Not long ago, collecting poetry aphorisms for an essay, I visited Google’s main search page, put the cursor in the box, and typed
Google helpfully suggested a number of common search strings that begin with those two eternally vexed words. The first of these was
poetry is dead
There are a number of possible reactions to this, including no reaction. My reaction was what might be called resigned laughter, really more of a plosive bilabial fricative in tandem with a backwards jerk of the head. The set-up was that I know, and know as fact, that poetry is not dead. The punchline was that my perception seems to be importantly at odds with other people’s. “Ha-ha!” I thought. “The pursuit to which I have chosen to devote my life is thought by everyone else to be dead. Ha-ha!” Then I began to ponder the popular image of poetry in the United States and decided to expand my investigation by searching just the one word “poetry.” Because I’d been thinking in terms of poetry’s image, I thought it appropriate to conduct my search in Google Images. I found a single page of search results (389 images) to be almost startlingly instructive.
The visual rhetoric of letters and words would seem, also logically, to be key in evoking poetry. Script, even without a pen in sight, is by far the favorite style. This includes everything from elegantly looped calligraphy to lackadaisical italic computer fonts. It also includes a forearm tattoo of the word “Poetry,” or two. After script, the most popular approaches involve the self-conscious use of typography, with an emphasis on print as quaint technology. A lot of these representations, which are full of horizontal words abutting vertical ones, seem meant to evoke blocks of type. Others form a criss-cross design reminiscent of Scrabble. The word “poetry” always appears somewhere central, almost invariably in seriffed letters, but other words are needed for the design, too. “Listen,” “create,” “culture,” “beauty,” “spirit,” and “love” are some of the ones I have seen. The associations could be a lot worse. But the particular design is an inescapable cliché of advertising. Tending to recur in the more expensive-looking graphics indexed by Google, it makes me think of the designer who, some past April, was assigned the bewildering chore of making poetry seem attractive to readers of Connecticut magazine, or to corridors full of randy high-school kids two months from summer. Clearly management is on the side of poetry.
Believe it or not, Google also shows that to this day there continues to be a lot of ridicule directed at poets and poetry in general. Google indexes many single-frame comics lampooning poetry. One of these is “Chicken Poetry Reading,” by Doug Savage, in which the chicken-poet recites
The Crossing is within.
There is no other side.
This is actually kind of great, even if the humor is a little bit obvious. The problem is once again that it could very well be most people’s only experience of poetry. Every pointed comic I found, though none seemed intended to cause harm, nevertheless had an unflattering point to make about poets: Poets are pretentious. Poets are incomprehensible. Poets are boring. Poets are bums.
It is worth mentioning that 30 of the 389 images, like Joe Camel, very clearly target children. Many involve colorful refrigerator magnets arranged unevenly by adults to look as if they were arranged by children. Ladybugs, sparkles, wildflowers, and more fancy pens adorn these images. Some use cartoons. One pictures a little boy and a little girl flying on a book of poetry like a magic carpet. One shows my best childhood friend, Bulwinkle, reciting—hooray! One shows my worst childhood enemy, a smurf, holding a quill pen larger than his body—boo! Most of this seems unobjectionable, really, and whatever is irritating can be chalked up not to kids but to adults obtusely trying to trick children, whom they underestimate, into liking something the adults themselves don’t like. It’s great if rainbows and comically exaggerated facial features can serve as gateway drugs to Hardy and Plath, and I’m all for indoctrinating the under-10 set with “This Is Just to Say,” or even with John Ashbery. (See "Poetry Not Written for Children That Children Might Nevertheless Enjoy" in this month’s Poetry.) But I would ask where Dr. Seuss is, or Stevenson, or X.J. Kennedy, or Gwendolyn Brooks’s Bronzeville Boys and Girls.
At the same time, I sometimes wonder if the popular conception of poetry-in-general hasn’t been infantilized in some way. For decades, now, poetry has been used as a kind of game or low-stakes writing exercise for children. Good! Most of this poetry isn’t meant for scholars, just as most Pee-Wee football isn’t meant for ESPN. And, later on, when the kids turn 13, poetry can also help them to be moody and disagreeable alone, with a moleskin, rather than at breakfast. Good! But, once more, confronted with the relative volume of poetry imagery targeting kids, I begin to feel something like Gresham’s Law at work. Again, this is not a problem with children, and not even, strictly speaking, with the adults selling them kid-poetry. It’s the complex, shared problem of a society that cares so little about grown-up poetry that its most popular image index returns dozens of cartoon animals meant to advance poetry for children, but no image of Dante’s or Emily Dickinson’s face. It is difficult to imagine that this obvious imbalance wouldn’t eventually begin to feed on itself, helping to produce the widespread impression that poetry is primarily a pursuit of childhood.
