When Henry Wadsworth Longfellow visited London in 1868, he was invited by Queen Victoria to an audience at Windsor Castle. She complimented him on his poetry, assuring him that all her servants read it. Though Oscar Wilde took this phrase to be a rebuke of Longfellow’s vanity, why should it not be sincere? The claim was plausible. In the same century, French readers, in their impatience, tore at new collections of Victor Hugo’s verse, and the poet Alphonse de Lamartine could tell a detractor that his book would soon be in every cobbler’s pocket. Do Americans who work today in the service industry, trades, and skilled jobs read poems? Do they, or does anyone, like poetry?
Certainly, our tax dollars—federal, state, and local—support it. Innumerable organizations and foundations do likewise, using their own funds and government grants. Lectures, conferences, readings, workshops, open-mike sessions and “slams” in coffee shops and bars, prizes and awards, publications of many sorts, specialty bookshops (Malvern’s, in Austin, Texas, for instance), websites, radio readings, poets laureate, presidential-inauguration poems, National Poetry Month (April), poets-in-residence in schools and colleges—all indicate how, since the 1960’s, poetry, or what passes for it, has become a major cultural player. Free verse predominates, seldom appealing to the ear; in many quarters it is the only form. There is a lot of trash, and you wouldn’t want certain poets around your children. At a public library where half a dozen teachers and graduate students from the University of Houston presented their work, little was good, poetically, and much was coarse. “Art lives on constraint and dies of freedom,” wrote André Gide.
The number of poets laureate illustrates the high profile of poetry. Billy Collins, a former United States and New York laureate, said, “The country is crawling with them. I think it’s out of control.” Almost every state has one, plus cities (Los Angeles, Boston, Houston, Milwaukee) and dozens of counties. Some national laureates (formerly “Poetry Consultants to the Library of Congress”) were truly eminent: Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, Richard Wilbur. Saint-John Perse (Alexis Leger), who in the 1940’s held a privately funded position as a quasiconsultant, won the 1960 Nobel Prize for Literature. (As secretary general of the French foreign ministry, he had been obliged to flee Paris in 1940.) The Russian-Jewish émigré Joseph Brodsky, poet laureate in 1991, was another Nobel Prize winner. Recent state laureates include accomplished, nationally respected figures such as Kelly Cherry of Virginia and David Mason, who held the Colorado laureateship for a four-year term. Some make admirable efforts for their state: Mason visited all 64 Colorado counties, and Darrell Bourque, of Louisiana, was similarly enterprising.
In contrast, the forgettable first poet laureate of Houston, Gwendolyn Zepeda, had not yet published a collection of verse when she was appointed (2013); her only books were stories, with a tasteless title, and a novel identified as “chick lit.” In 2014 the North Carolina appointee resigned after a furor over her credentials, two self-published books. (Gov. Pat McCrory attacked the critics’ “hostility and condescension.”) However the public reacts to such appointments, the term poet laureate in newspapers does attract attention.
Certain national magazines and city dailies, as well as countless “little magazines,” publish verse. Innumerable new poetry collections and anthologies appear every year, with imprints ranging from Norton and Knopf through university presses—Illinois, LSU, Wesleyan, Yale, Chicago, Mercer, Georgia, and others—to independent presses, known only locally and among aficionados. Some newspapers still review these books.
Then there is the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, “the world’s largest network of literary patronage,” composed of nearly 50,000 individual and institutional members. Known by its original acronym, AWP, it was founded in 1967 to promote creative writing in English departments. The campaign was successful. There are at present some 500 academic writing programs, many of which grant advanced degrees. They turn out hundreds of graduates, who are likely to become teachers in similar programs. AWP underwrites 125 writers’ conferences and centers and puts on the largest literary conference in North America. Not all members are poets, of course, nor all the programs devoted to their art; fiction and, increasingly, creative nonfiction are popular fields of study. Yet poetry is often favored, being easier to compose (no plot line to manage) and get published piecemeal, and often more accessible. Curricula may include, as at NYU and the University of Rochester, literary translation at the bachelor’s and master’s level. There is a market for poetry translations; Malvern’s displays a wide selection of French, Spanish, and Russian poets, including new versions of works already available.
