Seventeen years ago The Atlantic Monthly published an article titled “Can Poetry Matter?” Its author, Dana Gioia, a poet himself, acknowledged poetry’s “diminished stature” and wrote, “poetry has lost the confidence that it speaks to and for the general culture.” The essay appeared again the following year as part of a book with the same title and caused quite a ruckus.
Florida poet Campbell McGrath was a bit more matter-of-fact about the problem in a recent interview, saying that “poetry is a marginal art form in a culture that values neither literacy nor artistic expression in any vital way. America does not persecute poets, it does not hate them and seek to smash them like bugs—it just doesn’t really care a lot. The country is a pragmatic, dollar-and-cents kind of place.”
Most poets won’t as frankly admit that their art has lost its following. But in an age dominated by video media and instant global transfer of information, it has. The decline may have something to do with poetry’s essential nature, which is slow, meditative, and verbal. Poetry, with its rhyme and rhythm (qualities many of today’s poets won’t admit), is designed to be read, reread, and memorized—unlike, say, a Bud Light commercial, which is designed to be fully understood at a glance. Although poetry has the power to shape an entire culture on its own (see William Shakespeare), an argument might be made that it’s less useful in the video age. It might even be considered a nuisance.
Still, I like poems. I write them all the time and publish them in small journals, on poetry Web sites, email lists, blogs—whatever venue will have me. I find that poems work well these days as a kind of counterpoint to consumer culture, a place where thinking can happen amidst all the commercial noise. They have to be downright tricky, though, to find an audience within a population conditioned to view poetry as little more than fodder for a literature classroom. Even the traditional means of distributing poetry have dried up. Newspapers don’t include original poems any more, nor do most commercial magazines, and the ones that do—notably The Atlantic and The New Yorker—are recognized for the fact that they do. Poetry is viewed as high culture, too high for most practical Americans.
The Pervasiveness of Poetry
Rather than lamenting poetry’s disappearance, however, it may be more productive to think about the ways poetry still creeps into our daily lives. For Christians, poetry comes in the form of the hymns that they sing on Sunday and may think about during the rest of the week. My church in St. Louis recently included in its Sunday worship “The Church’s One Foundation,” a hymn written in 1866 by English clergyman Samuel Stone. The lyrics are powerful even when considered without the melody. It is a poem in its own right. Here is the second stanza:
Elect from every nation,
yet one o’er all the earth;
her charter of salvation,
one Lord, one faith, one birth;
one holy name she blesses,
partakes one holy food,
and to one hope she presses,
with every grace endued.
The grace in these lines is at once thematic—projecting a body “endued” or provided with grace—and structural. First, the word “one” is repeated again and again, bracketed in the first and last lines by its antonym, “every.” There’s comfort in this antinomy, even as there’s comfort in the American notion of a singular “unum” arising from a diverse “pluribus.” The poetic device at work is called chiasm, which is a nesting of ideas within other ideas, and it is probably not here by accident—chiasm is used often throughout the Psalter, with which Samuel Stone would have been intimately familiar.
And second, there’s a uniform metrical variation: the first, third, fifth, and seventh lines begin and end with unstressed syllables, and lines two, four, six, and eight end with definitive hard stresses (“earth,” “birth,” “food,” and “-dued”). This, too, is comforting; the unstressed line endings, left tense and unresolved, find closure in the hard stresses. The combination of chiasm and alternating meter makes the final line glorious indeed. It is a woven pattern that, in the end, all makes sense, reinforcing the stanza’s meaning.
Another way poetry, or poetic form, is still readily available to most Americans is through popular music. In the past, I wrote a column for Paste magazine titled “Lyric,” which looked at pop song lyrics as though they were canonical poetry—holding them to the same standards to which one would hold, say, Wallace Stevens or Emily Dickinson. The results were amazing. A lot of contemporary song lyrics connect not only to traditional themes but to traditional poetic devices, such as alliteration, enjambment, rhyme, rhythm, and so forth. Although most lyrics are throwaway—“bubble gum,” as the generation before mine used to say—some of them have lasting literary value.
Of all the lyrics I looked at for Paste, the ones I found most stirring as poetry were those of Steely Dan. I wrote:
Steely Dan’s stories don’t always make sense. They seem like references to a private world, and we’re rarely given enough information to complete the picture. What’s great about these lyrics is that the detail supplied is interesting enough on its own terms, like this casual aside in “Rose Darling”:
I would guess she’s in Detroit –
With lots of money in the bank,
Although I could be wrong.
