It’s national poetry month, callooh callay. It should be a joyous affair, what with the villanelles and the Emily Dickinson and the national recitation contest sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. But like so many holidays, it brings forth the usual recriminations. Why isn’t poetry relevant anymore? Why aren’t home health aides and accountants quoting Edmund Spenser and John Milton the way they used to? Why aren’t we like Ukraine, where birthday celebrations for their great national 19th-century poet Taras Shevchenko not only draw thousands, but get violent? And what’s with that hushed and emphatic “poetry voice” that gets wheeled out at readings?
This isn’t just a lowbrow American affliction. A few years ago in the U.K., Martin Amis casually announced poetry’s death at a literary festival, drawing the usual volley of denials. Salt, one of Britain’s bravest small presses, recently decided, amid drooping sales, to cease publishing volumes by individual poets, pruning the verse back to just one group anthology per year. Third World nations used to be counted on for elevating their poets to prominent government posts — Césaire, Mistral, Neruda, Senghor, Yeats — but no longer.
As our national poet laureate, Natasha Trethewey, reminds us in a recent issue of the Virginia Quarterly, mourning the death of poetry is far from new. It might even be a good career move: Dana Gioia, who in a widely read 1991 Atlantic essay compared “the poetry industry” to “subsidized farming that grows food no one wants,” was appointed head of the National Endowment of the Arts in 2003, a post he held for six years. Gioia, both a well-regarded neo-formalist poet and the M.B.A. marketing whiz who saved Jell-O, made it his mission to take poetry and other arts directly into the mainstream: Shakespeare performances all over; more budget for jazz; national exhortations to read more literature; poetry workshops for the troops.
Some contrarian yea-sayers argue that poetry is doing better than ever. Poetry, they say, has its thriving niches in universities, slams at youth centers, church basements, bars. Literary scholar Mike Chasar has unearthed a tradition of vernacular American poetry that was closely woven into the fabric of everyday American life up through the mid-20th century: jingle-writing contests, poems regularly published in most newspapers and then scrapbooked and circulated by readers, modernist poet Marianne Moore on Ford’s payroll to come up with names for new car models.
That era’s highbrows engaged in their own brand of concern-trolling — the failure of the masses to take a polite interest in Allen Tate or Elizabeth Bishop must have been quite a letdown for our tweedy Parnassians. But does this everyday poetry culture still exist?
The question is whether we want it to — and what a booming poetry culture would even look like.
Americans are populist in all the wrong places. We can’t funnel enough money to failing banks and military contractors, but when it comes to difficult poets we become bravely anti-elitist.
These days, poetry is regarded as either too lofty, or too base, to qualify as a red-blooded American pursuit. There’s certainly poetry in country music — it’s what Taylor Swift’s fans chat about the most, far more than the music. And who can doubt that there are bags of poetry in hip-hop and its millions of truly discerning aficionados, many of whom are amateur practitioners?
What a shame this verse culture doesn’t shade into mainstream enthusiasm for the kind of poetry printed in books, which is still an object of ambivalence and suspicion. Rumor has it that ex-President Jimmy Carter grew up in a family that whiled away Sunday evenings reading Dylan Thomas aloud to each other. There’s no doubt in my mind that if a middle-class family did such a thing today, they would be shunned as pretentious jerks.
There are reasons for this general distrust of poetry: As Anthony Reed of Yale’s English and African-American studies departments reminds me, this disdain for “poetry” as a members-only elite culture is a healthy instinct, but is easily articulated within our wide array of regressive ideologies. We Americans are populist in all the wrong places. We’re a nation that can’t funnel enough money to our failing banks, our pharmaceutical firms and our military contractors, but when it comes to dead and difficult poets we stand on our hind legs and become bravely anti-elitist. (This is assuming that adjunct professors and poets neck deep in M.F.A. debt meet your definition of “elite.”)
To be sure, poetry still rears its head on solemn occasions, like births, deaths, graduations, inaugurations. I’m not sure how much these official connections help poetry’s cause. The human spirit can withstand only so much official uplift and only so many valedictorians. Much of the best-loved poetry, from Baudelaire to Baraka, is wholly unsuitable for public ceremonies. Poetry needs to be profane as well as sacred.
In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that the United States, with its leveling democracy ruled by commerce, was profoundly “antipoétique” in spirit. Boy, was he wrong. Our public discourse is soaked through with poetry and its devices — just not where it should be. Southeast Asian nations were likened to “dominoes in a row”; the Middle East was metaphorized as a “swamp” in need of “draining”; a “war” on drugs has become literal. How many Americans have killed and died for the sake of bad metaphors?
Our high-end pundits also make liberal use of poetic conceits. A typical Thomas Friedman column freestyles with the febrile, taboo-busting mojo of a Beat in heat — such as the time 11 years ago when he shared a sub-Blakean vision to Charlie Rose about an entire nation (Iraq) trapped inside a “bubble” to be punctured by American soldiers going door to door, telling people to “Suck. On. This.” Wild, man!
The rampant, undisciplined use of synecdoche, personification and the like clearly leads to calamity. So what, then, is an appropriate model for a popular poetry culture?
Here’s an idea: Poetry should have the same kind of social acceptability and vernacular expertise as sports. After all, most American men, and many women too, are not just sports fans but sports intellectuals, with personal experience playing the games, statistics and facts at the ready, deep historical knowledge — all without ever having taken a course in the subject. People adore sports not as therapy or middlebrow self-betterment but for sports’ own formalist sake: I hate to admit it, but “l’art pour l’art” is a jock construct.
A broad-based, all-welcome poetry culture: This is in the national interest. Knowing poetry will provide us with hours of blissful delight, fun for the whole family, and so on and so forth. And who knows — it may even help us decode the fantastical schemes of our elites.