What to Do About Poetry

The argument that keeps on giving.

by The Editors
In a recent article on the Poetry Foundation, The New Yorker lobs the latest volley in an ongoing intellectual debate. That is, who reads poetry, what does it mean to “understand” poetry, and who cares about poets? According to The New Yorker (or to the critics it quotes), the Poetry Foundation's mission to broaden the audience for poetry is a lamentable one, for with popularity comes mediocrity. Artists should worry about making art, not about who's looking at it. A position similar to The New Yorker’s was put forth by August Kleinzahler in the April 2004 issue of Poetry, when he and Dana Gioia faced off over Garrison Keillor's populist anthology, Good Poems. More recently John Barr's article calling for a "new American poetry" that speaks to a broader audience fomented debate in the academic and creative writing world. And, in Christian Wiman's editorial in the December 2006 issue of Poetry, he argues that "if we honored its rarity more, poetry's invisibility would be less of a problem, or at least we might define the notion of visibility differently."

Harriet Monroe, the founder of Poetry, was passionately engaged in these arguments when she started the magazine in 1912. With Ezra Pound as her editor at large, she published great modernists such as T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and H.D., and she introduced William Butler Yeats to American audiences. She believed there was new writing the world needed to read. (Further proof poet-bickering never stops, Pound considered Monroe hopelessly provincial and tame.) There's always been—and may always be—tension between the process of discovering true poetry and getting that poetry into the hands of people who want to read it, or into the hands of people who didn’t know to read it, but may find within it revelation, satisfaction, humor, mystery. Here are a few links in the chain of this argument, which, by its very persistence, is evidence that poetry is not dead.

Read The New Yorker article>>

Read David Orr's article "Annals of Poetry" in the The New York Times Book Review>>

Read August Kleinzahler's article from the April 2004 issue of Poetry>>

Read Dana Gioia's article from the April 2004 issue of Poetry>>

Read John Barr's essay>>

Read Christian Wiman's editorial from the December 2006 issue of Poetry>>

Read Helen Vendler's "The Closet Reader">>

Read Robert Pinksy on "Poets Who Don't Like Poetry">>

Read Bill Knott on whether institutionalized “creative writing” changed American literature>>

Read Adrienne Rich's "Poetry and Commitment">>

Read Jane Hirshfield on "Poetry Beyond the Classroom">>

Read Daniel Halpern and Langdon Hammer on William Logan's review of Hart Crane's Complete Poems and Selected Letters>>

Read Jorie Graham's "Introduction to the Best American Poetry">>

Read D.W. Fenza on "Who Keeps Killing Poetry?">>
Originally Published: March 10, 2007


On February 15, 2007 at 5:51pm Simon DeDeo wrote:
I am told that, in the accumulation of poetry
books for your library, you are asking small
presses to donate their stock. For a
newly-rich foundation to ask charity from the
numerous small presses that sustain our
community is ridiculous and offensive.

On February 16, 2007 at 1:33pm Richard Nash wrote:
I think you're misconstruing the problem—the

problem is not popularity, the problem is the

top-down way in which you're seeking to

popularize. Building a field-of-dreams website

is a perfect example—instead of helping

underwrite 500 poetry blogs and sites that

have a demonstrable track record of popularity

(which could be done with $100/blog/year),

enormous sums of money are spent building a

site for which no demonstrable need has been

established. In effect you're seeking to be the

General Electric of poetry instead of a Silicon

Valley venture capital fund, seeding and

supporting 100's of poetry entrepreneurs.

The really depressing aspect of all this is that

the Foundation is not only wasting its money,

but that it doesn't understand that many of the

critics don't n fact disagree with your goal, bt

that we disagree about the means you're using

to accomplish it. And that in the meantime,

1000's of poetry entrepreneurs, from Shanna

Compton to Ron Silliman to Bob Holman to

Gary Mex Glazner to Charles Bernstein to

Jordan Davis are underfunded...

That is the shame of it, and the ignorance of


On February 17, 2007 at 11:41am Luke Hankins wrote:
Didn't you forget to provide a link to a rather important response to Barr's essay? Here it is -- D. W. Fenza's article from The Writer's Chronicle. Neither Barr nor Fenza have everything right, but they each make important points that deserve to be juxtaposed:

On February 19, 2007 at 10:33am Luke Hankins wrote:
Thank you, editors, for updating the page to include a link to Fenza's article.

On February 19, 2007 at 10:45am David Fenza wrote:
And don't forget Steve Evans's essay, "Free

(Market) Verse," which appears in the new issue

of the Baffler, issue 17.

