kind of poetry.

My neighbors are all above average; of this I’m almost certain. They go to work on time and pay more than their fair share of taxes. On the other hand, I highly suspect that none is heir to a fortune of any kind. I also feel in my bones that the vast majority of them ponder poetry less often than Arbor Day, which makes them like average Americans. Residents of Main Street U.S.A. don’t consider poetry mainstream. In fact, if they consider poetry at all, they consider it exotic, radical, and even bizarre.

It wasn’t always this way. The stoic bard of Carmel, Robinson Jeffers, was just one among several poets to appear on the cover of Time back in mid-century America. Apparently 1950 represents poetry’s high-water mark, for Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot each commanded a cover that year—as did Winston Churchill, Mao Tse-tung, and Joseph Stalin. Ah, the 50s. No American poet has made the cover since. Today, it’s hard to imagine John Ashbery, Jorie Graham, or even Billy Collins, our current national poet laureate, on the cover of anything but their own books. (Why is there a poet laureate but not a painter laureate or musician laureate?) Vigorous art forms and genres have a mainstream that frequently overlaps the mainstream. Music, film, fiction, painting, sculpture, and even dance have a public face. Finicky aficionados may shun the populists for being too accessible, for what they consider to be pandering to the masses, but their presence guarantees a place in the national consciousness and is a sign of a dialogue between the art and the people.

And the people are writing fiendishly. Our collective hangover of grief and guilt has driven many people to writing poesy like never before, and they have generated innumerable elegiac murmurings since the towers collapsed. That isn’t necessarily surprising, especially considering the prominent role that grief and guilt play in American Poetry. American Poetry is sad. Melancholy and mourning rule the day, but neither poetry nor poet can afford to exclude ways of thinking or ways of feeling or economics or science or computers or comedy or pigs’ feet or prairies, irreverence, hip-hop, tube tops, vibrators, escalators, the profane, the mundane, insults, invective, detective, middle classes, or even our asses from their vocabularies.

Gabriel Gudding, poet, critic, and onetime Minneapolitan, has pointed out that many of today’s poetry anthologies demonstrate what he calls a “narrow bandwidth of emotion, topic, and tone” and feature an “unremitting High Seriousness” that usually takes the form of a poem mimicking suffering. Confessional poetry, self-help psychology, journaling, and an endemic victimology are all partly to blame for this knucklehead obsession with a single emotion—and grief, of all the ones to pick! But beyond the spike in grief poems, the fact remains that more Americans write poetry than read poetry. No other art form can make such a claim, and none would want to. It seems everyone in America is a poet. Why is that? Not everyone considers himself a sculptor or a painter or a musician or even a conceptual artist, which all of us could call ourselves if we don’t already. The low barrier into the field of poetry—the meagerest facility with language—gives license to most anyone to think she can write a poem. And she can. It just might stink. Denis Johnson, author of Jesus’ Son, may have exaggerated when he wrote, “At any one time only a handful of genuine poets reside on the planet,” but the underlining point rings true: Not everyone is a poet.

The preference to write rather than to read poetry might also indicate a rejection of what is regarded as excellence in professional circles. Poetry considered “good” inside those circles is often considered difficult and impenetrable outside those same circles. Of course, many poems are difficult, and some are excellent, and some even manage to be both difficult and excellent. But many read like the periodic chart of a navel-gazing doofus, which occasionally passes for genius. In some ways, a successful poem is no different than a great pop song. It stands up to repeated listenings, shifting a little to reveal a bit more upon each subsequent reading—it’s not about making sense but capturing essence. A college freshman once asked where he might find the book that gives the literal translation of poems. As absurd as that is, many people spin their wheels trying to decipher poems as if they were riddles. When their efforts fail, they give up. Sometimes they give up poetry altogether. Even the most accessible poem, one that uses simple language and conventional syntax, must pass the play-it-again test. A good poem refuses to cower in the box of reason; it chooses to roam the gray area between this world and the next.

When one calls a poet’s work accessible, one is usually committing an act of calumny. Billy Collins is the poster child of accessible poetry. His crystal-clear lyrics have burned the ass of more than a few poet-critics; to be precise, it is his enormous success that smolders under their seats. Collins shrugs off such criticism as sour grapes from the same gentlefolk who cry, over snifters of sangiovese and wheels of Brie, about poetry’s diminutive stature. Despite being dismissed by a large portion of poetry’s advance guard, Collins is racking up the sales, accolades, prizes, and fans in drop-dead numbers, unlike any other American poet today. Three months ago, I bum-rushed a Minnetonka synagogue to see the poet laureate in action. Billy Collins packed the pews. As part of an author lecture series, presented by the Library Foundation of Hennepin County, Collins read before a rapt audience of nearly 900.

Nestled against the southern end of Lake Windsor, whose reeds undoubtedly give shelter to the ducks and geese that fly honking by overhead, Adath Jeshurun Congregation is stunning. The sanctuary punctuates the natural setting with a towering wall of Kasota stone, quarried in Minnesota, the rustic beauty and sheer stature of which make most speakers seem simultaneously bigger than life and utterly insignificant. These people weren’t your come-as-you-are word nerds but fine, upstanding people in business suits and wool skirts who are probably very reasonable most of the time but who paid between $25 and $42 to see Billy Collins read poetry.

