I Need Poetry. Do You?
A few days ago, someone posted a June 14, 2014 New York Times opinion piece by William Logan in the Ohio Poetry Association group on Facebook. Poet and critic Logan asks a question — “Poetry: Who Needs It?“.
I’m a poet. Of course I’m going to be biased. I will tell you that everyone needs it: from the United Nations, our heads of state, and our religious and philosophical thinkers and leaders, to the person who’s cleaning toilets for long hours and obscenely bad pay. (Carl Sandburg might especially think the person cleaning toilets needs poetry.)
Most of the public does not agree with me, or other poets for that matter. Responses to “I’m a poet” can range from a glow in the eye and an unlocking of the tongue as the person waxes fannishly over their favorite poets and poems to…well, crickets. Sadly, most responses are of the less enthusiastic kind: the aforementioned crickets, or “oh, I don’t get poetry”, or even “I hate poetry”.
In response, we have done many things to promote our own work as well as the art form as a whole. We’ve tweeted, slammed, organized readings, started and maintained literary journals and presses, self-published chapbooks (and even given them away), blogged, created YouTube/Instagram poetry, even financed its appearance in public spaces (subway ads, billboards, and the like). There is certainly no shortage of media and methods for the transmission of poetry. But what is the end result? As Logan put it:
“We have all these ways of throwing poetry at the crowd, but the crowd is not composed of people who particularly want to read poetry — or who, having read a little poetry, are likely to buy the latest edition of ‘Paradise Lost.'”
The culture snob in me wants to blame reality television, the overglorification of professional sports, and a variety of other things on poetry’s lack of popularity. But I’m not here to make those arguments or to dissect all of the possible reasons why poetry, as Logan put in this article, is a “major art with a minor audience”. Rather, I’m coming to terms with the possibility that the audience for poetry will remain small, perhaps indefinitely. And I’m slowly becoming okay with that.
Logan might challenge many of us poets when he declares that “THE idea that poetry must be popular is simply a mistake”. I think some of us would love for poetry to be popular, and that’s perfectly natural: not just for a sheer love of the art form but also because the result of our painstaking labors — writing, revising, crafting, shaping, reciting, memorizing, performing, and publishing — would be seen by more than a small group of enthusiasts. Maybe — if some of us care to admit this — we’d love to have rock-star status. (Of course, many of us would not want that kind of fame in a million years — too much scrutiny, too much commercialization of our product, too little privacy. Just ask Kurt Cobain or Jim Morrison sometime.) However, unless there is a massive cultural shift, poetry will likely remain what it is: a love, a special interest, engaged with and participated in by a small niche group.
And there is absolutely nothing wrong with being in a niche group or loving a special interest. (I’m autistic. I can tell you all about “special interests”.) So many pursuits and interests vie for our attention that it is inevitable each of us will have a specialized or niche-type interest. For example, I’m also a Whovian and judging from what I’ve seen of Doctor Who fandom, you’re either in it, or you’re not. You get it, or you don’t. Maybe that’s what poetry is for us poets — and there are enough of us that love it, obsess over it, wax fannish over it to keep it alive.
So, we’ve heard it decreed that poetry is a “dying” art, right? We poets and lovers of poetry prove this wrong all of the time. If poetry were truly dying, no one would bother to start up new literary journals, zines, or small/indie presses devoted entirely or in part to publishing it. There would be no spoken word, no poetry slams, no new albums, and no music written for it. No one would create videopoems or poetry films. No one would study it: there would be no craft workshops, no criticism, no discussion of form and technique, no books written about it, and no programs of study in higher education for it. There would be no micropoetry, no Twitter poetry, no Tumblr poetry, no blogged poetry, and no visual poetry on Instagram. Genres that are typically side-eyed by intellectual elitists — hip-hop, verse, cowboy poetry, rhyming ballads, perhaps even slam — would probably cease to exist. I would not be pursuing an MFA in poetry, and you wouldn’t be reading these words.
Besides delivering a bit of a reality check, Logan also says that “poetry is what language alone can do”. I don’t think any of us poets and lovers of poetry would seriously doubt that statement. First of all, consider the impact of poetry in regards to social change. Allen Ginsburg’s publishers were arrested for it and the trial over “Howl” produced an important landmark decision concerning obscenity and free speech. Walt Whitman’s frankly honest and sensual work shocked readers to the point that one reviewer declared that he should be banished to “his own desert places, to love and live with his ineffable Me, and to exalt his raucous voice to the limitless Saharas”. Poetry has been harnessed as a part of movements for social change — for example, abolitionist poetry, feminist poetry, queer poetry, and more recently the #BlackPoetsSpeakOut initiative in response to Ferguson, the murder of Eric Garner, and other similar events.
Let’s also consider what poetry does for us on a personal level. I know that for me, it offered hope that I wasn’t alone. Its words were friends to me when I had none. It gave me space in which to find something magnificent, beautiful, real, sorrowful, ugly, or glittering: a haven temporarily unreachable by school bullies and my dysfunctional family. Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, and Nikki Giovanni helped me — a multiracial person whose Black father and White mother failed to teach them anything about race or identity — begin to understand what “Black” meant. And as a young autistic teenager, poetry and the written word as a whole helped me find a voice when I couldn’t quite force the words out of my mouth, or when they refused to form in my speech center in the first place.
Social change and personal impact aside, however, let’s consider poetry for what it is alone. Logan asserts that “to live continually in the natter of ill-written and ill-spoken prose is to become deaf to what language can do”. Poetry can get lost in all of the prose out there, but my God, isn’t it a thrill to just play with language to create art? Make a pun? Execute rhyme, alliteration, assonance, and meter with such craft and skill that you defy anyone who would dare call it sing-songy, or you a mere writer of verse? And what about tightly structured and well-crafted free verse, such as the poems in Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris or J. David Cummings’ Tancho? What would creative non-fiction be without poetry, one of its building blocks? Where would fiction itself be without the sort of imaginative language which arises from poetry? (I’ll go geek for a moment: imagine what Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or The Lord of the Rings books would be without the poems. I dare you.)
So hell yeah, I’ve got a vested interest in poetry. Absolutely. I need poetry. And I don’t care how niche of an interest it is — I posit that culture and language also need poetry. So read it, or don’t. I’ll still write it, read it, discuss it, critique it, perform it, and publish it — and so will the rest of us poets. We, and the art form, will perdure.
I invite others to join in the conversation. I’ve an idea — why don’t you write something? Talk about why you need poetry. Want to turn this into a blog hop? Jolly good. Let me know if you’re game in the comments below and let’s use #INeedPoetry as our tag. Allons-y!