Upon hearing that people think poetry is “dead,” I experience two simultaneous but conflicting emotions: surprise and boredom. People have been proclaiming inanimate things dead for quite some time. I believe Rock and Punk have both died at least a few times, as have Democracy, Art, and Print. Surely God has suffered a thousand public deaths by now, and Poetry has suffered perhaps only slightly fewer. The notion that poetry is irrelevant in the contemporary world is not a new or bold idea. Yet I can’t help feeling surprised by this sentiment. I live in a world awash with poetry—much of it dull, some of it very exciting—and the idea that most people can’t seem to find any poetry worth their time in the sea of contemporary literature available to them boggles me. I find poems that open me up almost every day.
Recently, the Washington Post published an op-ed by Alexandra Petri arguing that poetry may be dead yet again. It’s a pretty unremarkable piece as columns go, but here I am remarking on it, along with hundreds of other angry poets, if facebook is any indication. Perhaps the piece hit a nerve with some of us because it is so poorly researched, as John Deming at Coldfront notes in his thoughtful response. Among Petri’s claims: “what we mean by poetry is a limp and fangless thing” and “there is no longer, really, any formal innovation possible.” Clearly, Petri is not reading the right poetry. Aside from the hundreds of poets creating meaningful and moving work that could arguably be called “fangless,” there are plenty of poets out there who are writing with their fangs out, who are using form in innovative ways, and and who can change how we think about history, god, violence, humanness, animality, the body, and language itself. Deming names a few, and I’ll name a few more: Mary Ruefle, Joyelle McSweeney, Johannes Göransson, Claire Hero, Sabrina Orah Mark. Here are some more, and some more. More can be found in Black Warrior Review, Versal, Fairy Tale Review, The Collagist–and, I don’t know, thirty or forty other journals that aren’t The New Yorker. This is all to say nothing of the multitudes of foreign-language poets writing today.
Perhaps it’s Petri’s flippant and condescending tone that struck a nerve, as Niina Pollari points out on her Tumblr. Many of us are working our asses off in the name of Poetry, because we believe that it matters. To be publicly ridiculed en masse for this endeavor (Petri’s page-smirking includes several references to grants, such as: “No truly radical art form has such a well-established grant process.”) by someone who clearly doesn’t read contemporary poetry is offensive. I can say with confidence that Petri doesn’t read contemporary poetry because anybody who claims that poetry changes nothing, as she does, is not truly reading. Petri writes: “All the things that poetry used to do, other things do much better,” which tells me that she doesn’t know what a poem is capable of. If you open yourself to it, a poem can change you—not any or every poem, of course, and not always in overwhelming ways, but in ways that other mediums—and even other literary genres—cannot.
Is that the problem? Is power only recognizable in IMAX proportions? Are the nuances of human experience and the subtleties of cultural change lost on so many people? In my opinion, that it precisely why we need poetry. In 1963, John F. Kennedy explained the importance of poetry in a power-hungry and callous world to Amherst College in a way that is just as relevant today as it was then:
Our national strength matters, but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much. This was the special significance of Robert Frost. He brought an unsparing instinct for reality to bear on the platitudes and pieties of society… At bottom, he held a deep faith in the spirit of man, and it is hardly an accident that Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.
I would encourage anyone reading to listen to the entire speech here.
When poetry dies, we’re in trouble–but I don’t believe it will. If Richard Blanco’s inaugural poem seemed limp and fangless to Alexandra Petri or any of her readers, I would encourage them to simply find other poets. We’re out here.