Thursday, January 24, 2013

Poetry: The Reports of Its Death have been Greatly Exaggerated

36º ~ a bit of a wind kicking here and there, an even chance of rain, the high of 45º was reached at 12:01 a.m., all downhill from here

Apologies to Mark Twain on today's title.

I tried to ignore it; I did.  In true internet wildfire fashion, the report spread of an asinine and ignorant blog from a reporter at The Washington Post in the wake of Monday's inauguration, proclaiming that poetry is dead. Others have commented on the post with fiery passion and poets all over the world have jumped up to defend our craft.  The point in the blog that has stuck in my craw the most is Alexandra Petri's assertion that the poetry of today does not create change.

First, when did poetry in America every create the kind of change it has created in places like central and eastern Europe, the Middle East, or certain Central & Latin American countries.  In those place, poetry has proved to be a call to revolution; poets have been imprisoned (and in some cases still are) for writing poems of revolution.  In America, while there might have been a flare of popularity for the Beats, their poetry didn't stop the Vietnam War, at least not in and of itself or instantly, and the authors were never in danger of going to jail.  We had the McCarthy and the Second Red Scare in the 50s, but outside of the small community of writers that effected, much of America went on as normal, outside of New York and LA.

One of Petri's complaints is that poetry "might not be loud enough any longer."  Please, show me a time when poetry in America was "loud" outside of New York City and San Francisco.  When my grandparents went through their education and were required to memorize poems, they weren't memorizing poems of revolution; they were memorizing the canon, which in America tends to be filled with dead white guys memorializing nature, war, and love, but not spurring anyone to radical change.  (FYI: Based on the books they've passed down to me, my grandparents were not memorizing Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson.)  By the time my parents got to school, poetry had pretty much fallen by the wayside to a unit or two sprinkled here and there, and that is how it remained for me and my siblings.

Petri is also careful to repeat throughout the post that she is talking about the "kind of poetry" that gets read at inaugurations or published in established journals, and yes, she also makes that glancing blow against MFAs.  While the MFA debate rages on, let's at least admit that there are hundreds of journals out there (both in print and online, which she also takes a dig at) that offer a counterweight to what appears in The New Yorker and Poetry.  But, most importantly, Petri misses the point of an inauguration poem; this is an occasional poem and the poet is set a daunting task.  He or she must write a poem that will address ALL Americans in a time of celebration for the peaceful transfer of power.  Then, the poet must stand before the nation and deliver that poem, and whether Petri likes it or not, that takes a lot more courage that publishing a blog or writing for a national newspaper.  And hey, if Petri really believes, "These days, poetry is institutionalized. Everyone can write it," then I'd like to see her attempt at an inaugural poem.  What would her "loud" poem look like? 

Finally, I want to address, directly, Petri's challenge that poetry doesn't create change.  No, poetry in America does not create sweeping political change, but I would argue that this is not its mission.  Instead, poetry creates small changes in its readers; it calls its readers to deeper critical thinking, which is the real work of sweeping political change.  We have reached a stalemate in American politics because folks like to get loud and shout slogans that often sound a lot like poetry.  Yet, we've proven time and time again, that getting loud doesn't get things done.

Poetry is personal, even when it is political.  When I was an undergrad reading Carolyn Forche's "The Colonel" for the first time, those images of the ears at the end began to make me a pacifist and a liberal Democrat.  When I read Denise Levertov's "What Were They Like?" I began to question the idea of enemies and allies.  I began to think more deeply about the bigger, global picture.  Today, poets like Brian Turner in his book Here, Bullet and Quan Barry in her book Water Puppets offer poems that question more contemporary conflictsThese are just the examples of war that sprang to mind.  I could provide just as many examples for issues on gender, sexuality, race, and class, to name a few.  However, most of the poems aren't shouting from the rooftops; they are meeting the readers where they are, quietly on the page, or more loudly in public readings, and if the reader is engaged, then the poems will make them think and thinking is the only way I know to lasting change.

In the end, the political is personal.  When Richard Blanco read "One Today" and got to these lines "sometimes praising a mother / who knew how to give, or forgiving a father / who couldn't give what you wanted," I said "oh wow" out loud.  I said it because I knew one tiny bit about Blanco's life, but I said it more because it went right to the heart of something in my life, personally, and it made me think, and in thinking, a tiny change happened in my heart and in my mind.  One tiny change.  But that's how poetry works; all those tiny changes add up, if the reader is willing to go beyond assumptions about what poetry is "supposed to be."

As for Petri's obvious hyperbole that "There are about six people who buy new poetry," well, that I'll save for another post.


drew said...

I'm so tired of these declarations. While we rarely hear calls of "Art is dead" or "Painting is pointless," this tired topic just keeps on coming.

In our social media age, anyone/everyone is a writer (defined by Facebook rants and Tumblr posts). And because now so many are "writers" -- the art of writing is less valued. What's the big deal? Anyone can do it, right? (wrong!)

When we all start painting, will museums, too, turn dusty and "dead" ?

Sandy Longhorn said...

Well said, Drew! And plenty of the other arts have MFAs and are supported by grants rather than the public, but they aren't "dead" either.

Kathleen said...

Exactly. A change of heart--"one tiny change" as you say--turns out to be huge in consequence. It leads to a change of action. And real change, I believe, begins in the heart.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Yes, Kathleen. The only kind of lasting change that I know begins in the individual (mind and heart). Otherwise, it's just fluff.

Stacey Jones said...

I (@sharkushka) tweeted a link to this blog post. So relevant and such a welcome sentiment well-expressed!

Sandy Longhorn said...

Wow, thanks Stacey! I just started on Twitter and am hopeless at it, but I'll find you there.