The voice here sounds world-weary; you can hear it in the name of the city, Detroit, and in the concession that he might have no idea where this woman is. Does it even matter where she went? All we’re given is a fragment, but it’s a suggestive one, both of the speaker’s personality and of the situation at hand. A world comes to mind.
Pop Music Poets
That article came out several years ago, and since then I’ve found a lot more popular music that sneaks poetry into our lives—and by poetry I don’t mean merely lyrics that rhyme. Some of the best poetry is to be found in songs by rappers like Eminem, Kanye West, and MC Common. Note the following stanza from West’s “Heard ‘Em Say”:
They say people in your life are seasons,
And anything that happen is for a reason,
And n*ggas gun clappin’ and keep to squeezin’,
And Gran keep prayin’ and keep believin’
In Jesus and one day that ya see him
Till ya walk in his footsteps and try to be him—
The devil is alive, I feel him breathin’,
Claimin’ money is the key so keep on dreamin’,
And put them lottery tickets just to tease us,
My Aunt Pam can’t put them cigarettes down,
Now my little cousin smokin’ them cigarettes now,
His job trying to claim that he too n*ggerish now,
Is it ‘cause his skin blacker than licorice now?
I can’t figure it out …
I’m stickin’ it out …
I know that it’s risky to cite Kanye West in byFaith. Much of his lyrical content is deeply objectionable, violent, sexually graphic, and so forth. And in the tradition of most rap CDs, West’s bear friendly “Parental Advisory, Explicit Lyrics” stickers. But his world is complex and literary.
The tension at the heart of this passage lies between the old world and a new world. The old world presented with consolations of Ecclesiastes (line one), divine providence (line two), and a grandmother’s religious fervor—and a new world in which the “devil is alive” in gun violence, love of money, the lottery, chain-smoking, racism, and difficulty staying employed. The tension won’t be easily resolved, as the poet admits in the penultimate line, “I can’t figure it out,” but concludes with cool resolution: “I’m stickin’ it out.” West, like John Milton, is a moralist with a vision for heaven and hell, right and wrong—like Jonathan Swift, he clearly sees the problems inherent in his culture and cries out against them.
But is it poetry? This passage’s intricate pattern of end-rhyme (“seasons,” “reason,” “squeezin’”) and in-rhyme (“happen,” “clappin’,” and “prayin’”), plus its sophisticated metrical movement, which is mostly trochaic (stressed followed by unstressed syllables) peppered with telling spondees (double hard stresses) such as “gun clap-”, places it squarely in the realm of Homer. Ancient Greek poetry favors feet that begin with a hard stresses (trochees and dactyls) and often inserts spondees for emphasis. And yes, that’s exactly what Kanye West does—you’ll also find that Greek poetry was sung and accompanied. It was oral poetry, written for hours of chanting.
Finding a Niche
It would be wrong to carry on as though there were no “real” poetry available, the kind that is published in hip journals like Canary and Chicago Review and ends up in books with ISBNs and blurbs on the back cover. There is. A small fleet of independent presses produce tens of thousands of such books, presses with names like Verse and Copper Canyon, Graywolf, Milkweed Editions, and Action Books. Larger indie presses distribute through Baker & Taylor or Ingram, so their books are available at Borders and Barnes & Noble. Many of the rest find their way to market through Small Press Distribution in Berkeley, Calif. Winners of the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award are routinely selected from these publishers’ lists.
There are also countless MFA (Master in Fine Arts) workshops devoted exclusively to poetry writing, auxiliary programs such as Cave Canem (for African-American poets), storied writer’s colonies like Bread Loaf and Yaddo, and the yearly AWP (Associated Writing Programs) conference, which is the moveable mecca of today’s poets of every aesthetic commitment. Together, these form the heart and soul of American poetry culture. It is a culture that has its own awards. It has its own contemporary heroes. At its worst it is an insular, self-congratulating world that, with higher-level connections to The New Yorker, Paris Review, academia, and so forth, claims the official lineage of famous dead poets such as Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein. At its best it is a productive, lively community of living poets who have collectively decided that it doesn’t matter whether the general public is paying attention to their art.
Whatever the case, the odds are that you, gentle reader, unless you are an academic or a poet yourself, know next to nothing about contemporary poetry culture. This was the source of Dana Gioia’s frustration, and it is a problem that has yet to be resolved.
