What's the Matter with Poetry?

Article excerpt

Writer A and poet B were talking about poet C: "C has one of the strongest lyric gifts of our time," said B. "He now denies it," said A. "He wants to speak in the people's voice, directly, without emotional flourishes. He wants everybody to understand him. In his new book he has gotten rid of all his lyricism." B shook his head. "Crazy. Impossible. He's mad." A week later, A got a postcard: "I've just finished C's new book. You're right. Incredibly, there's not a lyric note."

Victim of the notion that poetry doesn't matter, C supposed that The People speak through best-seller lists and look for their poets, like movie actors, in tabloid gossip columns. If he flattened his lyric voice, he guessed, people would take him up, he'd become popular. But he missed and lost his audience because, in fact, the audience for poetry is stable and faithful. The composer George Walker has said, "Only a small percentage of any group is interested in classical music"; but the percentage interested in poetry is large; it's noncommercial; it reaches across the nation; it discriminates against no one; and it persists despite government hostility, academic manipulation, economic censorship and attacks in the middlebrow press. To be sure, among the Milkens and the Babbitts, it's secondary. For everyone else, poets as different as William Heyen, William Mundell, Mary TallMountain, Jean Valentine, Jay Meek, William Stafford, Ishmael Reed, Julio Marzan, Philip Booth and Stanley Burnshaw matter greatly.

In a junk-bond, celluloid world in which a President can say he didn't read the briefing book for the 1983 economic summit because The Sound of Music was on that evening, nothing may seem real. But that this world represents us is an illusion: The politicians we elect and the news we get may be what we deserve, but they're not what we want.

In this commercial fairyland, we're not told the truth about poetry, either. Not even by poets. Newspapers ignore it; book reviews skip over it; TV and radio avoid it; and even poet Dana Gioia proclaimed in his recent book Can Poetry Matter? (the title essay of which appeared in The Atlantic) that poetry has vanished as a cultural force in America. "None of it matters very much to readers, publishers, or advertisers."

Not true. Advertisers have always cared about effect, and their hard-sell, subliminal means of marketing have undermined the sense of humor that created the zippy Burma Shave signs. Publishers who are part of conglomerates care primarily about profits--witness the sad case of Pantheon and Andre Schiffrin's forced resignation three years ago--but small, independent presses are bringing out more poetry than ever. Indeed, some people say there's too much; they can't read it all. Yet readers are avidly reading, poets are offering workshops in schools, and the American Book Review and the American Poetry Review are keeping as many people abreast as they can. A glance at the Bay Area's Poetry Flash or at the Poetry Calendar for the New York metropolitan area will astound you by how much poetry is in the air and how many people it is bringing together. Disregard complaints about "lookalike verse" turned out by poetry workshops. Even if bad poetry obscures the good, it serves a good purpose: It binds people together in their culture. In our country today, culture itself threatens to vanish.

Insofar as there is a cultural force in America, poetry is at its base. Because poetry can't easily be made into a commodity like science fiction, murder mystery or Gothic romance and, like even Shakespeare's plays, is not easily made into motion pictures, there's no money in it, as an editor might say. Thanks to the fact that books are marketed like shampoos and to the censorship imposed by the economic policies of publishers with the money to advertise, most American readers never see the poetry that's suppressed, just as voters never hear of the qualified men and women who can't afford to run for public office. …