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February 04, 2010

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Anything that works well, that does the thing it intends to do, is a poem.

Seriously?

I think you've confused "work well done" with "poem."

This insipid attitude is why poetry is a forgotten and hated art outside of the circle-jerk realm of poets.

G.M. I don't read Michael's line as you do. He's commenting on the two previous lines. "Just because a piece of text is written in lines doesn't make it a poem. Nor does a poem have to take the form of words necessarily." And your conclusion is not only wrong, it's unnecessarily vulgar. If you want to make a claim, why not back it up?

Sure, I'll back it up.

Try this experiment:

Go to a bookstore. Ask for the poetry section.

Look at it. How big is it?

Talk to the customers there--these are readers, right? Ask them how they feel about poetry. The reactions will be uncaring-to-hostile, I guarantee.

Why is this?

First it is because we've (English-language Poets) spent the last 100 years writing and praising the most difficult & impenetrable crap possible. Now, there are many poets who have, do, and are breaking this mold--but the damage has already been done.

But

Poetry is not taught for appreciation in most schools and it is regularly read by (a generous estimate of) about 1% of the reading population (which is about 0.3% of the population at large).

Moreover, not enough is being done to write poetry people want to read. Why are great and experimental novels published and read? Because readers are already familiar with and already love novels.

No one, statistically speaking, gives two shits about poetry any more. Certainly no one who isn't already a poet.

Perhaps you think this is fine--that poetry should just be the domain of poets--that we should be our own audience.

I, however, think that we are doing a grave disservice to the art and lifeblood of language--and to the greater population at large.

Michael, I'm glad you've drawn attention to poets who incorporate humor so jubilantly and deftly into their work -- Belz, Davis, Essbaum, Knox, Gudding, et al. Nicely done!
GM, though I think you are overreacting to a specific sentence in the piece, the point you make so vehemently and eloquently in your follow-up comment deserves to be taken very seriously. I believe it is incontestable that modernism as advanced by Pound and Eliot made a virtue of difficulty, complexity, ambiguity, irony, tension. Something precious was lost when we jettisoned the whole array of techniques that had served poets for centuries. And I agree that the onus is on us to win over readers. What sense do you make of the fact that when a genuinely popular poet arrives on the scene, you can count on the other poets to put him down?

Because the only money in poetry is tied up in tied up in personality and who-you-know(grants, awards, readings, etc), for many poets every new poet on the scene is a threat.

For others it is simply fatigue. William Logan, who I had as an undergrad at UF, told me simply not to try for anything resembling a mass audience for poetry because it didn't exist anymore--and he didn't think anything could be done to rebuild it.

I do know, however, that there are plenty of poets out there willing to nurture new talent. I have loved all the folks I've met through AWP & consequently West Chester--but again, they're all poets--and don't tend to know (or care) what non-poets might be interested in reading.

GM, there's the rub: you "don't tend to know (or care) what non-poets might be interested in reading." Point of fact, most, if not all, of the audience members who have attended my readings in Hollywood are not poets, and i would imagine that few of them heed poetry. However, I see a lot of overlap between what I'm doing and what, say, Mitch Hedberg did, or Steven Wright has done. The poem, for me, is the calling-attention-to-something-interesting--the presenting of a bit of life that we've sort of passed over and taken for granted. For others, that's a bit. For others, it's a Facebook status entry. I agree that it's poetry-centric to refer to it all as "poetry." But the audience for such writing is larger than you suppose.

Ah. A good point but OT for me.

I'm not talking here about performances. Indeed, performance is where poetry can shine--but the performer is what is important, not the poem--a great poem read by a lousy performer is painful to watch but a lousy poem read by a great performer can be earth-shattering.

I do think we can do great work for poetry by encouraging more and better readings--not all of us have to play harmonica like Kim Addonizio--but reading in a drone from the podium is probably bad form.

Having said that, books of poems still need to be made and sold simply because 1) reading will always be important and 2) it's more aurally stimulating to listen to music.

To a professional comic, material is everything. You may have great stage presence, but without great material you go nowhere. Hence the perennial importance of writers in the entertainment industry. Hence the problem of the occasional writers' strike. I know it's a different take on the making, production, and delivery of texts, but it seems we (poets) might learn a lesson.

A critic like Logan and others of his ilk and money, are part of the problem, aren't they? Such a critic simply assumes there is no audience -- not a self-evident proposition -- and takes that as justifying high-handed indifference to readers, students, anyone outside the boundary of his self-regard.

AB:

Sorry to come back later (we had a baby on the 4th)--but material is only part of it. You've seen The Aristocrats, right? Material is about half and delivery is about half--and good delivery can save mediocre material.

Also, checked out your site & liked it. "Thread" gave me a nice chuckle.

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