Pass much time in the company of poets—young or old, online or off—and soon enough you’ll find yourself privy to the cycles of consternation and dismay inspired by the general insignificance of poetry. Even as America counts more active poets than ever before, the art itself, or so the periodic feeling goes, has slipped beyond decadence into the hobbyish realm where civil wars are playacted for sport and chain mail is knit lovingly by hand. Already in the 1950s people were lamenting the approximation of poetry’s readership to the population producing the stuff, and today the coincidence of circles is complete. Indeed, it seems less a joke than fair plausibility that more people are writing a poem on any given day than reading one.
Of course there will always be some people eager to disprove this thesis. They will point you to the manic proliferation of MFA programs and new poetry publications and wonder how anyone in his right mind could worry. But let’s be real. The expediencies of university administration and the economics of bookbinding do not add up to the health of an art.
Besides, what looks like an ocean from inside is barely a raindrop to the world at large. Poetry lost the common reader a long time ago, if it ever had her, and from where I sit, it seems well on its way to losing the uncommon reader as well. Forget the mythical amateur—relaxing into his fireside wingback at the end of a long day of mezzanine finance or political consultancy—trading in Stevens for Steig Larsson and Snooki. Now it’s the word-workers we’re losing: the novelists, the journalists, the editors, even the graduate students of English. Time was you had to know at least a little Larkin or Lowell or Creeley to count yourself a cultured intellectual, just as older times demanded you had to keep current with opera and ballet. No more. These days we feel like we’re shouldering our share of the civilizational burden if we keep up our subscription to the New York Times and pledge yearly to NPR.For those of us with a romantic disposition, the passing of an imagined golden age is easy enough to lament, even if we confess we couldn’t be happier that opera’s not a bigger part of our lives than it already is, and even if we acknowledge that the nostalgia we’ve borrowed is much older than we are. An eighty-year-old today, after all, was eighteen when Randall Jarrell lectured on “The Obscurity of the Modern Poet” at Harvard. If it was fame or intellectual influence we wanted, we can’t honestly say we weren’t warned.
Experience, of course, tends to calm the temptation to lend our dentistry to the regular gnashings over poetry’s public invisibility. So does the identification of a trend that becomes ever clearer each time we watch the debates cluster and fade. Too many essays that begin in earnest anguish about the number of decades that have passed since a poet graced the cover of Time Magazine end up arguing that it’s the poets’ fault no one reads their work anymore.
In the best version of the argument, which is still pretty bad, contemporary poets just aren’t good enough: they aren’t living up to the sterling example set by Eliot or Dickinson or Wordsworth or Shakespeare or Chaucer or Dante or Ovid or Horace or Vergil or Sappho or Homer. A more despairing version suggests poets fail to command attention because they dare not stoop to conquer. “The human mind is a marketplace,” says the proprietor of the richest poetry shop in town, “especially when it comes to selecting one's entertainment.” In the name of the general reader we’re told that if only poets weren’t so obscure, if only they weren’t so difficult, if only they understood the logic of the lowest common denominator, then maybe they too could have a share in the popularity (was it Geoffrey Hill who mocked the attitude thus?) of an ADA-compliant commode.
Anyway, you ride out enough of these waves and sooner or later (and hopefully sooner) you just stop worrying about it. If you’re a poet you decide that there are too many poems that need writing, far too many that need reading. Plus, you figure, if people don’t like poetry, then bully for them, just like Frank O’Hara said all those years ago. Poetry, like virtue, is its own reward.
We learn this truth, we remind ourselves of it often, and on our best days we can trust it like an instinct. But what about the other days? What about the other weeks? What happens when we, who at times have felt ourselves the fierce protectors of a gentle craft, what happens when we can watch whole months go by without cracking the spine of the art we profess to love?
The chestnuts don’t work. I’ve tested them and I’m telling you. The poetry I admire has yet to purify the language of any tribe I've been associated with, and I'm not about to concede that prose can't supply the news for lack of which men die miserably every day. Certainly all of us can look to poems to remind ourselves that life is short, capitalism is crap, other people are important, and beauty is still, despite everything, a value worth jumping after. But who will mount the case that any of those arguments require less-than-fully-justified lines printed on creamy stock in thin books with pretty covers? Maybe there's someone out there who wants to take it on, but it sure won’t be me.
What I can do, here on my last day at BAP, is to say—really, to remind myself—that one of the reasons I can't quit poetry is because of a quality I like to call literary magnificence.
It’s too late for much pedantry, but the meaning of magnificence I have in mind is specific and historical. Hearkening back to Aquinas and before him to Aristotle, magnificence named the virtue of spending massive amounts of money toward the realization of great works like weddings and cathedrals. In the cynical but not completely unjust interpretation of later commentators, magnificence was little more than a channel for transferring wealth to the Catholic Church, a slimming and slickening agent to help the rich men of the Middle Ages get their camels through the eye of the proverbial needle. And yet for all that, there’s something in that notion of extreme expenditure that strikes me as very close to what keeps me coming back to poetry.
Think of spending in literary terms—as the exploitation of all the sonic, syntactic, semantic, and even visual resources available to language—and maybe what I mean by literary magnificence will be clear. Wallace Stevens, Basil Bunting, Christopher Logue: they all could summon it, sure, but so can a lot of people writing right now: C.D. Wright and William Fuller and Tom Pickard and D.A. Powell and Susan Wheeler and Albert Mobilio and Keston Sutherland and Devin Johnston and Carl Phillips and Ange Mlinko and Frank Bidart and Graham Foust and Juan Felipe Herrera are just a few of the names that come to mind.
It’s a minor thing, I admit, after all that huffing and puffing up top, but this is really all I’ve come here to say: that poetry gives me language like I like it, extravagant and spendthrift, wanton and grand. As more and more high-art prose goes the way of the New Yorker profile—lucid, calm, sculpted for readability even among the Sturm und Drang of a city cafeteria—poetry starts to look like the only road where language is allowed to run on all cylinders. Words asprawl, a spree of spending: these are what I look for, and find, in poetry. The magnificence of the art is why I love it still.
Robert Baird has published poems in Poetry and The Cultural Society and prose in Bookforum, Slate, Narrative, Boston Review, and n+1, all of which can be found by way of his website, robertpbaird.com. In 2010 Paulist Press published his translation of the Spanish heretic Miguel de Molinos. He is the former editor of Chicago Review and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Like all real poets, he is currently at work on a novel, which, if the lawyers allow it, will be called American Idol. He lives in Seattle and on Twitter @bobbybaird.