A Comment on the State of the Art: Poetry in 2004

By Walker, Jeanne Murray | Christianity and Literature, Autumn 2004 | Go to article overview

A Comment on the State of the Art: Poetry in 2004


Walker, Jeanne Murray, Christianity and Literature


Books of poetry reviewed in this essay:

Philokalia: New and Selected Poems. Scott Cairns. Lincoln, Nebraska: Zoo Press, 2002. Pp. 163.

Water Lines. Luci Shaw. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003. Pp. 97.

The Man Who Loves Cezanne. Dabney Stuart. Baton Rouge: Louisiana University Press, 2003. Pp. 62.

The Poetry of Rowan Williams. Rowan Williams. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002. Pp. 111.

In his recent autobiography, Living To Tell The Tale, Gabriel Garcia Marquez describes a society inflamed by poetry. In Columbia, he writes, "poetry [...] was a frenzied passion, another way of being, a fireball that went everywhere on its own. We would open the paper, even the business section or the legal page, or we would read the coffee grounds at the bottom of the cup, and there was poetry waiting to take over our dreams [...]. As Luis Cardoza y Aragon wrote 'poetry is the only concrete proof of the existence of man'" (252).

When the new editors of Christianity and Literature, Paul J. Contino and Maire Mullins, asked me to write this essay for their first issue, I wondered, in this age of one-hundred-email-volume-days, why anyone would dare to report on the status of poetry in America. The decade we have just lived through has been appalling. Dana Gioia writes in his Preface to the National Endowment for the Arts report on reading in the United States that reading is in chronic decline, that the steepest fall has occurred among young adults, ages eighteen to twenty-four. If Americans read fewer novels than they did five years ago, it can only be imagined how much less poetry they are reading.

And yet I cannot be entirely pessimistic. Over two thousand journals publish poetry. On-line poetry websites such as VerseDaily and PoetryDaily get hundreds of thousands of hits a year. Garrison Keillor's trendy radio almanac offers a poem per day and his anthology, Good Poetry, (whose title is rivaled only by that of Myrna Grant's, Poetry For A Good and Happy Life) is selling smartly. Indeed, the extravagant howls of delight and cries of philistinism Keillor's anthology has caused suggest that there is yet life in poetry.

And poetry might have a more auspicious future than recent past. In August, The Poetry Foundation, which has been publishing Poetry magazine since its founding over seventy-five years ago, announced plans to begin using Ruth Lily's now legendary gift to them of a hundred million dollars to get poets talking to their audiences. John Barr, President of The Foundation, notes in a recent letter to Poetry subscribers that the endowment will be disbursed for the foreseeable future to "alter the perception that poetry is a marginal art by making it more directly relevant to the American experience." The Foundation plans a large-scale research study on the state of poetry. Then among other projects, it will initiate a major website for contemporary poetry, place poetry before children in schools, promote poetry in newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, and film, and endow new awards for under-recognized kinds of poetry. Envisioning an ardent and unfolding discussion between poets and their readers, Barr wistfully predicts a new Golden Age for poetry. And that seems almost possible.

Why Read Poetry Now?

In the days right after 9/11, numbed and wounded, many Americans--including some who had not previously thought much about poetry--turned to it to understand what had happened and their own savage emotions about that. I am thinking of the students in the "Introduction to Poetry" class I taught at 2 p.m. that Tuesday. Aware that some of the parents of these students lived in New York and might have perished that morning, I emailed the students that they were not obligated to come to class. I would be there as usual, I told them, in case they wanted to assemble. Though poetry had not interested most of them up to that point--they were taking the course as a requirement--nearly everyone showed up. …

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