Follow Harriet on Twitter
A Washington Post Journalist’s Derisive, Wan Opinion That Poetry Is Dead
Along with various mainstream media accounts of the “boring” inaugural poetry reading comes more depressing mainstream media reportage that poetry may be dead…bless ‘em; here we were totally clueless. Here’s the Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri, in a piece entitled “Is Poetry Dead?”:
[Richard Blanco] 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 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?
Harsh, yes. A commenter points out that this journalist might need to get out more, as well. Here’s Petri misquoting William Carlos Williams to make her point:
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.
In fact, Williams wrote, “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” Petri’s point in fact is hard to decipher. She is, on one hand, bemoaning the fact that there is government-sponsored funding for the arts (in this case, poetry):
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.
And while “no longer need[ing]” the form, in sweeping generalizations, she misses the heady days of the radical poet:
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 “The Waste Land.”
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.
The discussions surrounding these manifold concerns–the material lives and financial (in)stability of poets, poetry’s value in and effect on society as we know it, state-sponsored and private grant opportunities and impact, the academicization of poetry, the relationship between revolutionary politics and the work of poetry, and what the market might mean for poetry and readership–are obviously due more nuance, imaginative thinking, and research. But for now, if Petri would like to hear the case for radical, formal innovation in poetry and its relationship to “the news,” she might go here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, for starters. Read the full piece here.
Also, she’s late: Vanessa Place got there first!