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What to Do About Poetry

The argument that keeps on giving.

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?">>


What to Do About Poetry

The argument that keeps on giving.

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