Sunday, January 30, 2011

Does Poetry Matter? (1)

Marianne Moore, poet and lover of baseball

The above is the question for the 2011 "Great American Think-Off" sponsored by the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center in New York Mills, Minnesota, a town of 1,100 people just outside Wadena. This place seems like kind of an Upper Midwestern Chatauqua, promoting dialogue on philosophical issues and supporting the arts.

My brother-in-law passed the question along to me, and it's been fun to think and write about it. My first thoughts went to an essay by Dana Gioia, first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1992, called "Can Poetry Matter?" It was the usual diatribe against the way poetry has been relegated to academia. His claims were that poetry has marginalized itself because it only speaks within a very small subculture of people, and rarely, if ever, transcends individual experience at all. He lamented the MFA system that creates thousands of poets who then become the only people who read poetry. It is not hard to see his point. 

What is more, I've found many poets over the years to be incredibly mean-spirited, clinging to whatever little fistful of power they've carved out for themselves. Many are interested only in who is reading them, and not so much in reading or praising the work of others. I canceled my subscription to Poetry after reading an essay by Kay Ryan about the Associated Writing Programs conference in Vancouver in 2004-05. I attended that conference, where so many of us trying to write and teach flocked to hear the latest poetry stars read from their work and basically just keep up-- as well as, perhaps, connect with a few in our community to talk about our work. I have no idea why Kay Ryan would want to rip apart the people who attended that conference, but the whole thing just furthered my already developing cynicism about "the poetry world."

There is a great deal of poetry, especially the poetry of the time, that I think does not matter at all. Or matters no more than any other text. Much of the poetry written today is inaccessible, or precious, or sensational, or witty and clever. Books of poetry published these days are more like novels-- they have a theme or a through-line. I think this is a result of the poetry contest, where 50 pages on a single theme or telling a single story are more likely to make an impression than a collection of poems on a variety of subjects. When reading hundreds or even just dozens of manuscripts as a judge of a contest, it takes something to capture the attention and hold it long enough to register. But what this also means is that poems have lost much of their lyric power, and depend or lean on the context provided by other poems in the collection. And books of poems can be read once and then put aside. In most cases, we can get all they offer from one sitting.

Of course, the poetry slam and performance poetry scene have opened poetry up to a large number of people who are not "trained" in academia as poets and for whom poetry matters. It builds community and gives people an outlet for an astonishing amount of creativity and storytelling. At its best, it pushes the language and musicality and keeps things fresh. Poetry doesn't seem like one small, elite world so much as a collection of texts and writers that feed multiple subcultures in America today.

So the first thing we need to consider is, what is the nature of the question? Does poetry matter-- not just to individuals, but to society? To civilization? Does it matter more than regular speech or letters or at least as much as "business documents and school-books"? Here we are in Marianne Moore territory. Her poem, "Poetry," (from which that quoted phrase comes from) reads, in its final form:

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine.

She doesn't get to this final form, however, before constructing a much longer poem, and tinkering with it as she must have all her poems to get the number of syllables she required for each line and the diction just right. Her quirky system of organizing arguments into lines that followed an arbitrarily assigned number of syllables each, even when our language is more attuned to accented verse than syllabic (think haiku verses Shakespeare) demonstrates her love of the word game that is poetry as much as the "truth" game or what she calls "the genuine."

In her longer version of the poem "Poetry," she has wonderful claims, such as: "when dragged into prominence by half poets, the result is not poetry, nor till the poets among us can be 'literalists of the imagination'-- above insolence and triviality and can present for inspection, 'imaginary gardens with real toads in them,' shall we have it."

This says a lot about her vision of what can make poetry matter, but also suggests she didn't think that much good poetry was being written in the 1930s.

I'm going to write several more entries on this topic, as I think it through. I've already assembled several examples of how and where I see that poetry does indeed matter (much more than I can include in the 750 words of the final essay for the Think-Off). You can let me know if I am able to make my case.


Connie said...

Very thought-provoking post, Susan, and I'm glad to think about answers to the question along with you. For me, one way to complicate (or over-simplify?)the question is to ask: To whom? Or to ask: Whose poetry?

I'm teaching a little non-credit poetry-writing class at the local community college. Most of the students have almost nothing in common except their love of writing and their desire to write poems and receive feedback on them. Some are very experienced and skilled. They read a lot and write a lot and have been published. One woman is the organizer of an annual youth poetry contest that has become a major part of our local Fall Festival, and she and her husband provide the (small) money prizes that go to the winners in several age categories. It's highly publicized, and wow, do the kids ever submit their stuff!

She and a couple of other like her signed up for that "kick in the butt" (two students' exact words) that working with other writers regularly (and having assignments) can produce.

Some of the students are very young and very inexperienced but eager to learn and (fairly) open to critique. They have not read much poetry and don't know a lot about it. They just know they need to write. But one young man, a Christian who really needs to speak to his God in poem-like prayers, was pretty excited to learn about George Herbert as well as some contemporary Christian poets. It made him feel less alone in his quest for self-expression of a very particular sort.

It's challenging to work with people from such different backgrounds and beliefs. From the start, I decided to work with specific topics (place, identity, relationship) and work in the poetic conventions, audience response, and revision techniques along the way. I've been bringing in poems by a wide variety of established writers, and we read them aloud and talk about what makes them work. We imitate them, we play with them, we use them as jumping-off places for our own drafts.

And the students LOVE that part! Granted, they are already interested in poetry in at least one way. But they seem to really enjoy encountering the poetry. They keep telling me that this is part of what makes this class "different" and "better" than others they've taken.

I realize that this is a very limited and incomplete response to the big question you pose. But I think it's important to think about it in the same way we would think about these questions:

Does pottery matter?
Does painting matter?
Does playing the guitar in your own living room, or down at the pub with other amateurs, matter?

I hope I haven't gotten completely off-track here, but maybe you could consider this response as one way to think about answering the question.

Of course, this is also a town that just finished having a Wm. Stafford birthday celebration called "Can Poetry Save the World?" Some here seem to think it can!

Susan Sink said...

Connie, there is no question that poetry matters to those who write it-- and those who read it. I think it says a lot that people seek it out (for no credit! haha) and feel a "need" to write it. That is indeed one very good answer to the question. Right now, I'm more invested in the question of whether or not it matters beyond individual experience. I think, ultimately, it matters there, too. More to come!

WolfsGotYourTongue said...

"to be rhyming without a real reason, is to claim but not to practice a religion" - Michael Franti