More Does Poetry Matter Nonsense

I assume that Anis Shivani was just trying to stir up trouble by his HuffPo post “What is the State of American Poetry.” In it, he questions if poetry in the US has reached a dead end. To answer that daft question he rounded up a handful of reasonably prominent poets and asked for their opinion.  Shivani’s post is a form of link bait as he knows other bloggers will not be able to resist throwing their gauntlets into the ring. So maybe he’s succeeded with me, if only because I think this argument will lead to predictable and boring results. One side will argue that poetry went stagnant after whatever generation they align themselves with, while the other side will claim this is be best time ever for poetry.  Yup. Heard this before.

Here’s a list of the poets who were invited to the fray:  Campbell McGrath, Kevin Prufer, Akilah Oliver, Elaine Equi, Chad Prevost, Cathryn Hankla, Martha Rhodes, Sidney Wade, Ben Lerner, Steve Healey, Alfred Corn, Cynthia Cruz, Julie Carr, Wayne Miller, Anna Rabinowitz, Maxine Chernoff, Claudia Keelan, Rebecca Seiferle, Hadara Bar-Nadav, Shelley Puhak, Raymond McDaniel, Jane Satterfield, Becca Klaver, and Catherine Wagner.

The arguments are being strung out in a series of posts. First up was Claton Eshleman, who seems to think most poets under 60 are boring without offering any evidence to back up his derision. He wants would-be poets to pack up and head abroad and take up translating or criticism.

Next, Annie Finch writes that poetry is at a dead end because modernism pulled it so far away from traditional form and craft that, well, traditional form and craft is seen as a fringe element. OK. Or maybe she’s just saying she doesn’t like a lot of contemporary poetry. Well neither do I (which I’ll go into in more detail in my review of The Best American Poetry 2010 later this week). But that doesn’t mean poetry is at a dead end. It just means she’s fed up with some of the trends.  Also, she makes a big plug for her own writing program.

Here’s a bit of her take on the scene:

It worries me that so little published mainstream poetry is intended to be heard by its readers. As a result, people who encounter a poem on the page tend to think it exists on the page–they don’t hear its patterns resonating aloud inside them. Since repeating language patterns are the core distinguishing feature that demarcates poetry as a genre from any other form of language, there’s a lot at stake.

Finally, Ron Silliman, in recognizing that a genere that claims tens of thousands of active practitioners can’t be dead, asks what I think are more important questions. One being, if everyone and his mother is a poet, than how do you measure success—or how do you distinguish yourself from the rest?

His advice to young poets:

You need to both understand the full field & history of writing and to recognize that we are in the very first moments of whatever the next age in history will be, and that the poetry of the future cannot simply be the past dragged on by habit.

Good advice. And he didn’t mention the School of Quietude even once.

The last poet included in Shivani’s survey is Daniella Pafunda, who overall seems to favor the state of American poetry except for the overabundance of millipedes and the lack of more non white, straight, males in the mix. Depends on where you look I think, but if she’s referring to the top tiers of popular academy po-biz, then yes, she’s got a good point.

Anyway, I’m a bit sick of this question, especially when the question seems to really miss the point. Poetry isn’t a career path. Poetry isn’t a competitive sport. Poetry matters simply because it does. That’s about it. Nothing more.

I was watching the show Hoarders last night and one of the subjects described a feeling of pain and bursting if she didn’t rescue every bit of discarded crap she picked up at yard sales and trash cans. She said she couldn’t stop herself from picking things up and giving them a home. I know that feeling, and it’s not because I’m a pack rat. Anyone who takes their poetry writing seriously knows that aside from some rare, brief and fleeting chances at recognition, cash or career, poetry is something you do for yourself because you’re happier when you’re doing it.

Do I want readers? Hell yes, but getting them is really just a matter of effort (I got you to read this). There are open readings happening every night of the year. Journals, both print and magical, for nearly every sort of poet. And if that fails, I’ve got family that I can abuse with my poems. But that still misses the point. Like fishing or camping—poetry is a kind of work we do because we like the experience. We like what we find when we dig there or we feel badly about ourselves if we ignore the urge too long.

Update: I know a lot of people are reading this, so please add your comments. Am I justified at being annoyed by the nature of Shivani’s questions or not? Did poetry tank 20, 40, 100 … years ago? Is the the web a trash heap of poetry or a Trader Joe’s of delight?

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5 thoughts on “More Does Poetry Matter Nonsense

  1. Nicely said. Art for Art’s sake, or art for therapy’s sake, or art for contentment’s sake. I like it. Does it really need to be bigger than that?

    • thanks jeff. I know I took the bait, but like the, now old, MFA arguments (are MFA’s ruining poetry?) I’m kinda sick of the posturing. also, I think I need to pay closer attention to my editing when I post things late at night–this is full of typos (I hope I’ve fixed them all by now).

  2. Good Morning, Denise,

    Yes, I downloaded the piece by Anis Shivani and read every word thoughout the day yesterday–inbetween feeding the cats, birds, tending to the garden, watching Oprah, etc. I appreciated your added comments about the interviews because it brought me back to reality–why I write (at my advanced age without any background in academic writing programs). So after I finish this note to you, I will start my next poem,–the one that’s been bouncing off the walls in my head.

    In the St. Louis poetry scene, there abound many academically-based poets (Adrian Matejka, Stacey Lynn Brown, Allison Funk from SIUE), Drucilla Wall (UM@ St. Louis), and then Carter Revard at WU until a few years ago. Carl Phillips is there, too. And there are the non-academics–like Richard Newman (River Styx), Robert Nazarene (Margie) and Becky Ellis (Cherry Pie Press), to mention just a few.

    I take in all I can in order to understand as full a range of styles, opinions and writing as possible…and again–go home and write the next poem.

    Alice Azure
    Maryville, Illinois

  3. You’re more than justified in your annoyance at the questions. They’re actually a subset of the usual “Poetry Is Dead!” rhetoric, just rephrased and repackaged. Like you I tend to agree with what Ron Silliman said in his comments, and I agree as well with you comments about the rest. (Except that Eshleman, who I’ve had some dealings with, while being a poet and editor and writer I highly respect, is being typically curmudgeonly about The Scene here, so I don’t take his remarks that seriously.)

    I think a lot of this speaks to self-marketing. A lot of the post-MFA machine is about marketing, and it tends to be insular in part because it’s poets marketing to each other. That is, the known audience.

    I haven’t cracked the nut of self-marketing, so I don’t have any sage advice. I still believe, probably idealistically and ultimately naively, that the work itself will attract an audience, if it’s good enough. Of course, the number of “competing” voices is huge these days—but then, so is the audience. So, who knows? It could still happen.

  4. The poet writes to express his/her reaction to the world not to attract readers. If you make a living doing it, good for you. Just enjoy the medium and keep in mind, most of it will be of little or no consequence in the life of anyone except the author.

    Great holiday time to all.

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