Sunday, July 26, 2009

The death of poetry... again

Serena Agusto-Cox, in The Examiner, and Marc Bain, in an article "The End of Verse?" in Newsweek, discuss a NEA report announcing that the number of American adults reading fiction had increased... and ("as an afterthought") that the number of adults reading poetry had dropped, from 12.1 percent in 2002 to 8.3 percent last year.

Even if readership is down, Bain writes, not everyone is concerned. "In fact, popularity is itself a fraught subject in the poetry community.... Today, to call a poem "accessible" is practically an insult, and promotional events like National Poetry Month are derided by many poetry diehards as the reduction of a complex and often deeply private art form to a public spectacle."

John Barr, president of the Poetry Foundation, says it's "not necessarily a bad thing" if fewer people read poetry. The goal is to find each poem "its largest intended audience."

Barr continues: "Of course, poetry has been supposedly dying now for several generations. In 1934, Edmund Wilson published an essay called "Is Verse a Dying Technique?" Fifty-four years later, Joseph Epstein chimed in with "Who Killed Poetry?" and former NEA chairman Gioia gained fame with a 1991 piece titled "Can Poetry Matter?" In answering their titular questions, all three to some degree concluded that poetry's concentration in the hands of specialists and the halls of academia was bad for the art form's health.

"Former poet laureate Hall, who published an essay called "Death to the Death of Poetry" in 1989, has heard it all before. "I'm 80 years old," he says. "[For] 60 years I've been reading about poetry losing its audience."

Despite what national surveys may suggest, and despite rumors of its demise, poetry seems likely to persist, in one form or another."
"To call a poem 'accessible' is practically an insult"... is that really true? Does accessibility cheapen a poetry? Is popular poetry necessarily bad?


Theresa Göttl Brightman said...


These are the very poets I can't stand. The ones who don't want to be accessible. The ones who think you're a sell-out if you're "popular" (tho, I don't know if that's even possible for a poet to be "popular")....

But why, for the love of God, WHY does any artist NOT want his work to be heard/seen/read by as many people as possible? Why, if you have something to say worth saying, worth being heard, do you want to limit your audience as much as possible?

These are the people responsible for killing poetry. And I'd like to know why so many poets insist on slitting their own throat and the throats of their brothers and sisters. No wonder it's only academics and the students they torture who bother reading poetry wonder people fear it.

sigh. said...

I agree T.M. Poetry itself is an artform and art was meant to be seen and appreciated by as many people as possible.

People who think this way are killing poetry! Poetry has the power to inform, widen minds, birth new ideas, calm, bring understanding to difficult situations, to communicate and many more things I don't have time to write out because I'm at work.

But just think what the world is missing out on by hiding poetry....

e b bortz said...

I don't know if poetry is really declining. Maybe it's expanded to many new forms that aren't recognized in traditional surveys.

But even if it is declining, maybe we should be looking at the state of the culture and not blaming the poets!

I've expanded on some of these themes, and would welcome any feedback you might have:

Shelley Chernin said...

As someone who has been criticized for being inaccessible, I have a different response.

I think of poetry as being like music. Is Beethoven “good” and Miley Cyrus “bad”? No. Those kinds of judgments are meaningless. They each meet different needs for different people, or perhaps even for the same person at different times.

Poetry is big like that. Plenty of room for anything that meets the needs of writers and readers. Is poetry dying? Well, it will if doesn’t meet people’s needs. I’m guessing that styles will change to adjust to changing needs.

I don’t feel personally responsible for killing poetry. I don’t feel responsible for promoting poetry either. Poetry will survive or not depending on whether people feel they get something of value from it.

I’ve been asked, rudely on occasion, why I write poetry that is not accessible to everyone. (The anger in the question actually pleases me because I like it when my work stirs emotions, confronts people with something in themselves.) I generally answer that I wouldn’t bother to write a poem if I could say the same thing to people more directly. I use poetry to try to convey feelings and aspects of human experience that can’t be expressed in a more straightforward way. Whether successful or not, I try to say the unsayable.

That meets my needs, as does layering my poetry with multiple meanings, hiding obscure illusions, playing with unusual language and words. I know it meets the needs of some people who enjoy my work. Others react negatively, as I’ve said, and that’s okay, too.

I don’t care how large my audience is, or even whether I have one. If the work didn’t meet my needs to begin with, then I wouldn’t have any reason to write. Being forced to write more accessibly would kill MY poetry.

Pressin On said...

nice to see you e.b!
i do find it funny she didnt want her work read widespread in a text book. i guess i understand why she didnt want it interpreted indeliibly, but the idea of a class dissecting one of my poems is a delightful one.
i prefer works that reach me or that leave me with an essence, a feeling, something tangible or felt.
umm..does that mean accessible?

Dianne Borsenik said...

I think that poetry is very much alive, but that some forms of poetry, like some forms of music or art or dance, may seem inaccessible to those who can't or don't- or won't- take the time to understand the intricacies of them. A lot of non-poet people focus on those forms and types of poetry, and tune out the entire (contemporary!) spectrum of poetic styles and voices. That's why I think the open readings are so important-- the more people we can reach with our poetry, the more vibrant the scene will be. And spoken- or sung- words have always been very effective with the wider audience. Poetry isn't dead; it's just biding its time in the green room-- time for us to rise and take the stage!

That doesn't mean we have to write pieces to appeal to the masses, although there's nothing wrong with being popular! I want to have the more sophisticated of my poems read, understood, and appreciated, sure. But I'm pleased that my rhymed, metrical, flowerchild poems like "Lovechild" have been popular, too. It's all about expression and empathy, isn't it?


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