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Who Needs All This Poetry, Anyway?

[For the first time ever this blog has a guest writer, so I can drink several extra glasses of wine and not have to write anything. The guest blogger is Katherine E. Young, who I got to know when we were both students in Russia. Katherine is a poet, and more information about her follows what she has written.]

Cartoon chickens discussing a poetry blogLongtime readers of this blog know that its writer, David, has a love-hate relationship with poetry – he loves what he writes and pretty much hates what anyone else writes (except for Billy Collins).  David isn’t alone in his feelings about poetry.  My first-year composition students routinely confess that the only kind of writing they actually enjoy is writing poetry – but they’d rather watch grass grow than read anyone else’s poetry.  While celebrity-endorsed collections of American poetry (Caroline Kennedy, Garrison Keillor) sell tens of thousands of copies, a typical “good” sales run for a book of poetry by even a well-known poet may number in the hundreds of copies.  We poets do our level best to buy our friends’ books, and I myself have an impressive stack of perhaps two hundred slim, autographed volumes that I mean, really mean, to dip into one of these days, but, well….

Not only do most Americans not buy or read contemporary poetry, we sometimes seem embarrassed that poetry continues to be written.  I live in Washington, DC, a town with a fantastic poetic heritage from Walt Whitman to Langston Hughes to Elizabeth Bishop – not to mention exciting contemporary poets like Sandra Beasley, Hailey Leithauser, and R. Dwayne Betts – but we locals pretty much manage to ignore it all.  Go to a poetry reading in DC and you’ll likely know most of the people in the audience from other poetry readings – yours or theirs.  A poet friend of mine who’s married to a prominent Washington lawyer says the easiest way to silence a dinner party is to announce that you write poetry; the guests look slightly stricken, as if you might break out into verse right then and there.

Of course, there is one moment every four years when all DC and all America listen, however unwillingly, to poetry.  That’s when we inaugurate a president.  Ever since Bill Clinton revived the tradition of having a poem read during the ceremony, Americans as a whole have variously loved, reviled, or simply scratched their heads at the incomprehensible state of American poets and poetry (such as the inaugural readings of Maya Angelou for Clinton, or Elizabeth Alexander for Obama).

So if all of this poetry is being published and very little of it appreciated, you might ask:  what’s the point?  What function is all this poetry fulfilling?  We may not want too big a dose of it, but an awful lot of us seem to want some sort of poetry in our lives.  As Robert von Hallberg points out in Lyric Powers(University of Chicago Press, 2008), poets have been lauding politicians, commemorating victories, celebrating or bemoaning the vicissitudes of Fate, loving, drinking, memorializing, and generally building relationships and community since at least the ancient Greeks.  Like most of my poet friends, I’ve sometimes been asked to “find a poem” for an occasion, perhaps a wedding or graduation – the poem as an object seems to fulfill an indispensible ritual function, even if no one likes or understands it (just try finding “something from Emily Dickinson” that’s appropriate for your cousin Petey’s funeral).  However, the only time I can recall a genuine, heartfelt appeal for poetry as a defining art form, a means to make sense of the moment and its importance, was on September 11, 2001.  One of my poems was read the next year at a memorial service in Framingham, MA, where one of the doomed flights originated, and the local newspaper actually asked to print it.

Painting of a woman reading a book

Woman reading “Old Boy”

Perhaps all of this is good news, if not for poets, then for everyone else.  If the poet’s time-honored charge to explore the soul, tell truth to power, or express the sentiment of the collective is only required in times of celebration and tragedy, perhaps it means that everyday American life is so rewarding and various that we don’t need poets to tell us so.  But if you, like me, want to keep your finger on poetry’s pulse just to be on the safe side, you can sign up at (or Poetry Daily or Verse Daily or any of a number of similar sites) and have a poem delivered to your inbox every morning.  Sometimes the poems are dreadful, quite often mediocre, but every once in a while I find a poem waiting for me that expresses something about living in this world that I didn’t even know you could express.  For example, here’s the ending of A. Van Jordan’s “Old Boy,” which was the poem of the day on June 7, 2012:

lingers through acts of forgetting
small acts of love or trauma
falling from the same place. Whether
memory comes in the form of a stone
or a grain of sand, they both sink in water.
A tongue—even if it were, say, sworn
to secrecy; or if it were cut from one’s mouth;
yes, even without a mouth to envelop
its truth—the tongue continues to confess.

Now, about those autographed volumes….

Katherine E. Young’s poetry has appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Iowa Review, Shenandoah, and many others. She has published two chapbooks of poetry and was a finalist for the 2012 T.S. Eliot Prize (U.S.).  Her translation of Russian poet Inna Kabysh won a share of the 2011 Joseph Brodsky-Stephen Spender Prize.

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