Poetry is dead.
OK, who agrees with me? And who’s stifling a big yawn and scrolling down the page looking for the football talk, wondering what the hell the senior sports analyst is doing talking about poetry?
Poetry is my dad reciting "Let us go then, you and I/When the evening is spread out against the sky,” and my husband countering with “There was once a man from Nantucket.” Poetry is a disappointingly disjointed movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow about Sylvia Plath (dead). Poetry is Elizabeth Bishop (dead), Emily Dickinson (dead), Robert Frost (dead). The best-selling poet of the last decade was…Jewel.
Case closed, and on to the Patriots' chances for repeating their Super Bowl glory, right?
Not so fast.
A year ago I began working toward my MFA at the University of Maryland, and perhaps my biggest shock was that the majority of MFA students, both new and returning, where not fiction writers like myself, but poets. Poets! Not only that, but the majority of the faculty in my program are poets, and even the staff teach poetry on the side. Everywhere I go on campus (campus being narrowly defined as the one building in the corner of a 1500-acre campus where the English Department is housed; and broadly defined as stretching all the way down Route One to Town Hall, the stereotypical dive bar that is an essential part of any MFA program), I’m overrun by poets. They dominate the student readings, they outnumber us five to one at department parties, they are deferred to in seminar classes, even the one place that’s been strictly poetry-free –- the Fiction Workshop –- is led by a professor who happens to write poetry.
And it’s not just my campus. The majority of contests listed on the Associated Writing Programs website are open to poets only. In the latest issue of The Kenyon Review, the table of contents boasts a mere three fiction writers and a stunning list of twelve poets, a 1:4 ratio that is representative of most literary journals published today. There are 29 million entries on Google for “poetry,” thousands and thousands of websites devoted entirely to the craft of the poem.
Want more evidence? Just click on the “gallery” link, and you’ll find that there are 78 poems posted here on this very website. 78! That’s as many as film and sports columns combined (and that number drops significantly if you remove my contribution of 22 articles to those two categories).
So at least poets aren’t all dead, or weird sort of automated robots running random generator software operated by monkeys. To quote: If you prick us do we not bleed? / If you tickle us do we not laugh? / If you poison us do we not die?
Yeah, William Shakespeare wrote that, and I bet the poets claim him as one of theirs, too.
Now that we’ve established that there are plenty of poets running around this planet, probably even several reading this column, what about poems? Is there a need for poetry in our daily lives? As we live in a world where time is constantly speeding up, when information is delivered to us at breakneck speeds, who among us wants to actually take the time and actually think about the meaning behind a couple of lines of words indented on a page?
By now, it’s probably painfully obvious that I have some hang-ups about poetry that need to be worked out. So what better way to do so then sign up for a poetry course?
Not writing poetry (I’m not that much of a masochist), but a literature class that looks at poetry and media, focusing specifically on the works of Emily Dickinson. And you know what? Poetry isn’t dead, either.
Quite the opposite –- it’s possible that poetry is even more alive than ever, bolstered by the new technology that’s changed all our lives. If you’ve got a spare moment (OK, eleven), check out The Dreamlife of Letters, a poem formed by words literally falling down the computer screen.
Like other artists, poets are utilizing new media to expand the understanding of their art. Form is no longer limited to black words on white pages arranged in stanzas, the words strictly determined by some predetermined and recognized shape. Back in the 1970s, May Swenson published “Iconographs,” a book of poems shaped in a ways that added to or even exploded the content of the words themselves. Since then, technology has allowed poets to go even further beyond those simple steps, using graphics, code, and the internet to change the way people read and experience poetry.
Not to say that content isn’t still important: the presentation of a poem, whether electronic or printed, in fact serves as a device that makes the reader work even more to find the meaning within the words. No matter what a poem looks like, whether printed in black text and bound and mass produced, or posted on Intrepid Media or shown as a ball of bright colors and falling letters, it’s still the words that make it a poem, an art form that isn’t quite dead, even if my own prose-weary brain thought maybe it was.
Poetry is alive -- and it's being crafted in weird and interesting ways, about not just the traditional concepts of love and valor and death, but about the more mundane parts of our lives.
