Poetry Is Not Dead

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), April 13, 2003 | Go to article overview

Poetry Is Not Dead


Byline: Bob Keefer The Register-Guard

Poetry is coming back.

Yes, yes, I know, for some of you out there it never went anywhere. But for the rest of us, poetry hasn't made any sense since the days of high school, e.e. cummings and Robert Frost. I used to love poetry. But read a contemporary poem? I tried that once, 15 years ago. I'd rather read the phone book.

Now consider all that's happened in the past couple of years:

The United States has a poet laureate, Billy Collins, who writes poems that can be read, understood and enjoyed without a Ph.D. in semiotics. Collins, an affable, balding guy who reads his work on Garrison Keillor, is so popular that he's actually made money publishing poetry. And he's using his post as a bully pulpit to advance the cause of poetry that actual people can read and enjoy.

Dana Gioia, named head of the National Endowment for the Arts in January, is a poet who argues that contemporary poetry has lost its connection to real life. A former business executive, Gioia - pronounced ``JOY-yah'' - became famous in lit circles in 1991 for writing a pointed book titled ``Can Poetry Matter?'' laying out his case that universities have hijacked poetry into utter meaninglessness. Postmodern deconstructionists beware: Gioia now controls a $116 million arts budget.

Speaking of large sums of money, last year a wealthy amateur poet left tiny Poetry magazine a bequest worth $100 million. The stunned editors, after fixing up their offices a bit, plan to use the money for poetry education in schools.

Poetry is even creeping into consumer culture. The latest commercial for the Chevy Tahoe SUV features ``Rockford Files'' actor James Garner reciting - yes - a poem.

``Nobody Knows It But Me'' was written by Patrick O'Leary, a Michigan advertising executive who moonlights as a science-fiction writer. The 12-line poem may be bad imitation Rudyard Kipling with a touch of New Age sensibility (``And wherever you're going, that's wherever you are ...''), but just when was the last time you heard any poem recited in a national ad campaign?

And it's not just national. Four years ago, the Lane Literary Guild in Eugene used to have a single group of a dozen poets who met twice a month to share poems. Then a second group formed. Now a third group is being organized.

Poets, needless to say, are excited.

"Poetry is having a big resurgence," says Eugene poet Cecelia Hagen. "People are turning to poetry more than ever before. When people feel marginalized by their government, or by their lack of effectiveness or ability to be heard, poetry always has a resurgence. People turn inward and find things that bring them pleasure."

Hagen agrees that poetry has not exactly been in the cultural forefront for many years. No one much reads poetry anymore. Magazines - except for those cute little literary magazines that nobody but poets cares about - seldom publish poetry. New poetry is infrequently if ever reviewed in general publications.

That means that even successful poets like Hagen work in near obscurity. She's published poems all her life. She's won awards. She has a poem in an anthology of poetry from a real publisher.

Last year Hagen made exactly $40 off her poetry.

"It's long been poets reading to other poets," she said. ``Poetry is really quite easy to write. It's hard to write well. When I get on a plane, if I say I'm a poet, people look uneasy. They say, `I used to write poetry in high school.' And then they look mortified.''

It's not hard to understand why. Since the days when popular poets were published in newspapers and general circulation magazines, poetry - like a lot of visual art - has retreated into the turgid world of academic theory.

One of the most acclaimed poets writing today, John Ashbery - think Pulitzer Prize, MacArthur Fellowship - writes poems that make so little apparent sense that they've been compared to abstract expressionist painting. …

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