Tuesday, January 22, 2013

What Do Newspaper people Think of Poetry?

Not very much or well, it turns out:

Is poetry dead?
By Alexandra Petri , Updated: January 22, 2013

Inaugural poet Richard Blanco said that his story is America’s story.

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.

Or is this too harsh?

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 lives.

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.

Or am I being too harsh?

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?


© The Washington Post Company


At 1/22/2013 2:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"wanted to change things with your words"—?

that fails the Auden Test for Young Poets:

“W. H. Auden was once asked what advice he would give to a young man who wished to become a poet. Auden replied that he would ask the young man why he wanted to write poetry. If the answer was ‘because I have something important to say,’ Auden would conclude that there was no hope for the young man as a poet. If on the other hand the answer was something like ‘because I like to hang around words and overhear them talking to one another,’ then that young man was at least interested in a fundamental part of the poetic process and and there was hope for him.”


At 1/22/2013 11:26 PM, Blogger underbelly said...


At 1/23/2013 4:57 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I admit, though, that witnessing an inaugural poem could be considered provocation.

That still doesn't give permission for Petri's feeble response.

At 1/23/2013 5:15 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Having said that, I will add:

There was pretty much nothing right in Petri's blog post, and I'm glad to see people aren't letting it pass. That doesn't mean one can't complan about "poetry" or poets or the inaugural poem or whatever, but this thing from Petri was just obtuse.

At 1/23/2013 10:49 AM, Blogger underbelly said...

I just tried to read the innaugural poem and had to stop before my reaction got completely ugly. But I also know that the poems I like alienate a lot of people ... and I'm talking about friends who are generally literate and who like language.

What would the model be for an inaugural poem? Something that would resonate with people who read a lot of poems and with people who don't?

Does it make sense (anymore) to use a poem for this kind of purpose? I sometimes wonder if the poems I like most are ones that are most resistant to being put to uses other than being themselves.

At 1/25/2013 8:03 AM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

I wouldn't write an inaugural poem--not that anyone would ask me to write one--because I see poetry as inimical to politics. Politics in the sense of government activity, not in the sense of political acts. An inaugural poem is like a celebration of an outlaw--not a cool outlaw, like Billy the Kid, but an uncool one, like Lance Armstrong.

At 1/25/2013 7:38 PM, Blogger underbelly said...

Or a too-cool one, like the sad republican punk. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JoPLBW4QYBQ

At 1/26/2013 4:42 AM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...


At 1/27/2013 4:02 PM, Blogger underbelly said...

David, thank you for ruining my world.

At 1/28/2013 5:06 AM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

You're welcome. Now and then one's world must be razed so that a new world can be raised.

Perhaps Kerouac is the progenitor of conservative punkdom. Burroughs of libertarian punkdom.

At 1/28/2013 8:40 AM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

At the risk of being irritating, I'll add that I find a punk supporter of Reagan and G. W. Bush irreconcilably anomalous; however, unlike most liberals I've known, I'm not given to froth-lipped denunciations of saber-rattling Republican assholes, etc. I'll listen to Republicans and sift what they say.

I like to think of myself as a “classical liberal,” though that may be like calling Webster's plays blank verse. Where I part company with liberals and conservatives is their conception of government as a means of imposing their agendas on the populace. It isn't the government's job to make people virtuous or to “hold back the chomping greedy, nourish the needy” (from A. R. Ammons' “Summer Place”); a Mom government or Dad government is a step toward a Big Brother government.

The position that government should be more of an umpire is perfectly compatible with writing poetry, playing punk rock or any other kind of music, painting, being a circus clown/mime, being a mystic, as well as being continually engrossed in some demanding profession like brain surgery. Artists don't need to have their passions inflamed by utopian schemes. (That's approximately Oakeshott.)

At 1/31/2013 7:53 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

I don't think I've seen such a concerted effort at just being wrong.

The framing of the value of a medium-it's value to change things-misses the mark entirely. Not that it can't be a valid reason to engage with or produce art; rather, when we listen to a song or read a poem, are we not changed by it? What you do with that feeling of change is up to you, but to not recognize this makes his critical faculties highly suspect.

Probably the most egregious claim he makes is that we get no news from poetry. There is a lot of poetry engaging with our information overload. There is plenty of socially engaged poetry that IS more informative than most news outlets.


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