Poetry News

Washington Post's Alexandra Petri Responds to Unflattering Haiku on Her Forehead

By Harriet Staff

The Washington Post editorial inquiring as to poetry's would-be dwelling in the world of the non-living has certainly received its detractors, one of which was us. Turns out Alexandra Petri found all of the attention to be way harsh. In "Poetry is not dead, says poetry," she eats a heaping helping of her words:

...[I]f you would prefer not to awaken and find that, as you slept, someone wrote an unflattering haiku on your forehead in permanent marker, if you do not like to pick up your office phone and hear 78 lines of spontaneous slam poetry, slamming you directly — well, leave it alone.

This is a slight exaggeration, but not much.

I would advise anyone who wants to ask if something is dead on the Internet to first ascertain that the people engaged in the doing of that thing are not wordsmiths by trade. If you ask if mime is dead, the worst that will happen is that someone will lean angrily on an imaginary wall in your general direction. (Now, the instant I type this, I assume letters will start pouring in on every side from mimes.) But if they are wordsmiths, they will send you a lot of messages, often peppered with beautiful quotations, and if you are as susceptible as I am to beautiful quotations you will crawl off into a hole somewhere and wonder if Wallace Stevens would really be as disappointed in you as they are making out. It hardly seems worth it. Especially since the “Is X dead?” genre of essay is — well, not exactly un-hack, itself.

Later, Petri fills up more space in her column, writing: "Had I known there would be so much interest, I would have phrased it differently, with greater temperance and more statistics. But then you would not have read it." And in turn, she writes, we at Harriet would not have composed our own response! Well, that's true. And we all have to turn the wheels of the blogsphere.

She also peppers her back-pedaling with earnest quotations from anyone who might've bitten the hands that fed in one distant era or another, reminding us that the likes of Donald Hall, Ezra Pound, and Auden in response to Shelley--in turn in response to Thomas Love Peacock--have all declaimed or criticized the form of poetry, too. She buffers her old argument with theirs, closing with: "'All art is useless,' as Oscar Wilde said. You can always leave it there." Blarrrrrrr...oh, this ole thing?

We'd love to put this "Is Poetry dead?" (non-)issue to bed. But we will say it's a shame that Petri only looked glancingly at the elder statesmen to prove her (new) point that poets got good critical game, rather than considering further anything we recommended as presently significant. How about Josef Kaplan's interview? So here's our closing Oscar Wilde:

JK: I think art is in a lot of ways already meaningless. I think that’s probably one of its strengths.

To risk sounding redundant, the idea that art or poetry would or should have any kind of political value, that idea might be a cultural expectation that doesn’t have a lot of bearing on what poetry and art are, actually, in the world. Poetry and art are formal categories. They aren’t responsible for anything because they themselves don’t make decisions. So it doesn’t much matter whether they’re marginalized or not. It seems better to think about art and poetry in terms of what is unique to them, in terms of what they, as categories, encompass, and to ask: “What are the ways in which we can radicalize formal positions within art and poetry?” And then, similarly, to think about what makes politics politics and ask: “How can we radicalize that?”

Originally Published: January 28th, 2013