Poetry occupies a place also in primary and secondary schools. It is thought to be within the reach of all—truly a democratic medium. In addition to regular classroom instruction, visiting poets read and offer workshops. Diane Raptosh, Idaho’s writer-in-residence, reportedly gave one on a school bus. The blogger Elena Aguilar, a “transformational leadership coach” from Oakland, California, explains why poetry should be taught in schools: It helps build a sense of community; it allows “kids” to express sides of themselves or experiences they might conceal otherwise—hurts, family discord. (She means it is therapeutic.) It gives opportunities for speaking and listening; its rhythms are appealing; and it suits those with inferior English because in poetry rules may be broken; students can use foreign words or even compose in a foreign language. Thus, for the 150th anniversary celebration of Boise, Raptosh, then city laureate, read poems using local slang, Spanish, and Somali. For the “sense of community” aim, consider the campaign organized by Juan Felipe Herrera, a former California laureate and, as of this summer, the new national appointee, directed toward having pupils use poetry to “shape their feelings about bullying into collective expression.” A British poet, Fiona Sampson, wisely argued, however, that “poetry is not a tool for teaching other things.”
Further evidence of enthusiasm for poetry comes from prisons. Prisoners are, to be sure, a specialized population, living under restrictions and often in need of diversion and counseling. Numerous poets listed in the online directory of Poets & Writers (a large New York outfit) indicate their willingness to make prison appearances. Richard Shelton has visited Arizona facilities for decades, after an inmate on death row asked for comments on his writing; work by Shelton’s students has been published. In Nevada, a poet holds workshops in a prison several times per year. There are podcasts and handbooks for prisoners and programs featuring their work. Although the aim may be reform, such activities serve initially as outlets and therapy, a way of exteriorizing feelings. But, as Paul Valéry observed, all the feelings in the world are incapable, by themselves, of producing one good poetic line.
The popularity of poetry in schools and prisons springs doubtless from its facility and generic malleability. (Just say it!) It is not only democratic but open-ended. Workshops and classes allow for indoctrination; liberals, who largely dominate institutions, apparently believe it is appropriate, indeed their duty, to impress their views on captive audiences, where there is little likelihood of objection. The prominence of many widely published poets is a result of their public embracing of righteous causes. Sharon Olds, for example, has focused on global injustices as well as sex, child abuse, and violence.
Countless ethnic activists and members of “special interest” groups similarly use writing as a platform, akin, and sometimes joined, to marching in the streets. Leroi Jones, renamed Amiri Baraka, ranted for decades against white racism and for black liberation. Rita Dove, considered the first activist U.S. poet laureate (1993-95), organized a program of writing on the African diaspora. Her 2011 Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century Poetry was criticized for its “inclusive, populist agenda.” Brenda Marie Osbey, of New Orleans, has let her hostility to whites dominate her writing increasingly. Typical of writing by Natasha Trethewey, U.S. poet laureate recently and the current Mississippi appointee, is “Domestic Work, 1937” (really, a nonpoem), ending, “Let’s make a change, girl.” Today’s whining Chicana poets, partisans of la raza, harp on oppression and frequently promote radical feminism. One “progressive” woman with good credentials declined to submit material to Chronicles, saying she wanted her valuable work to appear where it would do good, by her terms. Doing good and being good differ; it requires great skill to produce a satisfactory poem supporting a thesis or embodying a platform. As Eudora Welty wrote, “The zeal to reform, which quite properly inspires the editorial, has never done [literature] much good.”
Another important vein of verse, doggerel, must not be overlooked. Smutty verse circulates underground or in trade and professional circles; cowboy-poetry festivals attract thousands of devotees; greeting cards with rhymes sell by the millions. Limericks without number are collected and appreciated by many.
In sum, anyone can be a poet, and poetry appears indeed to be popular. But what is meant here, or should be meant, by poetry? What is its value? The best critics of the past addressed those matters at length. I would not argue against the assertion that poetry is fundamental, found almost everywhere, like music, and having nearly universal appeal. (What lover has not wanted to write lines for his beloved? What child has not attempted verses, a valentine, perhaps, for his parents, his teacher?) But the quality of poetry varies greatly by time and place; it is subject now to inflation, and what is identified as a poem does not correspond necessarily to what it should be. The late Miller Williams, who read at W.J. Clinton’s second inauguration, wrote a poem every morning (he said). If a poem can be dashed off, without further thought, why not? The easier is ordinarily more appealing than the challenging, whether it be one’s livelihood or literary expression. The following poem, titled “At the California Institute of Technology,” was both. The author, Richard Brautigan, now deceased, connected to the San Francisco counterculture movement, was poet-in-residence at that institution in the winter of 1967.