I was somewhat disoriented—the suburbs, the synagogue, hundreds of people who love poetry (or at least like it well enough to pay to hear it recited) but it was clear to me that the crowd was having a blast. Listening attentively, they encouraged Collins with laughter and empathetic sighs of understanding. He reciprocated, and together they built a bridge between audience and poet. If not for the setting, I’d have thought I was at a comedy club where the comic was blazing and the audience dying to laugh. In fact, Collins read his poems in a deadpan monotone à la Steven Wright. (Coincidentally, there is more than a little resemblance between the two.) Nearly every poem elicited laughter and a good number of guffaws. Between poems, Collins entertained the adoring mass with one-liners, thoughts on the catalysts for poems, and humorous anecdotes regarding his writing process: “When I’m not writing about you, I’m writing about me, which is most of the time.” How can you not chuckle at such cheeky honesty? His humor is inviting to listeners and readers; it forges a camaraderie between them. The language and imagery he uses are fresh enough not to be trite, but familiar enough to be recognized quickly and without much head scratching. I can’t help thinking that the appeal of accessible poetry, especially when it incorporates humor, might be that reasonable, intelligent people get to feel as if they’re in on the joke, in on the meaning. Unlike the experience of reading the tortured verse of some genius caught in the vicious realization that language is complicated and life is uncertain. We know that already. Billy Collins is a rare breed: He makes a living as a poet. We didn’t know that was possible.

Of course, there’s a bit of class warfaring going on here, in poetry as everywhere else. Generally speaking, the middle class prefers the accessible, because not “getting it” makes them feel dopey and inadequate; and the upper class prefers the difficult, because they never feel inadequate, and they enjoy it if everyone else does. Poets and artists alike have become the clowns of the aristocrats. It’s not a coincidence that the arts in general, and poetry in particular, are subsidized industries, sequestered down the halls of academia and nonprofits. Ours has become a connoisseur culture—from beer to water to cheese to olives to paint to shoes to toilet paper to cars and politicians and, yes, to poetry. Connoisseurism is a sophisticated kind of consumerism and is insidious, because it invades a culture under the banner of quality but quickly morphs into a kind of I’m-better-than-you brickbat. There’s nothing wrong with a good microbrew, but it doesn’t make you a better person for drinking it. I wish it would. The same goes for poetry. Our poetry covers a narrower path than it should and, consequently, it occupies a smaller niche in American culture than it should. Its specialized nature is the result of pruning away most everything that is unsightly and unruly, including the comedic.

Again, Gabriel Gudding points out two good reasons why comedic poetry is so outré now: “The first-person condition is usually associated with the poet’s condition, and the I of comic poetry is often clueless, gauche, or stupid. We don’t, after all, want stupid or goofy poets in America.” And “Comedy is rather dangerous, because it tends to innovate. Hilarity, after all, happens at the edges of taste, whether that taste be social convention or genre aesthetics.” T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock and the rest of the Modernist oeuvre might be to blame for the course of American poetry that has led to our current situation. Eliot and Pound were the flagbearers of a progressive-conservative movement that added vigor and vitality with erudition, intelligence, and innovation to what had become a lazy singsongy American poetry. Their work was serious, high-minded, referential, difficult, and bereft of humor—and it appealed, more and more, to highly educated and affluent readers.

Despite the messy state of affairs today, the poetry world is primed for (and maybe on the verge of) a roaring comeback. And, although many poets seem content to write poems that only connoisseurs and mothers could love, a growing populist movement seems bent on dragging poetry back into the mainstream. (This raises the ancient, sacred question as to whether a poet should be concerned at all with audience. Poets aren’t, after all, writing ad copy to sell whoopee cushions.) Spoken-word and slam poetry have developed a whole new audience for poetry. Their practitioners may produce an uneven brand of verse, but they do, as Lawrence Ferlinghetti recently said, “bring people to poetry” by the barful, and that’s surely worth applauding. Small presses continue to champion poetry and to publish first books by young and diverse poets—a thankless task. During the past 10 years, there has been a baby boom in literary journals. Volt, Open City, Crowd, LIT, Fence, Verse, Insurance, Spinning Jenny, jubilat, Luna, and Forklift, Ohio were all conceived during the 90s. (And my own journal—no pressure!—called Conduit, proudly grant-free since 1993.) Many pursue eccentric visions that are redefining the field of play. Then there are the poets, poets defying the odds—not that they’re making a living as poets, but they’re opening up the whole can of worms. There are some truly wonderful new pioneers at work, such as Gabriel Gudding, whose book A Defense of Poetry and its titular poem deliver the goods—intelligence, music, fun, hilarity, brilliance. See for yourself:

For you are a buttock.

Indeed you are the balls of the
bullock and the calls of the
peacock; you are the pony in
the paddock near the bullock and the peacock; you are the
futtock on the keel and the
fetlock (or the heel) of the
pony in the paddock:

Indeed you are the burdock on
the fetlock and the beetle on
the burdock and the mite on
the beetle on the burdock on
the fetlock of the pony in the
paddock and the padlock of
the gate of the paddock of the
bullock and the peacock.

Thus with you I am fed-up.
For you are Prufrock and I am
Wild Bill Hickok at a
roadblock with the wind in my
forelock and a bullet in my
flintlock. You are Watson I am

A Defense of Poetry is a delightful attempt to save poetry from itself. There are dozens of good poets, young and old, trying their best to change the laws of poetry, the supply and demand of poetry, trying to open it up to uncustomary ways of being. But few challenge the given paradigm so forcefully, so articulately, so hilariously, and while having so much fun as Gudding. Slovenian poet Tomaz Salamun recently wrote in the preface of Peter Richards’s first book, Oubliette, “It is better to be a new young god in American Poetry than to be president of the United States. It is the only divine and democratic position available. There are not many such places in human history.” That’s saying something, and it’s not about economics.