An early version of his essay appears here:


On February 20, 2007 at 4:33pm Aaron Fagan wrote:
There is too much support for individual artists

in this country. We need to help publishers be

publishers and not just printers, but of course

they get their fair share of grants too. It really

boils down to distribution. The last time I

checked there was not much incentive for

someone to go into the business of distribution.

Baker & Taylor has swallowed it up. Rather

than investing in a study on who reads poetry,

perhaps The Foundation is ideally positioned to

ask: What is happening to the big business of

distribution in this country? What is Small Press

Distribution--the last and best of its kind--doing

right and how can we help them? What do and Barnes & Noble mean to

independent booksellers and ultimately

readers. Thge Foundation seems to be studying

the food chain in the wrong order. Didn't your

study show that 90% of Americans enjoy

poetry? It is not reflected in sales though, is it?

So ask where can they buy poetry? Where is

there a "vigorous presence of poetry" in


On February 21, 2007 at 10:03am Aaron Fagan wrote:
To butress my arguement about the problem of

distribution, here is a link to an article from The

New York Times dated 17 February 2007:


On February 21, 2007 at 10:13am Aaron Fagan wrote:
According to The Times article: "In exchange for

their distribution contracts, Perseus had offered

those clients 70 cents for every dollar they were

owed by Advanced Marketing Services."

Perseus is an interesting name, no? So I looked it

up on Wikipedia:

"Perseus might be from the ancient Greek verb,

perthein, “to waste, ravage, sack, destroy?, some

form of which appears in Homeric epithets."

On February 22, 2007 at 8:58pm Michael Antman wrote:
"The Greatest Goddamn Thing That Ever Was," And, At This Rate, Will Never Be Again

James Dickey once called poetry "the greatest goddamn thing that ever was in the whole universe," but that was a long time ago, and poetry's sad and perhaps irreversible diminishment proceeds apace. Here's a link:

On February 22, 2007 at 9:18pm David Perry wrote:
You know, you really ought to add a link to Steve Evans' "Free (Market) Verse," which is quoted in the New Yorker piece.

It also appears in the new issue of The Baffler.

On March 9, 2007 at 4:17pm Brian Gilmore wrote:
Truth is, there is a new American poetry that has emerged. Barr is a bit late; perhaps, almost 15 years. But the establishment is always late. The Black Arts Movement is now taught at colleges even though it was rejected outright when it emerged in 1965,

But the new poetry of today, is found out in the streets each night, in bars, cafes, church basements, community centers, libraries; it isn't really the stagnant kind of writing that is being criticized by everyone. Part of it is due to hip-hop, and part of it is due to the Slam Poetry movement. Those two have combined to force poets to challenge themselves and to take chances. Of course, there are thousands of traditionalists (which we need) who continue to write boring verse into the night, but others have chosen to challenge the way poetry exists now. Remember, the only rule in poetry is, there are no rules. If there were rules, we would have never had great poets like Haki Madbubuti trying to write like John Coltrane's horn or so many other great writers who decided not to follow the crowd. There is so much great poetry out there right now in America it is almost mind boggling. But because America doesn't respect literature as art, the people with M.F.A's get all the phone calls (they need money to love, for Godsakes), and they get the readings, and the grants, and the fellowships, and it should be like that to a degree, but that doesn't mean they control what poetry is today; it actually means that they don't. The new movement in poetry in America began a long time ago and in about 20 years, America will be studying it, but by then, poets, real poets, will be working on something to challenge that.

Brian Gilmore

Brian Gilmore

On March 22, 2007 at 10:09am Pamela D. Brown wrote:
I'm interested in getting my poetry manuscript copyrights through the Library of Congress. How would I go about doing this, I was told that poetry is hard to get copyrights but I don't want anyone to steal my work. Can you please help me, I'm also in the process in seeking literary representation for my poetry. All and any answer will help. Have a wonderful day.


Pamela D. Brown

On February 12, 2009 at 2:04am Gennick wrote:
Hello. And Bye.

On February 18, 2009 at 6:44am Pharm31 wrote:
Very nice site!

On October 27, 2009 at 1:08pm Geraldo wrote:
David Fenza's article is disrespectful, childish and unfocused, inappropriately and unreasonably personal, and delusional. What is its place in a serious, objective discussion?

Barr's piece was about the situation poetry is in. Academics would be better served to think about this as if it might be true. I would be interested to see a response along these lines, maybe even a DIALOGUE.

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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