Can Poetry Please Get Real?

"Like priests in a town of agnostics, [poets] still command a certain residual prestige."

-Dana Gioia, "Can Poetry Matter?"

The main problem I have with Gioia's classic 1991 indictment of the health of the art, and all its subsequent aftershocks, is that this view of poetry still comes from within the tribe. Gioia blames the cushy life afforded by academia as well as tit-for-tat publishing and reviewing practices as the primary killers of poetry's public appeal. But his article does not take into account other forces outside the scope of contemporary poetry and, owing to this fault, seems more inflammatory than revolutionary--adding another loud gripe, in fact, to the endless squabbling among poets.

Poets like to pretend that the decline of poetry is their fault, because if that were entirely true, then it would be entirely within their power to revive it as a major cultural force.

Art has always required its benefactor. Were it not for the Catholic church, for example, we would not have painting as we know it today. The church employed countless artists and kept them (and their art) alive. Poetry has never been practical, and the fact that it has now drawn inward to thrive primarily at the university level--like a tree pulling in its sap toward the trunk during a freeze--only leads me to be grateful that there is, in fact, some refuge for the impractical-but-necessary--for art--in our world. Universities are killing poetry? More like providing the last bastion to save it.

While Gioia admits that other art forms have suffered, he does not venture outside of the world poets occupy to hazard a guess as to why. Poetry has gone the same route as classical music, and from what Valerie tells me, their debates about "accessibility and difficulty," among other topics that baffle non-artists as exceedingly trivial, seem to run along parallel lines. A lot of contemporary classical music, like contemporary poetry, has indeed become little more than an academic exercise.

That said, the relationship between university and audience strikes me as a bit chicken-and-egg. Gioia argues poetry has become seemingly irrelevant to non-poets' lives because academia has coddled them in doing so. I would argue the other side--that poets (and classical composers) have retreated into avant garde cliques because they have been ostracized from mainstream culture and, like the weird kid we all knew in school, are somehow managing to take perverse pleasure in this situation--and even pride.

But why have poets been ousted from the culture? By far the simplest way to examine why poetry, like classical music, has been on the slide since the '40s is to take a look at what has taken its place. Enter television. Enter pop music. Enter video games and the internet. Popular culture has superseded intellectual culture more and more in the past sixty years. Since the age of automation, being cultured, literary or musically astute is less of a means to upward mobility than ever before. People respect actors far more than poets, rock stars far more than great violinists. And with the advent of reality television, American Idol and social networking, people are, more than ever, simply becoming famous for their fame.

Poets like to pretend that the decline of poetry is their fault, because if that were entirely true, then it would be entirely within their power to revive it as a major cultural force. While it is true that acting like the weird kid hasn't helped poetry, there are much larger forces at work than even the off-putting avant garde and its main backer, academia. Even really great poetry has a hard time standing up to the video-game-like attention span of the most recent generation. And even thinking people in my own generation are much more likely to listen to popular music or see a film when they want stimulation--than to open a book of poems.

Mass media has altered our sensitivity to language, making us far more likely to seek entertainment (or "edutainment" at best) delivered through a rich multimedia experience--than to sit down and just read a poem on the page. It is high time we faced up to this reality. Because in doing so, we can stop squabbling and pointing fingers at each other, and get back to promoting poetry the only way it can continue to succeed--from one person to another, showing, sharing and explaining why we love this particular form.

Neither do we have to garner large "market share" nor revel in our marginalization. Read, write and share with those who get it. And give the rest a chance. Gioia's six-point call to action is good advice. Just don't expect the ground to shake. It is, after all, poetry--a hope for all humanity, but only as humans declare it so.

§ § §