Maybe the next time an Aesthetics professor or a three-year-old asks us what poetry is, we might begin by telling her or him that it is not primarily a way for children to learn self-expression or a quaintly antique artform practiced by stunted, pompous adults in funny clothes extemporizing histrionically in a special language. Or at least we might suggest that that’s not all it is.
At some point, as I worked on this post, I happened on footage of Rowlf the Dog from The Muppets, reciting his poem, "Silence." During his recitation, he is continually interrupted by Reality, first represented by an old janitor sweeping noisily, then by a loud South American fowl, and finally by my favorite muppet, Animal, who appears on a drum platform to illustrate Rowlf’s line about “the endless emptiness drumming in our ears.” Then, as I continued to ruminate about popular conceptions of poetry, I heard the construction workers outside my window getting started again with jackhammers and backhoe after their coffee break. I went outside to talk with them about their general impressions of poetry.
“Joe,” a man in his mid-50s and the security guard at the construction site, was first.
“I think poetry’s great!” he said. “But, you know—me?—I’m a rocker. I like Jim Morrison, Sly Stone. Those are the real poets now. And—I don’t know if you’re familiar with him—Neal Peart, from the band Rush.” I assured him I was familiar with Neal Peart. “And—oh, oh, oh!” he interrupted. “Bob Dylan!” But Jim Morrison was his favorite. Morrison, he told me, wanted to be a poet, but then found out most poets don’t get famous.
Mark, a huge guy with a neatly-trimmed handlebar mustache, was eating lunch in his van. Mark is 60-something, and an environmental consultant.
“[Poetry]’s not very interesting,” he said immediately, blinking slowly and shaking his head. “Where does it belong today? It’s got no place. It may have been something in the past, but now. . . .” Asked if he’d ever enjoyed a poem, Mark replied definitively, “I can’t say I have.”
After bothering the two construction workers, I decided to ask a few other people the same question. Passing a bus stop, I accosted “Marla,” a retired hairstylist in her 70s.
She thought a moment and said, “I happen to like poetry.” She mentioned Maya Angelou by name, but she admitted that her interest in poetry pretty much stopped there.
Finally, I spoke with a mother and daughter walking home from our neighborhood public school. Jasmine is in her 30s and Chelsea is 9.
Jasmine answered very directly, but with no ill will whatsoever: “I’ve never been into poetry. I never understood it. In school, the way they taught it, I wasn’t able to comprehend it.” Then she thought a moment and added, “The teachers didn’t do a good job!”
Chelsea had a different feeling about poetry. Though she couldn’t remember any specific poets she liked, she said, with tremendous feeling, “I like poetry!”
Of course neither the Autocomplete phenomenon nor the more dispiriting answers offered by my respondents means that most people think poetry is dead. It could simply mean that bitter 15-year-olds conduct most Google searches on poetry. Or it could mean that there is a song by a pop star I don’t know called “Poetry Is Dead.” It could mean a lot of things. But it does not mean that poetry is dead. This is true for one simple reason: Poetry is not dead.
Maybe it has occured to you, if you are a poetry fan, that the reason for the Autocomplete phenomenon could be the buzz around Alexandra Petri's Washington Post article, last January, called “Is Poetry Dead?”; or Mark Edmundson’s “Poetry Slam, Or the Decline of American Verse,” in July’s Harper’s; or one of the subsequent responses debating the health of contemporary poetry. It may be. I have been interested to note that the authors and posters who have written “poetry is dead” in articles or comment threads are usually defenders of contemporary poetry, who have used the word sarcastically against a critic who has made an uncongenial general argument about American contemporary poetry. It is supposed to show how manifestly absurd it would be to pronounce poetry dead. It would be particularly sad, but also suggestive, if the Autocomplete phenomenon is accounted for in some way by the behavior of those who care most about poetry and, despite the terrible idée force they are helping to nurture, recognize the fact that it is alive.
Still, the Google phenomenon is hard to ignore. What if the facts simply do not—as they often do not—matter? There are many different ways of being alive. And what if the life of poetry now is like the life of Amelia Earhart, say, from 1937 until her bittersweet death on a mound in the Pacific Islands, comfortable and well-loved among her small adopted family, but with part of her wishing she could’ve flown a little farther.