Dead or Alive? Poetry at Risk

Article excerpt

Is poetry in America a lost cause? Widely popular in the 19th century, has it now been overwhelmed by the proliferation of other media -- TV, films -- that offer more instant gratification and more accessible entertainment?

Or is poetry a dozing giant, gathering its strength, ready to rise from the back seat it has taken for so long and become, once again, a potent force in American life and culture?

Plenty of convincing evidence can be mustered on both sides, revealing the state of confusion poetry is in these days. It's a long-simmering -- and often volatile -- debate about what audience poets should be reaching, what their goals should be and whether poetry has any purpose at all in late 20th century American culture.

The gulf that separates the two sides is wide. Poet Donald Hall, for example, lambasted the critics of poetry in a 1989 article in Harper's magazine, saying, There's more poetry being read now than ever before." Hall, a highly regarded writer and winner of numerous prizes, concluded that poetry was not only well, it was thriving. Pointing to the number of public readings by poets of their own works (he estimated at least 10,000 annually), Hall wrote that anyone who argued otherwise was a naysayer, "doubtless [in] the pursuit of failure and humiliation."

Hall's optimism -- some would call it Pollyannaism -- was in sharp contrast to last year's book Can Poetry Matter?, by poet Dana Gioia.

For Gioia, poetry now exists in a subculture, where "little of the frenetic activity it generates ever reaches outside that closed group." "Famous" poets are famous only to other poets, he declared, concluding, as many others have, that poetry today is read mostly by other poets, not by anything that might be called a general educated public.

In all this, the chief culprit -- whatever side you stand on -- is the university and its vicelike grip on poetry today. The situation makes poets and critics such as Gioia livid.

Most of the poetry being published in the United States is published by universities. Budding poets flock to academia to hone their skills in writing programs that offer degrees, and, increasingly, poets find jobs teaching in these programs -- after all, very few poets have ever been self-supporting, and making a living has always been a struggle for them.

But perhaps the best single proof of academia's hegemony in the world of poetry is the rise of the anthology. These large collections of poetry are where most readers come into contact with new poets, since it's expensive to buy every new book of poems by an author

Kate Adams, an American studies specialist who has taught at several Texas colleges, says that an overwhelming number of contemporary poets whose works are collected in anthologies teach (usually creative writing) at colleges and universities, that those who put together the anthologies are almost always university professors and that almost everyone involved in anthology publishing holds a degree in writing from one of these same universities. It's nothing less than a poetry mafia" Adams says.

Less harshly, she calls it "the poetry publishing industry," in which only those in the inner circle get to see their words in print. Adams, whose speciality is 20th century American poetry, has had some of her research published in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

What's wrong with a poetry mafia is clear to Gioia, who claims to have no beef with academia per se. But, he adds, "it is not good for any one group to have a monopoly of power in any one field " As another critic asked, what kind of world is it when one segment of society becomes "the owner of the imagination?"

One thing that happens in this closed circuit of friends and acquaintances is that no one gives bad reviews of others' work. Good things are said as a matter of course about a new book, whatever its merits. Literary standards thus tend to be in flux, and new poets have no sense of the strengths or shortcomings of their work. …