Thursday, September 23, 2010

Would It Kill You to Read Some Poetry?

Via amba12 on Twitter, Barry Casselman discusses why Americans no longer read poetry:
Outside the older grades of high school and most college English literature courses, almost no one in America reads poetry. It is often pointed out that this is not so in many other countries, especially societies in Europe, South America and Asia. In the U.S. past there seemed to be more poetry readers, especially in the 19th century when American poetry first blossomed.

The question is whether this is due to the character of American civilization itself, the current state of the U.S. cultural mood, the nature of poetry in the American English tongue, or the contemporary quality of poets and their writing. In short, is the lack of interest in poetry inherent in our U.S. society, or is it the responsibility of those who write poetry?

I come down on the side of writer responsibility. It's not the reader who is uninterested; it's the writer who is uninteresting.

Casselman points to what he thinks is the problem with American poetry:
So much contemporary U.S.poetry, in my opinion, is so esoteric, obscurely self-referential and political that the task is immense. I think it will require a new and younger generation of poets.

I should add that some of the problems affecting poetry have also affected serious U.S. music, painting, sculpture, dance and theater. Poetry is not alone in this dilemma.

I think once the arts became democratized, that anyone can paint or write or make music or do anything in the arts and no one could tell you otherwise, the arts fell into decline. If anything goes, nothing does, and we've reached the point now where the consumer of art is guilty of failing to "get" the artist rather than the artist failing to communicate his intentions. That's why I get a sense of hostility from modern art when we visit the art museum. I feel I'm being assaulted because of my ignorance when, really, all I want to do is look at pretty pictures.

But back to poetry. My favorite contemporary poet, - my only favorite contemporary poet - Billy Collins, when he was Poet Laureate of the United States, introduced Poetry 180, a program to bring a poem a day into the daily routine of high-schoolers. I'm not sure if it helped but at least students had the opportunity to hear good poetry. I admit to not being entirely comfortable with free-verse poetry - isn't it really just prose chopped up into verses and stanzas - but Collins style is sort of free verse and I seem to have no problem with that. Sure, I think poetry should follow formal rules - like Robert Frost said about free-verse being like playing tennis without a net - except for when poetry doesn't follow the rules. I just want it to be well-written - you do, too, don't you? - and that's sometimes hard to pin down. Ray Bradbury says you may not understand poetry but your animal brain does. I enjoy Collins because of his wry humor and observations of every day objects and his descriptions of clouds. Give him a try and you might find you like poetry, too. It certainly won't kill you. And neither will eating broccoli so you need to do that, too.

1 comment:

  1. More than a year ago, Amba briefly explored Poetry 140 which involved tweeting verse with 140 character pentameter. It flourished for a few days but then, sadly, disappeared in the noise. :(