The Paradox of Contemporary Poetry (Board-Game Edition)

There is a great paradox in contemporary poetry.

On the one hand, poetry seems to be dwindling — in bookstore shelves and traditional academic curricula — so much so that it has become fashionable for journalists to frequently declare it dead. On the other hand, I have but to scroll through my social media feeds to witness an eruption of poetry being written and published online.

Likewise, an offering like Al Filreis’ Modern Poetry online course has attracted more than 100,000 students eager to read and learn from great poets of the past. Furthermore, as a poet I know that even though the overall fan base for poetry may have dwindled since the advent of the Internet, that same technology allows me to connect with global audiences many times the size of what some of our most respected poets enjoyed as regional audiences one hundred years ago.

So it would seem that poetry is dying in the real world, only to be reborn into a kind of “Invisible Golden Age” online.

My own response to this paradox is equally dualistic. I acknowledge that poetry may never go mainstream in my lifetime, and aspire primarily for the respect of respectable peers. Yet at the same time, I work hard to bring poetry to new audiences, in person and online. In that vein, I have been gathering my thoughts about the fact that so many people are now reading and writing poems, yet poetry is still perceived as a floundering art. Really, how can this be?

The following diagram illustrates how I see people engaging with poetry today.

The Poetry Board Game
  • At the bottom left we have the non-participants, who read and write little. Often, somewhere in the course of their primary education, usually from a teacher they disliked or who disliked them, they got the message that poetry was difficult, irrelevant, or both.
  • At bottom right, we have the self-expressionists, who write much but read little. Many of us entered into this phase in adolescence, when what Wordsworth called the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” turned in to our first attempts at poetry.
  • At top left, we have fans of poetry. Here we must distinguish between those who, like the students in Al Filreis’ class, are reading historical poetry, and those who read living authors as well.
  • In the upper right, we have living poets. Reading and writing are the in- and out-breath of a life steeped in poetry, and the most prolific poets I know are also among the most voracious readers.

The boxes in blue represent the behaviours most likely to help usher us out of this “Invisible Golden Age” into, well, a visible one — that is, reading contemporary poetry as a fan and both reading and writing it as a poet.

It is pretty easy to see why the health and longevity of the art depends on these things happening. So how do we encourage such behaviour?

Think of the diagram as a board game. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is help usher people from the gray areas into the white, and from the white areas into the blue. Fostering some appreciation of historical poetry, as well as providing some early creative outlet for trying one’s hand at writing the stuff, is usually best begun in primary school. Initiatives like California Poets in the Schools do a fine job of this. They move people into the white.

From here, the sheer volume of poetry being written, and the speed at which it races around online and even in print, can be daunting for new readers. What poets who write much and read little really need are mentors — poets who can read what they are writing and say, “Here, try this established contemporary poet. You might learn something from them about the kind of poem you are trying to write.” MFA programmes are one place where this happens, but workshop groups and tame poet-friends can do this too.

Likewise, readers of historical poetry need encouragement, based on their current tastes, to branch into contemporary poets. Like John Donne? Try Christian Wiman. John Keats? Try Li-Young Lee. For me, this started at university, but it is really never too early or too late to try contemporary poetry.

We may not be able to hit a “home run” by ushering people straight from the grey zone of non-participation into becoming overnight poets in the blue. Yet by first opening the doors to reading and writing poetry of any kind, then by acknowledging that contemporary poetry is largely a matter of taste, and trying to accomodate the tastes of newcomers with useful recommendations, we may well do our part to break contemporary poetry free of its current double-bind.

There is all kinds of evidence for the benefits of engaging more deeply with poetry — psychologically and even physiologically. Like every other contemporary poet, I know this to be true from my own experience. If, like me, you have been looking for ways to help others to find their way to poetry, I encourage you to have a look at the board, roll the dice, and join me in playing the game.

Thoughts? Comments? Join the conversation at Huffington Post


Why Steal Poetry?

DisciplesA new spate of plagiarism incidents in the poetry world has me wondering what satisfaction could possibly come from gaining recognition for a stolen poem.

I believe that it is a symptom of a darker issue at work in contemporary poetry, where we have come to value product over process, poet over poetry, prize over participation, commendation over conversation. How do we get back to the impetus that got us writing in the first place, to the reverence for the written word that makes plagiarism unthinkable?

Click here for reflections on this topic in The Huffington Post.


Doomed in Good Company

Thoughts for Dispossessed Poets

“There is another world, and it is in this one”

-Paul √Čluard

“He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.”

-John 1:10
Skull with Top Removed by Leonardo DaVinciBoo hoo. The modern world we live in does not appreciate poetry. Not like it ought to, not like you and I do. We get it. We eagerly await that new journal or book of poems, smuggle it like contraband into our grey morning commute. We find the one poem that, as Dickinson put it, takes the top of our head off. And it stays with us all day, as we go about our work counting beans or scrubbing out loos. It changes who we are and how we see the world. But nobody else really gets it, and the lack of money is there to prove it.

So maybe we’re doomed.

But poetry has already changed the world — yours, mine — irrevocably in altering how we see it. It is in the world, making and re-making it, and the world has not a clue. But we know. And so we go on reading and writing, having great conversations long past bedtime, walking through the gentle misery of everyday living with this secret knowledge, this little spark that could light the whole world on fire — but doesn’t. Perhaps never will.

