The Place of Poetry
When poet’s become introspective about their art it often takes the form of attempting to locate the place that poetry occupies in society. This has been going on for a long time; think of Sydney’s “The Defence of Poesy” wherein Sydney offers an apology for ‘poesy’ embedded in a Platonic view.
I have recently been reminded of this introspective tradition by two articles that were published in response to the poem offered at Obama’s Second Inauguration. The poem was by Richard Blanco and overall received a positive hearing.
But there were dissenters. One was in an editorial in the Washington Post by Alexnadra Petri titled “Is Poetry Dead?” (See the January 22 issue) This was quickly followed by a response written by John Deming, who is the editor of the online poetry magazine “Coldfront”; but I found the response at salon.com, so it appears to be getting some attention. Deming’s response at Salon is “Is poetry dead? Nonsense, says John Deming”.
Modern introspectives regarding poetry often note the slippage of poetry’s place in our world when compared to the exalted status poetry had in past centuries. It is difficult for us today to comprehend just how exalted that past status was; poetry was considered close to the divine. Great poetry was often treated like scripture; for example Plato will quote Homer as a proof text. And this exalted status was cross-cultural; one can find similar views about the exalted status of poetry in East Asia. Confucius, who we generally think of as relentlessly secular, considered Poetry so important that one of the Confucian Classics is his collection of ancient Chinese Poetry from a wide variety of sources. It is called “The Book of Songs” or “The Book of Odes” and as in Homer, Confucian scholars quoted from this collection as a proof text right along with the Analects.
Poetry today simply does not have such an elevated status. Poetry is a fringe pursuit today. Literature as such is a fringe pursuit and poetry is at the fringe of the fringe. In terms of cultural impact film, television, and now online media have moved to the center; more people read blogs than poetry. In today’s culture it is a television series that occupies the consciousness of a generation rather than an epic like the Iliad or Paradise Lost or the Psalms of David.
If you look at it this way it is easy to see why someone like Alexandra Petri would think of poetry as dead or dying or at best marginal; as lacking in vitality. Others have noted this as well. Dana Gioia’s famous essay, “Can Poetry Matter?” made some of the same points more than a decade ago. And Gioia is an excellent poet; so it’s not just outsiders who see this.
It is easy to slip into a kind of defensiveness regarding this situation if you are a poet. In my opinion that is what John Deming does. Deming attempts to counter Petri’s assessment by noting how many poetry books are published, how active poetry journals are, etc. For example, Deming writes, “More than 2,000 books of poetry are published each year in the U.S.” I suspect it is much higher than that if you include poetry that is self-published, particularly now that print-on-demand technology is widely and inexpensively available. Almost all the poetry that interests me these days is through this kind of publishing.
But this kind of numerical citation is unconvincing. Homer may have written only two poems (granted they were both epics), but the influence on Greek culture was pervasive. I can’t think of any modern poet who has even a fraction of that kind of influence. Not that there are no popular poets today; think of Mary Oliver or Robert Frost. But even with poets as popular as Oliver the influence she has is miniscule compared to a Homer or a Basho.
Yet, in my opinion, poetry isn’t dead. Nor do I think of contemporary poetry as weak or lacking in vitality. Rather, I see poetry as now being located in a different cultural sphere. Today I see poetry as a craft, rather like gardening, baking, cooking, and quilting: things like that. People continue to write poetry for the same reason that people continue to garden, continue to bake, continue composing songs, etc.
If you look at poetry this way then one’s attention shifts away from those who still carry the torch for the exalted status that poetry used to have. I feel that Deming is an example of someone still trying to carry that torch of poetry’s ultimate exalted significance. I sympathize, but I also think it is a lost cause.
In shifting away from those who look back on poetry’s long period of cultural centrality, what one finds is a rich, diverse, and vital culture of poetry. But it is located in different regions than the inherited cultural center. It is located where popular culture is located. It is found in popular music whose lyrics are often excellent poetry; personally I have learned a lot from popular music and the way it handles metaphor, rhyme, and rhythm. It is also found among those who gather locally because they share an interest in a specific form, or poetry in general. These kinds of societies resemble gardening societies, something like the local Bonsai Club or Rose Cultivators Guild or African Violet Society. Or they resemble friends getting together to play some music or a pick-up game of basketball at the local schoolyard.
My view of poetry is that it is natural, an inherent aspect of being human. Go to a playground and listen to the kids spontaneously rhyme or speak to a pulse. You can hear this kind of thing everywhere, you just need to listen for it. Poetry is as natural as whistling a tune or planting a flower or offering friends a meal.
Is the loss of cultural status a bad thing for poetry? It depends. If what you want is adulation then it will be seen as a loss. If what you want is to participate in something that others consider exalted, mysterious, and somewhat esoteric, then it will be felt as a loss.
On the other hand, if shaping words into pleasing forms satisfies you in the way that gardening satisfies a gardener, in the way that brewing a good cup of tea satisfies one’s self and one’s friends, then this change in status will not be felt as a bad thing. Petri argues that “You can tell that a medium is still vital by posing the question: Can it change anything?” And Deming responds defensively. But for me, this is the wrong question. By change Petri means political or sociological change. Petri’s editorial appeared in the Washington Post and it is perhaps inevitable that such a publication would conceive of importance only in political and/or sociological terms. But why should this capacity be the standard by which we judge something as vital?
Gardening in America is undertaken by countless people; I’d bet that it is in the millions. It is a vital part of American life. One can say the same regarding cooking. And one can say the same for poetry.
Yes, times have changed. What once had status now does not. That is the way of the world. Personally, I am completely comfortable with the place poetry occupies in the world today.