Not very much or well, it turns out:
By Alexandra Petri , Updated: January 22, 2013
Inaugural poet Richard Blanco said that his story is
If that’s the case, America should be slightly concerned.
Mr. Blanco is a walking example of the American dream — as he eloquently puts
it, “the American story is in many ways my story — a country still trying to
negotiate its own identity, caught between the paradise of its founding ideals
and the realities of its history, trying to figure it out, trying to ‘become’
even today — the word “hope” as fresh on our tongues as it ever was.”
He has overcome numerous obstacles, struggled against
opposition both internal and external — in order to excel in poetry, a field
that may very well be obsolete.
I say this lovingly as a member of the print media. If
poetry is dead, we are in the next ward over, wheezing noisily, with our family
gathered around looking concerned and asking about our stereos.
Still I think there is a question to be asked. You can tell
that a medium is still vital by posing the question: Can it change anything?
Can a poem still change anything?
I think the medium might not be loud enough any longer.
There are about six people who buy new poetry, but they are not feeling very
well. I bumped very lightly into one of them while walking down the sidewalk,
and for a while I was terrified that I would have to write to eleven MFA
programs explaining why everyone was going to have to apply for grants that
year. The last time I stumbled upon a poetry reading, the attendees were almost
without exception students of the poet who were there in the hopes of extra
credit. One of the poems, if memory serves, consisted of a list of names of
Supreme Court justices. I am not saying that it was a bad poem. It was a good
poem, within the constraints of what poetry means now. But I think what we mean
by poetry is a limp and fangless thing.
Poetry has gone from being something that you did in order
to Write Your Name Large Across the Sky and sound your barbaric yawp and
generally Shake Things Up to a very carefully gated medium that requires years
of study and apprenticeship in order to produce meticulous, perfect, golden
lines that up to ten people will ever voluntarily read.
We know, we think, from high school, the sort of thing a
poem is. It is generally in free verse, although it could be a sonnet, if it
wanted. It describes something very carefully, or it makes a sound we did not
expect, and it has deep layers that we need to analyze. We analyze it. We
analyze the heck out of it. How quaint, we think, that people express
themselves in this way. Then we put it back in the drawer and go about our
The kind of poetry they read to you at poetry readings and
ladle in your direction at the Inaugural is — well, it’s all very nice, and
sounds a lot like a Poem, but — it has changed nothing. No truly radical art
form has such a well-established grant process.
I understand that this is the point when someone stands up
on a chair and starts to explain that poetry is the strainer through which we
glimpse ourselves and hear the true story of our era. But is it? You do not get
the news from poems, as William Carlos Williams said. Full stop. You barely get
the news from the news.
All the prestige of poetry dates back to when it was the way
you got the most vital news there is — your people’s stories. “The Iliad.” “The
Odyssey.” “Gilgamesh.” All literature used to be poetry. But then fiction
splintered off. Then the sort of tale you sung could be recorded and the words
did not have to spend any time outside the company of their music if they did
not want to. We have movies now that are capable of presenting images to us
with a precision that would have made Ezra Pound keel over. All the things that
poetry used to do, other things do much better. But naturally we still have
government-subsidized poets. Poets are like the Postal Service — a group of
people sedulously doing something that we no longer need, under the
misapprehension that they are offering us a vital service.
“Poetry is dead,” playwright Gwydion Suleibhan tweeted
Monday. “What pretends to be poetry now is either New Age blather or vague
nonsense or gibberish. It’s zombie poetry.” There is no longer, really, any
formal innovation possible. The constraints of meter have long been abandoned.
What is left? It is a parroting of something that used to be radical. It is
about as useful as the clavichord. There is no “Howl” possible or “Song of
Myself.” There is no “Wasteland.”
As someone who loves print books, I hate to type this and I
hope that I am wrong. I want to hear the case for poetry. It is something that
you read in school and that you write in school. But it used to be that if you
were young and you wanted to Change Things with your Words, you darted off and
wrote poetry somewhere. You got together with friends at cafes and you wrote
verses and talked revolution. Now that is the last thing you do.
These days, poetry is institutionalized. Everyone can write
it. But if you want a lot of people to read it, or at least the Right
Interested Persons, there are a few choked channels of Reputable Publications.
Or you can just spray it liberally onto the Internet and hope it sticks.
Something similar could be said of journalism, after all.
And whenever people say this about journalism, they note
that people have an insatiable hunger for news. Journalism in its present form
may not continue, but journalism will. It will have to. Otherwise where will
the news come from?
And this might be the silver lining for poets. The kind of
news you get from poems, as William Carlos Williams has it, must come from
somewhere. And there is a similar hunger for poetry that persists. We get it in
diluted doses in song lyrics. Song lyrics are incomplete poems, as Sondheim
notes in the book of his own. If it is complete on the page, it makes a shoddy
lyric. But there is still wonderful music to be found in those words. We get it
in rap. If we really want to read it, it is everywhere. Poetry, taken back to
its roots, is just the process of making — and making you listen.
But after the inaugural, after Richard Blanco’s almost
seventy lines of self-reflection and the use of phrases like “plum blush” —
which sounded like exactly what the phrase “poem” denotes to us now — I wonder
what will become of it.
I don’t know where the words that will define us next will
come from. But from Poetry Qua Poetry With Grants And Titles? Hope may be as
fresh on our tongues as it ever was. But is poetry?
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