Originally from Boston, Michelle is a writer, editor, instructor, obsessive sports fan, loud talker, quick laugher, new mom, and chances are, she watches more television than you do. Follow her on Twitter at michellevoneuw
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
9.13.04 @ 1:23a
if you have HBO, you should check out Def Poetry Jam...it reestablishes my faith in today's poetry scene every time I watch it
9.13.04 @ 8:25a
Def Poetry Jam is part of my Sunday evenings on HBO. I'll miss it when it's on hiatus. I firmly believe there's a poet in each of us, and some of us are in closer touch with him/her than others of us. Some of us write great poetry for the ages and most of us do the best we can with the words we know. I've been writing (bad) poetry since high school. Once when I was writing lyrics for a rock 'n roll band I even bought a rhyming dictionary, but I always considered that cheating somehow. Back in my wasted youth I carried on a yearlong correspondence with John Ciardi, a noteworthy poet and for many years the poetry editor of the old "Saturday Review." He never published any of my poems but gave me cheerful encouragement in his sometimes lengthy and constructively critical rejections. He was a very kind and funny man, and I miss him. I wish I'd known more poets with an actual acclaimed output, but, alas, even in my artsy crafty days most of us were struggling just to get something published in the nearest underground paper. There don't seem to be as many of those around these days as there were in the Sixties and Seventies. Our loss! I once wrote a poem entitled, "Lyrics for a Rock Song that Won't Rock," which I never showed to anyone, and only a few months later Justin Hayward wrote a song which included three of my lines word for word. I've never gotten over it.
9.13.04 @ 11:38a
I remember him. I read his translation of something, the Inferno or Beowulf, not sure which.
Justin Hayward wrote a song which included three of my lines word for word.
You're all old rocker like me! Weird coincidence about the lines. Mind sharing them?
Poetry is alive
Kerouac, known as a prose writer, considered himself to be a 'jazz poet'. I can't think of any prose that I consider truly literary that doesn't have some degree of poesy.
9.13.04 @ 11:54a
A friend of mine was written a poem by an ex-boyfriend. Let me tell you - there is not a poet in all of us.
9.13.04 @ 2:00p
If you haven't already, check out Billy Collins (Picnic, lightning). He is (or was) America's Poet Laureate. His poetry flows like a gentle conversation...so subtle you don't at first realize you're reading poetry. And it's not flashy or pretentious...it's poetry about everyday life.
9.13.04 @ 3:26p
The only Billy Collins I've read was his work with one of those crazy, ornate forms -- something where you have to take all of the words in lines one and two and change them around to form lines three and four without adding any words -- but I absolutely love the title of Picnic, Lightning. It's from Lolita, someone's reference to a mother's "tragic death (picnic, lightning.)" Brilliant line, brilliant title.
9.13.04 @ 5:20p
I've always loved that title, but didn't know the reference - thanks!
Billy Collins' poetry is welcoming and comfortable, like old, faded jeans. For something with a little more bite, try Denise Levertov. She can really make you feel like we're in trouble.
9.13.04 @ 8:49p
I've never been much into poetry, but when I was in Boston I met the poet Catherine Sasanov and heard her read from her book, All the Blood Tethers and it really moved me. I think that's the uncomfortable thing about poetry - it can be so personal that hearing it out loud can be almost invasive, yet that intimacy is what touches you as well.
9.14.04 @ 9:04a
It's a very intimate and personal form, which I think is why it's not popular in modern America. We like to have things we can all share in, like movies.
Also, for most poems, you have to work at it -- interpreting, reading and re-reading, diving in. Much harder than, say, watching Brittany Murphy pratfall over Dakota Fanning, or even reading The DaVinci Code.
9.16.04 @ 10:32a
I think the trickiest thing about poetry is that you want it to be personal enough to be moving, but universal enough that people can relate...sort of a common personal feeling, which is tough.
9.16.04 @ 10:33a
Ok, that may have been the most stupidly obvious thing I've ever posted.
Coffee...need more coffee...
9.16.04 @ 3:06p
Good lord. I just read this, prompted by a bad poetry experience. Little did I know the synergy which was to be revealed.
Y'see, the bad poetry experience I had was regarding...football poetry.
We're publishing a "Greatest Quarterbacks" magazine, and I prepped it to go on press today. One of the features, five pages long, was on quarterbacks who were/are known for their running prowess. But rather than have this be a typical feature, with a story and photos, the editor in charge wrote an eight-line poem about each featured QB.
Example? Try Randall Cunningham:
As leader of the Eagles' fleet,
he dazzled with his amazing feet;
His moves bordered on cunning
and never were short of stunning;
You had to catch him early
to keep him from getting whirly;
Rambling Randall's contorts and twists
was a sight that most defenders missed.
9.16.04 @ 3:43p
Ah, early/whirly. A classic rhyme.