I don’t care how God-damn smart
these guys are: I’m bored.
It’s been raining like hell all day long
and there’s nothing to do.
That is the entire poem, available on the internet. The people of California paid for Brautigan to be on campus.
The premise that Americans love poetry requires reexamination, in light of the evidence. For, despite its apparent popularity, to service-industry and blue-collar workers, tradesmen, even most college students and white-collar professionals, poetry is alien. As Kevin Gardner wrote in the Sewanee Review this past winter, “Lovers of poetry are no doubt an endangered population, particularly in the U.S., where poetry may be esteemed, yet has little popular regard.” The New Yorker publishes some hundred poems annually (few very good), but how many subscribers read the verse? Note that, in addition to poets, of which the present writer is one, the organizers and administrators of poetry programs, teachers, purveyors of materials, participants, and their families are not disinterested parties. How many rival organizations and their members receive their attention? How many books of poetry do they borrow from libraries or buy each year? What are your chances of finding good contemporary poetry in your local high-volume bookstore?
Moreover, among others knowledgeable enough to have an opinion, even modest, on current poetry, there is widespread disillusion. That is encouraging, in a way; the common reader retains some sense of what a poem should and should not be. Art—style and form—is expected. Willa Cather wrote, “There is nothing so unmistakable as a true poem.” Even good free verse relies, often subtly, on sound effects, shaping, and aesthetic discretion. Before hip-hop, before the screaming and gyrating of Michael Jackson and similar performers, popular songs furnished models of meter and rhyme, at least; country music remains influential, though western has declined. Good poetry is still not unknown in schools. Other models come from the Christian hymn tradition. An abyss lies between Brautigan’s product and verse by George Herbert, John Milton, and Charles Wesley—and translations from the Greek Didache, Latin chants, and 16th- and 17th-century German hymns.
Rock stars, rappers, and literary radicals, who are usually social radicals, must bear responsibility (along with other cultural practitioners) for having alienated an audience with good ears. Toward those with cultivated taste and discernment—an elite—radical critics may be indifferent or, more likely, express antipathy. Form and formality are taken for priggishness and moral tyranny. In the webzine Raintown Review, a certain Quincy Lehr attacked the contemporary “canon poem,” one that refers to earlier models in form, treatment, tone, and having, presumably, older cultural assumptions. Why pay obeisance to offensive antediluvian motifs and traditions—classist, sexist, racist?
This picture is unlikely to change, since the progressive current dominates American culture and will do so increasingly, as illegal and legal immigration allows millions of foreigners, many with alien traditions, to settle in the United States and exercise social and political influence—whence the popularity of writing by and for the unlettered and unassimilated. In the foreseeable future, there will be, increasingly, low standards, vulgarity, and ignorance. Whether highly trained or simply attuned to older poetry modes, those who can recognize and value canonic verse and that of today’s best poets will probably decrease in number, and better writing will decline in value, according to Gresham’s Law. It would be useless and wasteful, however, to try increasing its appeal by making it worse. Good taste, fine skills, and what David R. Slavitt calls “the morality of vision” do not easily allow of adulteration without losing their essence. What is well imagined, well crafted, with attention to every aspect of poetic art, cannot become more useful by being transformed into popular idiom.
Useful, I have written. Poetry must not, however, be viewed as utilitarian; that is an aesthetic and human error. Yet nonutilitarian does not mean without place, without purpose. Poetry appeals to our senses and emotions, stirring us, soothing us, sending us soaring. Perhaps it is also like love: hard to define, not strictly necessary for physical existence, but fundamental to our natures and to all we deem worthwhile. You can scarcely live without it. We must rely on ourselves and our fellows, not the common millions and their Pied Pipers, but small circles of readers and writers (including, we hope, converts)—those intellectual and spiritual kin who appreciate poetic value.