Wednesday, November 12, 2014

What matters about asking "Does Poetry Matter?"

Poetry has been slammed by Harpers. It’s been declared dead at the Washington Post. It’s been called AWOL by NPR Books. Whenever recent observers announce poetry’s demise, their autopsies tend to offer impalement by ivory tower as a major cause of death. They tell us that poetry is out of touch, that the genre is too much a part of the incestuous relationship between graduate creative writing programs, literary journals, and publishers, all of which are controlled and operated by (mostly academic) insiders. This has marginalized what was allegedly once a mainstream art and disconnected it from those masses apparently yearning for poetry out there in the wide world. The critics, then, are standing up for the vague notion of a “general” public when they attack the academic version of poetry, though I’m still not sure how any of these folks writing for Harpers, the Post, or NPR is any less a part of the overeducated middle-class literati than any member of the AWP.

The editors of the New York Times took a more conciliatory approach in addressing the state of the art by posing the question “Does poetry matter?” to a forum of highly decorated poets. (As far as I’m concerned, Jonathan Farmer’s response to this exercise in the LA Review of Books far outshone anything included in the original forum.) The editors’ introduction included the sub-question “Can poetry ever regain its relevancy?” Even if I ignore their frame of reference—I’m not sure when poetry ever was “relevant” or ever did “matter” in the way they mean—the fact that these questions are being asked at all suggests there’s a crisis in the art so severe that its very existence needs to be interrogated. On the other hand, even while the editors question poetry’s validity, their decision to present this particular forum seems an endorsement of poetry’s viability as a topic of interest for their general readership, which is a funny thing for dying art. The Times seems to be banking on the idea that there’s enough merit in the question for it to be taken seriously and that there are enough people seriously invested in poetry for the forum to attract traffic to their site in serious numbers. I suspect the argument did exactly that for the Times as well as for the Post, Harpers, Slate, and even here at the Poetry Foundation—and wherever else it tumbled onward.

If there’s a credible complaint in the criticism, it’s that we can’t distinguish art from the context in which it’s produced. The critics, however, focus on factors of aesthetics and personality when they ought to be paying attention to factors of economics and market forces. There is a desire in graduate-educated poets to write for the sake of readers, but there’s also a desire to leverage that writing into a career. We need to impress each other as much or more than we need to impress those outside of our immediate industry. A consequence of this is an interiority to the poetry we produce, but I don’t think that interiority is the result of snobbery, meekness, or obliviousness among poets the way critics have alleged. Too many of us are politically motivated in our writing and politically active in our lives for those accusations to hold up. I think it has more to do with the subtle effects that academia and the privilege inherent to it has on our language. If we intend for our work to appeal to an audience outside of ourselves, the first step might be to acknowledge the isolating effects of that privilege and admit that we need to learn as much about WIC checks and second shifts as we do about disjunctive narrativity and postmodernism. If we come from places that have taught us something about the former, our writing might benefit from not losing that culture and language to the culture of graduate schooling.

This isn’t to say that I have no problem with the critics’ complaints. It’s true there are poets, both established and aspiring, who have long forgotten or never acknowledged the ways they’ve benefited from the class advantages of higher education. There are also poets for whom the esoteric concerns of academic scholars and critics have become the primary motivating force in their writing. Both types of writer have little need for or interest in a mainstream audience. These are aesthetes writing for aesthetes. There isn’t any sin in this, but it does contribute to the perception that poetry is out of touch with the wider culture. Still, one of the reasons I’m not naming names here is that for every staid or esoteric poem, for every too-big-to-fail poet I might offer as an example in support of these observations, I can offer another that counters them. The fact is, there’s simply too much poetry out there coming from too many sources to make for believable generalizations about the art, and the trouble with recent attacks on poetry is that they’re based on too few examples without credible knowledge of the vast numbers of alternatives.

Beyond this, when critics call for a more relevant brand of poetry, their impulses might be well-meaning, but to believe that poetry should trump Facebook, cable, the movies, music, the news, Twitter, and the fact that more than a billion people now carry the entire Internet around in their pants is a weirdly capitalist ambition. It’s a desire for the elevation of one mode of expression over all those others, and I’m not sure why these critics believe that desire should matter more than somebody else’s need for something else. The thing that’s more troubling is that their nostalgia is for a time when self-expression was available to too few, when education and publication were far more limited than they are today. The times and places poetry mattered in the way its critic-defenders mean were those in which freedom of expression wasn’t the default for all.

In other places where this continues to be the case, poetry does have a truly existential value. Poets are being executed in Iran and jailed in China. Their voices matter because there are so few of them in those countries and because they are willing to say things that nobody else is willing or able to say. Meanwhile, in this country where terrible injustices and inequities continue to persist, poetry is only one of many ways to confront them. Poems of witness and protest are being written, and they are being published, and they can be extraordinarily powerful. If they seem more difficult to find than they might have been at a moment in the past, it isn’t because they don’t exist. It’s because they’re part of a much larger cultural machine in this country founded on freedoms of speech. In such context, it doesn’t seem to me that poetry has suddenly stopped mattering. It’s that a whole lot of other modes of expression matter too.

-- excerpted from Jaswinder Bolina, "The Writing Class;" read full essay at Harriet

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