That’s not to say there’s nothing good in the official poetry world, so, the rest of this essay will serve as a tour of some of that world’s highlights. Who are the great poets that exist in this separate plane?
One of my personal favorites is John Ashbery, a member of the vaunted New York School, who is relatively visible to the outside world even though most of his work would prove daunting to the novice poetry reader. My favorites of his are the ones that make the most obvious sense. “Myrtle,” for example, begins:
How funny your name would be
if you could follow it back to where
the first person thought of saying it,
naming himself that, or maybe
some other persons thought of it
and named that person.
The poem begins with an observation that is casually delivered but true enough. It would be interesting to track your name back to its first usage—meet the person first named. Then:
be like following a river to its source,
which would be impossible. Rivers have no source.
Yes, we follow. The initial proposition was impossible, and so is the analogy, or at least according to the logic of the poem (if the analogy is to work) it has to be. The poem concludes:
They just automatically appear at a place
where they get wider, and soon a real
river comes along, with fish and debris,
regal as you please, and someone
has already given it a name: St. Benno
(saints are popular for this purpose) or, or
some other name, the name of his
long-lost girlfriend, who comes
at long last to impersonate that river,
on a stage, her voice clanking
like its bed, her clothing of sand
and pasted paper, a piece of real technology,
while all along she is thinking, I can
do what I want to do. But I want to stay here.
The great thing about Ashbery is that he’s willing to let his mind wander in public. He’s paid close enough attention to his mental leaps to know when they make sense. He’s gathered his distractedness into keen intuition. Hence we move from an arguably not-very-profound observation to an ex-girlfriend’s insistent, “I want to stay here.” The mental pathway conducts the reader “automatically” through the bed of a dead river, a cluster of unidentified machine technology, and finally to a woman’s thoughts about home: which, in a sense, is where the poem started, with the name by which you’re known, your verbal home.
Another poet I wish more people knew about is Ron Padgett, also kin to the New York School, though younger. “How did people trim their toenails in ancient times?” begins the poem “Nails” in his latest collection, How to Be Perfect.
The Virgin Mary’s toenails look fine
in the paintings of the Italian Renaissance,
and it’s a good thing too, for it would be hard
to worship a figure with very long toenails.
The balance of the poem is dedicated to a discussion of Jesus and the cultural importance of beauty. It is a whimsical piece with just enough gravitas to seem meaningful—perhaps even to be meaningful—which aptly describes the best postmodern poems.
A poet of thicker verbiage, which is partly to say a poet less given to a casual manner, is Ange Mlinko, whose book Starred Wire won the National Poetry Series a few years ago. “Rusticity” begins:
Smiling boughs most certainly mocked us:
Where are you? they asked like hypnotists
& we ventured, “In your green brain,
with your thoughts singing, & each note
is a small inflation, squaring the shoulders
& jarring the wings. Here are other thoughts,
giving off wild strawberry & mock orange,
to which we add the smell of our fresh scratches.”
The quick, strange, intensely verbal movement of Mlinko’s poetry might again prove a challenge to the novice reader. As all great poetry, it requires rereading and even reading aloud. It helps to get the tongue around it. All the s’s in lines one and two, “smiling boughs … certainly … us … hypnotists,” sway softly like the breeze one imagines blowing the boughs she’s describing. Then the solid spondee “green brain” echoed by another, “each note.” There’s more music than one can analytically identify, but it reflects a depth of contemplation fitting to the meaning of the passage. The poet imagines tree branches grinning, teasing her; she outdoes them with her answer. Line after line is surprising. Line after line is pleasing to read.
Why read poetry? Well, you have to if you sing hymns. You probably hear it anyway if you turn on the radio. And if someone out there is making a case that poetry no longer enjoys a large audience, they’re working with a rather limited definition of the term “poetry.” In the end it might even be worth your while to explore the poetry section at Borders, and then to venture, perhaps, to a live poetry reading?
If you need help finding a poetry reading near you, email Aaron Belz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Aaron Belz writes poetry in his hometown of St. Louis, Mo. His writing has appeared in Boston Review, Books & Culture, World, First Things, Wired, and other places, and his debut poetry collection, The Bird Hoverer, was published by BlazeVOX in 2007. His second, Direction, is forthcoming Persea Books.