Who’s Afraid of Poetry?

Americans are—but help is on the way

| September-October 2004

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    Image by Flickr user: st0rmz / Creative Commons

  • afraid-poetry-sm.jpg

Certain national traits reveal to all the world that we’re Americans. There’s our compulsive informality; our odd need to start off all relationships on a first-name basis; our relentless urge for self-improvement; and—though this one may not seem as obvious as the others—our profound discomfort with poetry.

You know what I mean, don’t you? Invoke the poetical muses and an ordinary American will frown, stammer something like “I don’t know much about poetry,” and break off eye contact, which my shrink tells me is a sure sign of shame. At the mention of the P word, we get a nasty sense-memory of Mrs. So-and-So forcing us to read snippets of The Song of Hiawatha in 10th grade (or if we’re younger and luckier, some Langston Hughes), followed by exercises in which we were forced to identify an iamb, an anapest, and other dull flora and fauna of the land of poetry.

And that, unless we’re attracted to a creative writing program later, is about it. We’re left with a sense that poetry is a subject rather than an art, an experience, or a source of pleasure. Our failure to master this subject—or even make a start toward “understanding” it—leaves us permanently embarrassed and confused. We have the vague sense that poetry is made up of the old and dull, which require footnotes—Chaucer and Milton and so on—and the newer but “difficult” (starting with T.S. Eliot), which can seem like a secret language. Very smart people at Yale have the key to it and “get it,” and we don’t.

Many have sought the reason for American poemophobia not just in Mrs. So-and-So’s boring poetry units, but also in the marginal status poetry has had in American culture in recent years. In 1991 poet-businessman Dana Gioia (currently head of the National Endowment for the Arts) published an essay called “Can Poetry Matter?” in The Atlantic that lambasted what he considered to be a poetry scene dominated by academic creative writing programs and tiny-circulation magazines read only by other poets. Gioia contrasted this state of affairs with the 1940s and 1950s, when modern-poetry anthologies for the general reader abounded, and general-interest intellectual journals like Partisan Review offered thoughtful reviews of new poetry. “Though supported by a loyal coterie,” he wrote, “poetry has lost the confidence that it speaks to and for the general culture.” (The magazine was swamped with replies, including, in Gioia’s words, “Hate mail . . . on the letterheads of university writing programs.”)

But times have changed. In 2003, Gioia painted a very different picture of the poetry scene. In a long essay in The Hudson Review, he celebrated the luxuriant growth of poetry outside the academy in the past 10 years or so. Rap, slam poetry, and spoken-word art are bringing new vitality to American poetry, Gioia contends, by wresting it away from print, infusing it with familiar (even ancient) elements like rhyme and a strong “beat,” and returning it to the voice, to performance, to entertainment.

Another dyed-in-the-wool American trait is the conviction, which Gioia reflects, that art can be vital only when it appeals to a majority, taking on the colors of mass culture. Anything else is elitism. But to hold this opinion, I submit, is to still be partly caught up in poetry-fear. That very fear shrinks our idea of what poetry is and should be. Does it seem “difficult” and snooty? Then the answer seems to be to make it loud, easy, bright, and fun. But poetry is both, and a lot more, too. The house of poetry has to hold Allen Ginsberg’s big, exciting, vastly entertaining Howl, the boisterous, cleverly ironic verbal antics of slamster Taylor Mali (check out his dazzling “How to Write a Political Poem” in the book-CD set The Spoken Word Revolution)—and also the breathless silence of a lyric by the great and esoteric French poet Stéphane Mallarmé and the knotted enigmas of the Holocaust-haunted Romanian-German poet Paul Celan. If the “entertainmentization” of American poetry can help us really explore the whole poetry house without fear, then it’s doing great work; if it isolates us in one of the house’s party rooms, well, we haven’t made much progress.

David Kimball
5/11/2012 1:45:43 PM

Great article

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