February 19, 2010

Strangling the Gold out of the Goose

If you ask a room full of average twenty-somethings how many of them read poetry for pleasure, the ratio of poetry readers to non-readers is going to be horribly lopsided in favor of the non-. I’ve asked this question in my introduction to literature classes in the past, and have found that out of twenty students, on average, one will timidly (or obsequiously) raise their hand affirming that they are a reader of poetry. Often no one raises their hand. But when I ask the same group of young adults how many of them have written a poem, the majority raise their hand.

How is this possible? What other genre experiences this about-face, this hard turn from being valued and used to being abhorred and ignored?

The list of culprits is long, and God knows I love slinging the blame about. We could throw the body of Poetry at the door of anti-intellectualism, homophobia (poetry is suspiciously effeminate, after all), the collapsing age of literacy, the meme that ate cultural tradition, a weak educational system that overemphasizes tests and technology, invasive and frivolous entertainment programming, etc. etc.

But I wonder what part the poet played in the cooling of popular affections. We work in a genre that was made for this age of brevity, ornament, and self-expression, a genre that, again, many have personal experience with. So, what went wrong?

I’m not the first to say it, but it seems that there are “two poetries” active in America. There is the populist form, easily found on the web, which is often hyperbolic, limited in subject and scope, hovering generally near inspirational topics and boasts. And there is the institutional/academic form (or real poetry), which addresses a broader range of subjects to a much narrower audience. Of course, the two poetries are separated by more than their themes; their forms, tones, contexts, and points of reference vary greatly. What seems generally true is that the two poetries are pretty hostile (or at best, ambivalent) towards one another.

The populist poet/reader thinks that institutional poetry is a protracted riddle, made purposefully obtuse by a closeted professor, and which has an answer or “moral” which they’re just too dumb to get. The institutional poet/reader identifies populist poetry as a sentimental stitching of cliches; a artless repetition that is ignorant of the traditions and forms which define poetry. Bottom line, there’s mucho bad blood between the two.

Perhaps the most important difference between the two poetries is the audience. You know what I’ve noticed about poetry readings? Most of the people who go to them are poets, and much of the time they’re affiliated with colleges and universities. There’s nothing wrong with this, but when your audience is primarily poets, held primarily within institutions, the content that is produced is going to be effected; the work is going to cater to the audience. It seems that much of what is being produced in institutional poetry is being written to the poetic tradition and to other poets. There is nothing wrong with this decision, and the reason for it is quite sensible: poets lost their socialite patrons some seventy-five years back, and they needed a new supporting structure; enter the college. Since 99% of all full-time jobs in poetry (all twelve of them...) are held within institutions of higher education now, it’s natural that poets write in an academic vein and promote the product as real poetry. Populist poetry, on the other hand, is largely about connecting with a general audience and communicating relatively modest amounts of content.

But this seems evident: the role, the cultural, social role of the poet has been largely lost. By writing to a tradition, to an institution, and to poets, poets are promoting their own irrelevance. Instead of striving to redefine our role and to reconnect with a broad readership, we have, overall, chosen to kowtow to institutional expectations, and with predictable results: we’re fucking unpopular.

So what is our role? Are we communicators, entertainers, expressionists, facilitators, educators, reflectors? What can we learn from populist poetry? Are we priests preserving the Temple of Verse? Who are we beholden to? Who do we serve?

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