National Poetry Month, weekend edition, part one

Poems well composed haunt readers. Like an old injury, they return with an ache during inclimate weather. It is April. Yet snow covered the ground earlier this week. Along edges of many fields near Whitewater, small mounds of unmelted snow still remained.

It is National Poetry Month. Like the season, it is time to celebrate in spite of the frosty conditions.

An open mic I visited this week featured one young poet amid a variety of singer songwriters. The poem shared was morose, hurried and full of mixed metaphors. Nothing wrong with that. I dare say a lot of my early work resided in that landscape. I hope to hear more of her work.

A prominent poetry publication arrived in the mail a couple weeks ago. I read nearly midway through the publication searching for a memorable line or image. Nothing. A lot of doleful activism and academic rubric. Maybe it was the reader’s fault. Maybe after more rest I will pick up the publication, reread the poems and find something notable.

This weekend, while rearranging a bookshelf I noticed a stack of books, newspapers and magazines. Included were old issues of The New York Times, books of poetry translations, a couple American poetry books and a copy of the May 2011 edition of Poetry magazine.

The publication featured a Dana Gioia poem with a haunting opening line “So this is where the children come to die, . . .” How can you not keep reading this poem? It is so good. In the second part of the poem, the speaker reflected, “I’d lost one child/and couldn’t bear to watch another die” and ended that part of the poem with “But there are poems we do not choose to write.” From the first line of the first part of the poem to the last line of the third part, the poem “Special Treatments Ward” was exceptional.

A poem that possesses a reader like Dana Gioia’s poem “Special Treatments Ward” will survive long after the April snow has melted.

Is poetry dead? or can poetry matter?

Is Poetry Dead?

Earlier this year a quiet and quite active discussion took place in a small corner of the public square. It began with Alexandra Petri’s article “Is Poetry Dead?” [1] John Deming immediately responded with an “Open Letter to Alexandra Petri.” [2] A Few days later, Richard Higgs tossed the question to a group of poets and writers. [3] The topic was actively discussed for months.

Alexandra Petri asked “Is poetry dead?” Referencing Richard Blanco, she writes, “. . . poetry, a field that may very well be obsolete.” She continues:

I say this lovingly as a member of the print media. If poetry is dead, we are in the next ward over, wheezing noisily, with our family gathered around looking concerned and asking about our stereos.

In her article she offers some harsh yet reasonable analysis: “These days, poetry is institutionalized. Everyone can write it. But if you want a lot of people to read it . . . there are a few choked channels of Reputable Publications.”

John Deming immediately replies to this “attack on American poetry” by stating that there are more than “2,000 books of poetry are published each year in the U.S.” He did not reveal where he got that number, but I suspect much of those poetry books are independent or small press publications. Further, knowing intimately how the publishing business works, I suspect that the majority of those poetry books published do not exceed press runs of more than 500 copies. With all due respect to Mr. Deming, his open letter is more a reaction to Ms. Petri’s article and less a defense of American poetry’s life (or death). He does offer a pointed question for both Ms. Petri and for poets: “. . . what kind of ‘change’ [do] you mean. Literal political change?”

Can poetry effect change?

Years ago Dana Gioia asked “Can Poetry Matter?” in his essay published in The Atlantic Monthly [4] [5] I will not go into a lot of detail about his essay because I do not want to spoil his conclusion, but I do encourage you to read it. Mr. Gioia’s question is a better question than Ms. Petri’s. Introducing great poetry in school is part of the equation as well as encouraging the love of reading books to children. Mr. Gioia offers other ways to promote the reading of and love of poetry. The Academy of American Poets published a report years ago that stated that adults who purchase and read poetry books were introduced to poetry at an early age.

Alexandra Petri does present some valid concerns. Like Ms. Petri, I have attended poetry readings where “the attendees were almost without exception students of the poet who were there in the hopes of extra credit.” For that matter, I’ve been that poet (like Charles Bukowski) [6] reading to an audience of “. . . friends, . . . other poets / and the handful of idiots who have wandered / in / from nowhere.” Mr. Deming makes some equally valid points that poetry is “far from obsolete . . .” As someone in the publishing industry I know that poetry books do sell, but not as well as fiction or non-fiction. But lack of book sales revenue does not mean that poetry books are not effective or revolutionary. How many memoirs or novels have you read that feature a few lines of poetry as an epigraph printed at the beginning of the work?

I am convinced that there is a large audience of people that do not know that they enjoy poetry. They have to be introduced to great poetry. The fact that the August 31, 2013 issue of the New York Times featured a large front page photo of the poet Seamus Heaney (printed above the fold in contrast to a small photo of the President of the United States below the fold) testifies to the relevance of poetry in America. [7] Can poetry effect change? The poem “The Names” by Billy Collins was read before a special joint session of Congress in 2002 commemorating the victims of 9/11. [8] Can poetry matter? These are just two examples that attest to it’s impact (if ever so little) in our culture.

NOTES: [1] Alexandra Petri, “Is poetry dead?,” The Washington Post ComPost, January 22, 2013, accessed January 29, 2013 http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/compost/wp/2013/01/22/is-poetry-dead/
[2] John Deming, “Open Letter to Alexandra Petri,” Coldfront Magazine , January 22, 2013 accessed January 29, 2013 http://coldfrontmag.com/news/open-letter-to-alexandra-petri?goback=%2Egde_1651527_member_208175181
[3] Richard Higgs, “Is poetry dead? Washington Post blog article, and a brilliant response,” LinkedIn Poetry Editors & Poets Group, January 25, 2013, accessed January 29, 2013 http://www.linkedin.com/groups/Is-poetry-dead-Washington-Post-1651527.S.208175181?qid=64a426de-d879-42c3-b90d-5c25b99fe691&trk=group_most_popular-0-b-ttl&goback=%2Egde_1651527_member_208175181%2Egmp_1651527
[4] The Atlantic Monthly; May, 1991; “Can Poetry Matter?”; Volume 267, No. 5; pages 94-106.
[5] Dana Gioia, “Can Poetry Matter?,” The Atlantic Monthly, May, 1991, accessed January 29, 2013 http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/unbound/poetry/gioia/gioia.htm
[6] Charles Bukowski, “poetry readings,” The Writer’s Almanac, September 11, 2008, accessed January 29, 2013 http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2008/09/11.
[7] “The New York Times pays tribute to Seamus Heaney,” TheJournal.ie , August 31, 2013, accessed September 25, 2013 http://www.thejournal.ie/new-york-times-seamus-heaney-1063056-Aug2013/
[8] “Poet Billy Collins Reflects on 9/11,” PBSNewsHour, accessed September 25, 2013 http://www.poetryfoundation.org/features/video/301