A recent Newsweek piece (http://www.newsweek.com/id/191012?from=rss) sounds the alarm one more time, that the US readership is dwindling and, dear God, we might lose poetry altogether.
Folks, I think not.
Donald Hall’s institutional memory reaches back to the Moderns, but he’s not fooled by what seem like trends. His quote about much poetry throughout history being essentially lousy is followed (in Poetry and Ambition) by a thought we should all consider closely if we love poetry: “…we fail in part because we lack serious ambition.” That’s where I’d like to start. Blame MTV if you want, the general dumbing-down of mainstream life, American Idol, whatever, but we haven’t seen anything like the major poems of the past because a) nobody’s writing them; or b) nobody’s willing to print them. Haven’t seen anything truly shocking lately, in the unprecedented vein of Howl? Then, let me ask you two questions: First, who out there is really willing to try something daring and different? Then, secondly, is there a press that would be willing to publish something so theoretically shocking? Someone might have to be willing to go to jail, you see.
Oh—and before I move on, it’s useful to mention one thing about moving from the printed to the communicated word: Hall’s occasionally read his work on Prairie Home Companion, etc., so he’s reached a wide audience himself. It’s possible to at least reach a city-wide audience with poems; I was happy to read some of mine on a fine radio show in Pittsburgh, and in select cities you can still hear and occasionally even see good writers read their work. Perform? That all depends on the writer we’re talking about.
I honestly think that many poets, especially those now employed by colleges and universities, would rather not risk their jobs on a project, no matter what it was, no matter how large a leap it represents, because—well, come on. Safety is easier, first of all; and then, there’s the matter of an large paycheck and months and months off. All lovely, and often even deserved. There are teachers to whom I owe a great deal, and I’d hardly begrudge them their opportunity to write. All the same, the tenured and untenured alike need to push at the boundaries of the craft; finally, that’s the end, isn’t it? I’d rather be the writer who, at the end of a period of work on a manuscript, says, “Holy shit, I didn’t know I could do that,” than the one who says, “Well….shit, I always knew I could do—that.” Personally, I prize difficulty over safety, but difficulty doesn’t have to mean the towering expectations of Pound or Eliot, at least not necessarily. They wrote those poems with enormous expectations for the reader, more than poets would dare to attempt in the here-and-now. But contemporary poets can still employ ambition, to challenge the reader in new ways.
Of course, there are poets who exemplify this attitude about ambition. Campbell McGrath, Derek Wolcott, and Carolyn Forche (to name only three) have all written long-form poems that take varying approaches to what we used to call “the problem of the long poem.” (I dare say we have more pressing problems these days, even with poetry) They may not sell like Rowling, but but they’re now part of our human tribe’s story.
Hall reminds us we’ve been hearing about the death of poetry for a long bloody time, and to be honest I don’t believe it either. “Academic” poetry exists in how many creative-writing programs, a situation unknown in many other countries; these programs generate thousands of graduates, some of whom will continue to read if not write poetry themselves.
And of course there will always be some form of populist poetry. Today, we might it hard to imagine a performance by Vachel Lindsay, but he drew large crowds. Slam poetry, instead, is the new populism. I don’t think much of most of it, but I’m grateful it exists; this way, people receive exposure to language’s power, if only in potential form.
(Later: More on the subject from a Torontonian perspective.)