Maybe we’re doomed. But we are doomed in good company — you and me — which is to say we are blessed indeed. Ask anyone. The poets always throw the best parties. They dance like they have nothing to lose, because it’s true. And you and me, we’ve made it this far somehow, getting by, doing our thing, making life just about work. John Keats died largely unrecognised. But ask his friends at the time, and he meant as much to them then as he does to many of us now. Do we really expect better for ourselves than the respect of a few respectable peers?

The audience is dwindling. Fine. If you need someone to write for, write for me. I mean it. I need your poems as much as I ever did — the ones I can carry around with me, the blue flame, the chip of ice in my heart. Continue reading…


10 Transcontinental Poets for 2013

Transcontinental 2013The Internet gives us the illusion that the best a culture has to offer will invariably find its way to us. But when it comes to art, I find that so much still comes down to local knowledge. Americans and Brits alike have long maintained a fascination with the literary work of their overseas cousins, but usually only the biggest names make the trip across the pond.

Hoping in some small way to remedy this, I have written an article for the US edition of The Huffington Post on “5 British Poets to Watch in 2013” and, for sake of symmetry, an article in the UK edition of The Huffington Post on “Five American Poets to Watch in 2013“.

How closely you watch is, of course, up to you. My hope is that you will seek out the work of these ten fine poets out for your own sake, to bring a little transcontinental mischief and mirth to your poetry reading in the year ahead.


Ira Lightman: Experiments in Poetry

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”

-Jack Kerouac, On The Road
The thing about experiments is that they don’t always work out. In this way, experimental poetry can be seen as a high-risk, high-reward art form. Unlike other modes, where poets endeavour to generate sufficient heat to boil water, experimental poets go for either Roman candle effects or stink-bombs — but nothing in between. Much of it ends up the latter for me. I find it falls somewhere between a riddle and an inside joke, packed with cleverness and cerebral effect. It is so often the cerebral quality, above all, that leaves me cold — poems written from the neck up only, leaving the author safe and aloof.

This is why I have so enjoyed discovering experimental poet Ira Lightman‘s work. Ira pushes the boundaries of word-play, but retains something of the human in doing so. Consider this poem from Duetcetera, a collection of concrete poems arranged with gaps in the middle:

REPUBLICAN DEMOCRAT
unloved the unhated
hate love
precipitating world's cruising
the within
anchor ending dry
yank dock


Apropos of the current US presidential election, the poem captures a certain sense of foreboding I have detected in Brits who follow the slings and arrows of the American political process. Continue reading…


In Praise of Small Spaces

“‘This is fine,’ replied Candide, ‘but we must cultivate our garden.'”

-Voltaire, Candide

Click for Photos“It’ll be like living on a boat,” a friend remarked upon hearing of our plans to move to a tiny cottage in rural England. Looking out my office window at the expanse of field and garden stretching beyond the horizon, it now feels more like a toy submarine, at the depths of what my wife’s Aunt used to call, “England’s green aquarium.”

This is not the first time we have downsized — going from California to London was a huge lifestyle shift. But when I tell American friends that our Victorian cottage in the countryside now measures 500 square feet in total, they understandably laugh, since they often have bigger garages than that.

But then, when I describe our narrow strip of garden that stretches back almost 300 feet, in several stages, past apple trees and tall poppies to a honesuckle-clad archway leading into a final, secret garden with its Monet-like profusion of wildflowers and a single wooden bench — well, then they want to come visit. As an American poet, the Walden-like aspect of retreat also appeals to me immensely.

Furthermore, I know that creativity often springs from constraint. Force your thoughts into the tight little “rooms” of a sonnet (which is what “stanza” literally means in Italian) and the language becomes more interesting than if you give yourself indefinite space to ramble on. A concise poem is a more elegant poem. And, as I am discovering, a life with conscious constraints is often a more elegant one, too.

One definition of “elegance” might simply be quality over quantity. When we had lots more space, we had greater potential to unconsciously accumulate lots of stuff. But then I found myself spending more time managing the stuff around me than I wanted to, instead of focusing on the stuff within me.

And so I am learning to take pleasure in the little cultivations of a simple life. A poem comes present line by line, and a garden takes shape snip by snip. Already the results of this recent fierce pruning are beginning to bloom.


Citizen of Poetry

Cactus BlossomI spent fourteen months in England, working hard to make the odd feel normal. When what is foreign feels odd, it is understandable. But when what was formerly normal now feels odd, that is perhaps the oddest feeling of all.

I now find myself, back in the US for a brief visit, ambling through coastal California towns taking snapshots — both mentally and with my iPhone — that a British tourist might take: cactus blossom, stars and stripes, the shimmering coastline. The very scenery of my childhood and early adulthood has become an archaeological dig.

The “shock” in the phenomenon of reverse culture shock occurs while driving, when I turn at an empty intersection and there is a momentary flash, in that between-lanes space, where I have to think hard to remember which side of the road I should be turning into.

Yet I always make the turn. There is a way in which intersection has become more the norm, and made the counter-shock less shocking than I feared. Sucking on a chili-covered lollipop from Jalisco, Mexico while sipping a mug of English tea, it occurs to me that I have always lived in the interstices of cultures — first on the US-Mexico border, and now as an American in England.

More and more, I feel both “at home” and “on vacation” wherever I go. Although my formative experiences will always make me an American, the context through which I relate to the world has expanded beyond my sun-drenched beginnings. For me, this is the place where poems come from — in fascinated relation to the world at large, through moments of specificity.

Perhaps, in this sense, my travels have made me a citizen of Poetry — that state governed by aesthetic appreciation of human affairs, where the tax is repaid on one’s attention by the ability to abide in liminal mysteries, living deeply, line by line.