Friday, October 23, 2009

Who cares about poetry?

An interesting discussion popped up over on Facebook initiated by Clevelandpoetics - the Blog contributor Runechris under the title question "Is Poetry Relevant?"

This reminded me of Dana Gioia's essay Can Poetry Matter?

Here are six proposals he offers at the end of his essay which he believes could bring poetry into the mainstream. Comments please.

1. 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. Readings should be celebrations of poetry in general, not merely of the featured author's work.

2. When arts administrators plan public readings, they should avoid the standard subculture format of poetry only. Mix poetry with the other arts, especially music. Plan evenings honoring dead or foreign writers. Combine short critical lectures with poetry performances. Such combinations would attract an audience from beyond the poetry world without compromising quality.

3. Poets need to write prose about poetry more often, more candidly, and more effectively. Poets must recapture the attention of the broader intellectual community by writing for nonspecialist publications. They must also avoid the jargon of contemporary academic criticism and write in a public idiom. Finally, poets must regain the reader's trust by candidly admitting what they don't like as well as promoting what they like. Professional courtesy has no place in literary journalism.

4. Poets who compile anthologies—or even reading lists—should be scrupulously honest in including only poems they genuinely admire. Anthologies are poetry's gateway to the general culture. They should not be used as pork barrels for the creative-writing trade. An art expands its audience by presenting masterpieces, not mediocrity. Anthologies should be compiled to move, delight, and instruct readers, not to flatter the writing teachers who assign books. Poet-anthologists must never trade the Muse's property for professional favors.

5. 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. The pleasure of performance is what first attracts children to poetry, the sensual excitement of speaking and hearing the words of the poem. Performance was also the teaching technique that kept poetry vital for centuries. Maybe it also holds the key to poetry's future.

6. 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 the hundreds of college and public-supported radio stations could bring poetry to millions of listeners. Some programming exists, but it is stuck mostly in the standard subculture format of living poets' reading their own work. Mixing poetry with music on classical and jazz stations or creating innovative talk-radio formats could re-establish a direct relationship between poetry and the general audience. The history of art tells the same story over and over. As art forms develop, they establish conventions that guide creation, performance, instruction, even analysis. But eventually these conventions grow stale. They begin to stand between the art and its audience. Although much wonderful poetry is being written, the American poetry establishment is locked into a series of exhausted conventions—outmoded ways of presenting, discussing, editing, and teaching poetry. Educational institutions have codified them into a stifling bureaucratic etiquette that enervates the art. These conventions may once have made sense, but today they imprison poetry in an intellectual ghetto.

Which of these steps do you think are the most important - the hardest to accomplish or just off base?


rob said...

I think there is a lot of wisdom in this strategy. One of the criticisms that I often hear from non-poets is that the art is inaccessible. My brain is a sieve these days, but I remember reading a critic lamenting the idiosyncratic way that stories are being framed and written today and concluding that the form is in danger of going the way of poetry, that is, losing its universality. A poem can become so life-specific that it only has one potential reader.

I contrast that with my own past. I started writing poetry in high school in the early sixties. No one made it as assignment. Mr. Sprague at North Olmsted High School would sit on the edge of his desk and read to us (and he read well!) I didn't know what performance poetry was or even it the terminology had been coined, but we heard Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost. Yes, those might have been the cast of usual characters for the eleventh grade, but in my sixty-something brain, when I hear those names, I hear poetry in the voice of Mr. Sprague. I don't know if he was a poet, but it was very clear that he loved poetry.

This comment is as much a thank-you to him for something that I did not realize was happening to me at the time.

Geoffrey A. Landis said...

...poets and arts administrators should use radio to expand the art's audience. ...

Fortunately, Garrison Keilor has made a good start toward that.

And, more local toward Cleveland, George Bilgere, with his "Wordplay" on WCJU (Wednesdays, 12:30 p.m.-- check it out: 88.7 FM. Or check it out on his site.)

Theresa Göttl Brightman said...

Yes yes YES to all of this!

Reading other people's work at a reading had never crossed my mind before, but--why not? Even the biggest, stadium-packing rock bands of today will occasionally throw in a well-placed cover of a Beatles classic or some such thing. Musicians play covers to make the audience pay attention to something they recognize, and then hopefully draw them into their originals. Why shouldn't poets do the same?

Poets do need to mix the poetry with other art forms. Making friends with musicians is a great way to do it. And I think we, as poets, could learn a lot from watching musicians. It would be unthinkable for musicians to only ever perform for a crowd of other musicians. So why do we accept that as the norm for poetry?

And a resounding a-men to the rest of this as well... Now the question is, how many of us are willing to devote that kind of time and effort to our art to actually bring it to other people? I know I'm just as guilty of staying within my comfort zone and not trying to reach out and make our art form more accessible.

Vertigo Xavier said...

I'm actually not doing any more shows at the venue the Poet's Haven open-mics started at because they WON'T allow me to include music. Music is a great way to draw in some audience who might've ignored a poetry-only show, and show them what they're missing. Theresa, you've been very impressive with the way you've mixed promoting your work into the music scene.

Poets do need to watch how much "other poets" stuff they read when featuring, though. One or two "covers" is good, reading only one or two of your own poems and filling the rest of the time with your favorite poets just makes it look like you weren't prepared. (This has happened.)

CHARLAX said...

"A poet is a man who manages, in a lifetime of making stones, to be found making a few diamonds five or six times."

— CharlaXJarellness


The poet doesn't invent. He listens. ~Jean Cocteau