In 1991, nationally acclaimed poet and critic Dana Goia published his essay “Can Poetry Matter?” in The Atlantic Monthly. A year later, following a enormous out-pouring of responses from critics and poets, Goia published a book under the same title (which can be found here), which collected his original essay and a number of essays written in response. The essay and book discuss the state of American poetry in modern society – lamenting that poetry has become a subculture generated, fed, and followed almost entirely by poets, academics, and administrators, with little-to-no attention paid by the general public. Newspapers no longer review poetry, even Pulitzer-prize winning poetry. The only non-poets who still might read poetry are those high school and undergraduate students who are forced to for one or two Literature classes.
What is perhaps most ironic is that in this time, as the attention paid to poetry by the general public has declined to almost nothing, avenues for exploring poetry have exploded into numbers never before seen. As Goia states, there have never before been so many new books of poetry published, or so many literary magazines and anthologies. As of 1992, there were several thousand college-level jobs for teaching creative writing, and many more at the primary and secondary level. And Congress had even institute the position of “poet laureate,” and as of this writing, 40 states also have a poet laureate or writer-in-residence. There are also thousands of prizes, fellowships, and programs set up for writers in general and poets specifically around the country.
And yet, so few people read poetry anymore. Many writers (of any genre) will still read poetry, but the general public of readers seem to have forgotten poetry exists, and read only fiction. Part of the problem is that, as the group of American poets have become a subculture, they have more and more written only to themselves, thus making it more and more difficult for the public culture to access what is being written. However, as no one reads poetry anymore, who else do poets have to write to other than each other? It is a vicious cycle.
So the trick is two-fold: convincing people, once again, that poetry has intrinsic value and is worth reading; and finding a way to make at least some of what is written more accessible to the general reader. So, why should people read and be interested in poetry? Goia offers two major reasons.
“The first reasons involves the role of language in a free society. Poetry is the art of using words charged with their utmost meaning. A society whose intellectual leaders lose the skill to shape, appreciate, and understand the power of language will become the slaves of those who retain it – be they politicians, preachers, copywriters, or newscasters.”
As Ezra Pound warns: “Good writers are those who keep the language efficient. That is to say, keep it accurate, keep it clear. It doesn’t matter whether a good writer wants to be useful or a whether the bad writer wants to do harm… If a nation’s literature declines, the nation atrophies and decays.”
Goia’s second reason is that poetry is not the only art that has been pushed to the margins of society. Most serious arts have declined into a “subculture of specialists” who have no choice but to only write/perform for each other (this includes, for Goia serious drama and Jazz among other things).
However, I believe the question of why poetry is important is about more than the political power wielded by language (such as when George Orwell says: “One ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language”) or rescuing any and all art from the margins (though these are two very important reasons). Poetry should be read because it is first and foremost the language of the people. Before there was fiction, or biography, or news editorials, or religious texts, or anything else, there was poetry. I include song in with poetry, as they are essentially the same in many regards – and, having said that, the argument could be made that people “read” poetry all the time through the absorption of songs. But while many music does in fact fit the bill, that should not excuse people from ignoring the enormous wellspring of poetry that pours out of this country every year. Because poetry is the deep and powerful expression of the human condition; it encompasses all emotion, all modes of living; it can be mourning or celebration, song or scream, revelation or denial, acceptance or resistance. And sometimes all of these at once. Poets are some of the first voices to protest social and political injustices; they are some of the first to mourn losses, cultural and personal; and they are some of the first to rejoice in the wonders of the living in and for the world.
Having discussed some of Goia’s and my own reasons for reading poetry, I will wrap up by offering Goia’s six “modest proposals” for poets and poetry teachers/administrators to help bring poetry back to the public.
- When poets give public readings, they should spend part of every program reciting other people’s work – preferably poems they admire by writers they do not know personally.
- When arts administrators plan public readings, they should avoid the standard subculture format of poetry only. Mix poetry with other arts, especially music.
- Poets need to write prose about poetry more often, more candidly, and more effectively. Poets most recapture the attention of the broader intellectual community by writing for nonspecialist publications.
- Poets whole compile anthologies – or even reading lists – should be scrupulously honest in including only poems they genuinely admire. Anthologies… should not be used as pork barrels for the creative-writing trade.
- Poetry teachers, especially at the high school and undergraduate levels, should spend less time on analysis and more on performance. Poetry needs to be liberated from literary criticism. Poems should be memorized, recited, and performed. The sheer joy of the art must be emphasized.
- Finally, poets and arts administrators should use radio to expand the art’s audience. Poetry is an aural medium, and thus ideally suited to radio. A little imaginative programming at hundreds f college and public-supported radio stations could bring poetry to millions of listeners.
I know I’ve talked at you a lot now, and I know I’ve also quoted/paraphrased Goia quite a lot (though my own opinion, I hope, is made quite obvious), but I would really love to hear other people’s thoughts on the issue.
Is poetry, in fact, important? Should people beyond writers and other poets read poetry? Are Goia (and I) completely off-base here? What do you feel are the most important qualities (if any) of poetry? Any thoughts at all would be greatly appreciated.
(Also, please return on Friday, as I will be posting one of my own poems – though the thought kind-of terrifies me a little…)