In poetry's defense

May 13, 2004, midnight | By Josh Gottlieb-Miller | 19 years, 6 months ago

Reading is in. Harry Potter made J.K. Rowling one of the richest women in the world. Books as varied as Lord of the Rings and Fight Club have been turned into wildly successful movies. Writing is hip.

The same could be said about poetry, I suppose. Poetry has a thriving subculture, full of amateur practitioners, open mikes and slams. Def Poetry Jam has a modest audience. Poetry has a sizable presence in most bookstores.

Yet most poetry book runs are barely in the thousands. A recent D.C. all-star poetry slam (Bring in da Slam 8) packed…a Borders, almost.

This is a sorry situation for what is sometimes considered the penultimate art. It turns out you can be a professional poet, but that means getting a job teaching because you can't rely on selling your art. It turns out poetry is far from flourishing these days.

Now, at this point, I have to disqualify rap as poetry for anyone who would make that argument. Rap, like songwriting, should be considered separate from poetry (though there may be overlap) because of its evolution as a defined form. Consider comic strips and paintings. Each is visual, drawn art. Each can be amazing. But they're separate, nonetheless.

So not considering rap (the current most popular spoken word and good for its success), poetry is in a bad situation. Not that there isn't good poetry out there, just check out Silver Quill for proof. The problem is that the good poetry isn't being read. The problem is that the good poetry isn't being studied. The problem is the poetry won't be nearly as good in the future if we continue on the path we are on.

I demand nothing of people who don't care for poetry or don't have the time for it. No, I make demands of the poets.

I demand of the readers and writers and celebrators of poetry that they make every effort to improve poetry's position in the public mind.

The problem starts in school, where we study poetry only once or twice in a dozen years and then a couple weeks in junior year in our most comprehensive poetry unit.

The problem exists at poetry slams and spoken word events, where the audience rarely exceeds the number of performers.

The problem continues into society: While there are shows for visual art and museums for paintings, there is nothing for poetry.

The problem requires that poets attack it together. If there is to be any success in raising awareness for poetry, poets need to concentrate their efforts. Readership and accessibility is key. Hold a reading in your house, read your poetry to your friends, make them read you theirs (too many write without telling people about it). Ask your teacher to spend time on poetry at school. If you are a teacher, spend time on poetry in class. Poet-friendly workshops need to be rewarded. Poet-friendly cafes and open-mike settings should be supported. Poet-friendly organizations (NPR, WritersCorps) should be supported.

Opportunities need to be accepted. Go to slams. Fight for grants. Get people to recognize poetry who otherwise wouldn't read it. Publicize poetry.

Right now, when poetry comes up, there's too much analysis, not enough appreciation. We need a calculated approach. Like television. Or smoking. Hook 'em while they're young. Attention spans are short, so is poetry.

In truth, poetry is vastly underrated. Perhaps the most versatile literary form, rhyming, free verse, three lines long or epic; there are no rules for poetry, save those that the writer employs. Evocative and passionate, poetry can tackle any emotion, any event or narrative fantastically. Sure, there's bad poetry, but that's true of any art. The angst-filled teenage ramblings are out there, but so are the amazing wordplays and beautiful metaphors. Finally, poetry's creative examination of humanity is as beneficial as its sometimes breathtaking use of language: There is no pathos, no happening, no human thing that poetry cannot help you realize more fully or see in an entirely new light.

Poetry need not be a fringe art. Poetry can be a fundamental part of life should you poets fight and struggle to make it so. And you will have to fight and struggle to make poetry a part of the public mind. But why wouldn't you? It's the poetic thing to do…

The author's opinions reflect those of recent Jefferson Lecturer Helen Vendler, published after this article was conceived. Any similar suggestion is unintentionally so, though the author agrees with Vendler's intentions.

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