Sunday, November 05, 2006

Whither Poetry?

Is poetry irrelevant? A lot of smart, educated, employed people think so. Some are even liberals.

I got a flier in the mail from Poetry, the magazine that got a huge gift from a rich woman. Now Poetry can afford to send me things in the mail to try to convince me that poetry and Poetry is relevant.

Ruth Lilly, the heiress to the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical fortune, wrote poetry for much of her life, submitting it to the magazine Poetry. They never liked her efforts enough to publish anything. Still, she helped create a $100,000 prize for the magazine, and then, in 2002, at the age of 87, she gave the magazine a gift of $100 million.

"Her goal has been to try and build up the amount of public support and public notice of poetry," Lilly’s lawyer told the San Francisco Chronicle. Now the magazine has the resources to buy mailing lists from a magazine I subscribe to, probably the New Yorker, and use it to send out a handsomely designed mailing.

The flier, pictured here, included a stanza from a poem from one of my favorite poets, William Carlos Williams.

It's from the first part of Williams' lengthy 1962 love poem "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower". Christian Wiman, the editor of Poetry, writes in his "Dear Reader" plea for subscriptions that what Williams probably meant "was that poetry can make our daily existence mean more to us."

I agree, but I find it terribly difficult to slow my metabolism enough to rend any nutrition out of most poetry.

Wiman continues: "It can cut through all the distractions and busyness and help us seize our lives, to be more completely in them."

Can it cut through the distractions? I don't think it can. Wiman is positioning poetry (and Poetry) as a luxury item. An indulgence. Something that you make time for, not something that pulls you so hard you drop everything. You know, like TV.

Can you imagine poetry relevant to the working man? It could be. And I don't mean hip hop. The answer isn't getting poets to write about common things. The answer is getting regular people to write poetry.

Poems are concentrated narratives that use words carefully and self-consciously. So why are poems thought of as boring, elite, and self-indulgent these days?

1. Playfulness in poems is all but gone. They're too serious and they take themselves too seriously
2. We think of poets as overly sensitive folk who should have kept their day jobs. Poets can be anyone.
3. Poems don't rhyme anymore.
4. Poetry is much too experimental. Or at least regular people think it is.
5. Poetry could be a way of talking about the world, but it's become an end in itself.
6. Poetry is usually too long.

I have a friend who says that there's no room in today's society for a person whose full time job is to write poems. I say let the market decide. And now that Poetry's got one hundred million dollars, they ought to hire an agency to convince my friend there's a future in poetry.

One of my favorite William Carlos Williams poems is one in the form of a note that the author might have left in the kitchen before bed:

This Is Just To Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast.

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold.

It's polite but taunting. It's so mundane, but the poem form makes it seem new. That's what poetry does, at its best -- it makes us look at words and arrangements of words in a way we don't normally do.

Poetry is working hard to make poetry relevant. The website is surprisingly comprehensive -- it even has a daily news section. They've got reporters covering the impending destruction of the Brooklyn house that Walt Whitman wrote "Leaves of Grass" in. They've got a columnist musing about reading poetry on the New York subway. Their headlines are punchy: "Our bestsellers columnist asks: 'Are you wearing pants right now?'" and "Stephen Crane would be 135 today, except he’s dead."

The perfect news story in Poetry's daily listings comes from the New York Times. It's about injured basketball player Amare Stoudemire. Apparently he's been writing poetry. Alas, the 24 year-old NBA star won't show anyone his work -- poems "about faith, truth and African-American women raising children on their own." Ah, if only someone other than Russell Simmons could tell our children poetry is cool again.

My mother and her brother both write poetry occasionally, and I like what both of them do. I like my uncle's poetry because it's witty and it makes me laugh. His rhymes are delightful and surprising. My mother's poems tell stories. I like them because they don't waste words and yet they give me vivid pictures.

I like haikus because they are short and because they force the poet to work within restrictions. Richard Wright, the author of Native Son, wrote hundreds of haikus when he was in exile in Paris in the 1950s. Most of his haikus are true to the Japanese form in that they are about nature. Here's one I like:

How melancholy
That these sweet magnolias
Cannot smell themselves.

Here are my ideas for making poetry more interesting:
1. Keep them short.
2. Write with restrictions like rhyme, haiku form, three line stanzas, etc. Make up your own restrictions.
3. Write about real things.
4. Tell stories.
5. Take something you already wrote, like an e-mail, a memo, a list, or a letter and turn it into a poem.

You might think that the list above is perfect poem fodder -- why wouldn’t I take my own advice and turn a list about how to make better poems into a poem? Because I’ve read too many poems like that already. Here's something better:

I could subscribe now

To Poetry and save 50%
Off the cover price for this
Low introductory rate
Of only $17.50.

That's half off the normal rate
Of $35, I understand.

But it would only
Make me feel guilty
Every month because
I would never read the damn thing any more reliably than I take my vitamins or water the goddamn plants.


Anonymous Sarah said...

Dude. You just defined poetry. That takes balls. Poetry, like art, literature, and (yet again) pornography, is something that everybody recognizes and no one can define.

Incidentally, have you ever read Poetry (I would italicize that if I understood how html tags work, but alas...)? It's really a beautiful magazine, and they do a great job of not limiting themselves to any particular type of poetry--you get everything from Kay Ryan writing about magnets ("Repulsive Theory") to Christopher Logue's extremely long (and to my mind, boring)free verse epic on the Trojan War ("Cold Calls: War Music, Continued").

As to whether poetry is essential, well, if we only did what was essential we would be limited to eating, sleeping, and excreting. The question I think they're really trying to ask is whether it's worthwhile, whether, as you're saying, you would actually open the magazine every month. You seem to have slipped from evaluating the value of the medium (as usual when trying to define the indefinite, What It Is has been confused with Is It Good) to explaining why contemporary poetry doesn't work for you.

2:30 PM  

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