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O, Poetry! O, Humanity!
A funny thing happens every time Oprah Winfrey steps outside her perceived area of competency and into the realm of ostensibly high art: commentators line up to tell you that you don’t really need to pay attention.
This happened back in 1996 when she began spending valuable television airtime on—of all things—a book club; it happened again when she changed that club’s focus to “classics.” Now, as she’s chosen to observe National Poetry Month by theming the April issue of O Magazine as an “ode to the most imaginative, passionate, stirring art form,” everybody seems to be following the usual script.
And as usual, this is sort of a shame, because much like when she introduced books on her TV show, Oprah has done a quietly and nonchalantly generous and smart thing for literature and for readers by featuring poetry in O. If you actually take a look at how the feature is organized, you’ll see that Oprah and her guest editor Maria Shriver are demonstrating that there are a lot of different ways a person can be interested in poetry, including—but not limited to—as a means of activism (see Bono’s story about leaving collections of Seamus Heaney’s work with political leaders), as a means of liberation (see Wally Lamb’s piece on prison poetry), as a means of sustenance through difficult times (see the essays by Nick Flynn, Timothy Shriver, Sharon Olds, David Rakoff, and Kim Rosen), and as a component of arts education for under-resourced public school kids (see Caroline Kennedy’s article on the DreamYard Art Center in the South Bronx). Basically, the 34-page feature presents a lot of points of entry and a lot of frames of reference.
Those who declare—as David Orr does in the New York Times—that “The chasm between the audience for poetry and the audience for O is vast, and not even the mighty Oprah can build a bridge from empty air” fail to properly credit not Winfrey but poetry. One hopes that they do so out of an honest ignorance of the role poetry actually plays in the lives of most people who read, write, and share it. One fears, however, that they do so out of a desire to preserve poetry as a domain of connoisseurs, as an elite signifier for the educated and affluent. Someone may be well-served by this attitude; poetry is not.
Oprah fave Maya Angelou says, in response to the O interview question “Can anyone write a poem?” “Yes, I think so. I don’t know if anyone will write a poem. You have to want to. You have to have sharp ears. And you have to not be afraid of being human.”
With this issue, Oprah opens up the possibilities for more people—whether they actually write a poem, or just try to read one—to have sharper ears and to be less afraid. That seems worth paying attention to.