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Does Poetry Matter?

The Culture of Poetry


by Bart Baxter

Before I begin my prepared remarks, let me ask for a show of hands in the
audience, a scrupulously honest show of hands? How many of you here tonight are poets? [Half the audience raised hands.] How many of you would like to be a poet, have maybe written some verse, are looking for a publisher? [1 ! raised hands.] "nd how many here are friends of the moderator or someone on the panel? [1 ! raised hands.] #ow, everyone in the audience who did not fall into any one of those three categories, who did not raise your hands before, please raise your hands now. [$ne hand was raised.] I think if %ana &ioia were here tonight, he would simply say' I rest my case. %ana &ioia(s argument, which first appeared as an essay in The Atlantic and which later appeared in a collection of essays published in 1))* called Can Poetry Matter, runs like this' 1. +he audience for poetry events usually consists of poets, would,be poets, and friends of the author -or in this case, the panel.. 2. /oetry has lost the larger audience of educated intellectuals, the doctors, lawyers, clergymen, accountants and business people, the literary intelligentsia made up of non,specialists who once took poetry seriously0 who are the market for 1a22, foreign films, theater, opera, the symphony and dance0 the broad audience who reads 3uality fiction and biographies and who listen to public radio. 3. /oetry now belongs to a sub,culture of academicians, funded by public subsidy through a comple4 network of federal, state and local agencies. a. +here are over *55 graduate creative,writing programs. b. +here are several thousand college,level 1obs teaching poetry.

c. +his decades long public funding has created a large professional class for the production and reception of poetry. d. +he contemporary poet makes a living not by publishing literary work, but by educating, usually at a large institution, most likely state,run, such as a school district, a college or university, or even -these days. at a hospital or a prison, i.e., teaching other people how to write poetry, or at the highest levels, teaching other people how to teach other people how to write poetry. 4. 6ince poetry professionals must publish for 1ob security and tenure, academic literary 1ournals have sprung up everywhere so that academicians can now publish each other(s work. 7ellowships, grants, degrees, appointments, and publications are ob1ective facts, they are 3uantifiable, i.e., they can be listed on a resume. 5. 8efore the turn of the century, few poets were working in colleges, unless like 9ark :an %oren or ;vor <inters, they taught traditional academic sub1ects. /oets were doctors like <illiams, businessmen like 6tevens, lawyers like 9ac=eish, farmers or bankers like >liot and 7rost. 9ost often they wrote in other disciplines like "gee who reviewed movies for Time, <eldon ?ees who wrote about 1a22, @obert Hayden who reviewed music and theater, or "rchibald 9ac=eish who wrote for and edited Fortune. 6. In the process of narrowing the art form to conform to academia, poetry has become increasingly mediocre, or as %ana &ioia says' Athe integrity of the art has been betrayed.A 7. 7or this reason, few people bother to read poetry, even the poetry of other poets. "s "uden put it' A<riting gets shut up in a circle of clever people writing about themselves for themselves.A . "nd &ioia(s pessimistic prognosis is this' " 6ociety whose intellectual leaders lose the skill to shape, appreciate, and understand the power of language, will become slaves to those

who do retain that power, be they politicians, preachers, newscasters, car salesmen or confidence,men. !. &iven the decline of literacy, the proliferation of other media, the crisis in humanities education, the collapse of critical standards, can poets ever again succeed in being heard? +hrough page after page, e4ample after e4ample, &ioia illustrates that poetry now belongs to a subsidi2ed subculture, and that this fact makes for mediocre poetry that no one really wants to hear. 8ut I would like to carry the argument one step further. <hat is it about contemporary poetry, especially post,modern poetry, that makes it so unfriendly to a larger audience, unfriendly if not downright antagonistic? <hy does +wentieth Bentury poetry lack the broader appeal of say, song lyrics. In graphic art, the widespread use of the camera and photography at the turn of the century was a huge aesthetic obstacle and challenge to modern painters. Impressionism, abstract,impressionism, minimalism, $p,"rt, /op,"rt, Bolor 7ield, %ada, #eo,%ada, photo,realism and neo,photo,realism, can all be seen as a reaction to the threat of the photograph as chronicler of creative reality. " retreat, if you will, before the onslaught of a technology that not only rendered the world in a more realistic way, but could be used by the least,trained novice. <hether /ollock(s splatters, @einhardt(s huge black canvases, or %on >ddy(s and @alph &oing(s photo,realism -actually pro1ecting photographs on a canvas and tracing the images, filling in the colors the way a seven,year,old paints by numbers., +wentieth Bentury graphic art must be seen as the final capitulation to the camera and its e4acting draftsmanship. +om <olf has said that 155 years from now, art history students will look back on +wentieth Bentury painting with A[snickers], laughter, and good,humored ama2ement.A How many times have you heard some boorish lout in line at the museum of modern art mouthing off' My seven year old daughter could have done this! +he 3uestion for us should be' Is he right? "nd we must ask the same 3uestion about +wentieth Bentury poetry. <ill students of +wentieth Bentury poetry be e3ually amused and ama2ed about open form and free verse? +he associated technical adversary might be the mass availability of popular music. It may be said, perhaps fairly, that the finest poets of our age produced their best work for the radio, the television, and the stage' from @odgers and Hammerstein to 8ob %ylan and /aul 6imon, from Bole /orter and Irving 8erlin to Coan $sborne and 8ig Head +odd. +hese lyricists have been able to reach a broad audience and make fine livings by

writing arresting, accessible, and articulate verse. +he academy has chosen to withdraw from the popular forum of ideas, to retreat toward inaccessibility as characteri2ed by complicated trope, minimalism, allusion, ellipses, odd synta4, odd punctuation, and open form, rather than compete with popular music for the intellectual currency of a populist audience. +wentieth Bentury poetry, for the most part, can be characteri2ed by' 1. $pen form, if not aggressive free verse the deconstructionist antagonism to forcing the language into anything other than the most natural voice. 7orm in this sense is seen as repression. 7ree verse is the moral and aesthetic e3uivalent to abstract e4pressionism in graphic art. It is the minimalist canvas, the photo,realism, the easy retreat and final capitulation to popular music and greeting card doggerel. 2. 7igurative language to the e4clusion of any other poetic device. I call it the fascination with association.. "nalogies are a huge part of academia,,from the 6tanford,8inet, 6"+, the &@> to the =6"+, which all stress the intellectual rigor of seeing and making associations, of being cogni2ant of the fact that one thing is like another thing, often in odd and interesting ways. >liot in his 1))1 essay AHamlet and His /roblemsA asserted that Aa poet can e4press emotion only through an ob1ective correlative.A +he use of trope is so pervasive that it often overwhelms most contemporary poetry. 9any poets use no other poetic device than metaphor and simile. In any current literary 1ournal one can find do2ens of poems all written in virtually the same style, that is to say prose shaped on the page to resemble poetry , with line breaks and stan2as to simulate poetic form, but without any of the traditional poetic devices' rhyme scheme or rhyme, alliteration, consonance, assonance, onomatopoeia, meter or even the barest hint of rhythm. +hese poems derive their poetic raison d' etre by virtue of their figurative language, the poet noting cleverly, in conversational tone, sometimes five or si4 times in a short poem, how one thing is like another. +he fascination with association, a particular construct of the creative,writing class or poetry workshop, seems to be the sole literary device of most contemporary poets. 3. =yric form rather than #arrative' +wentieth Bentury poetry has tended away from story telling, tended away from the legacy of

:achel =indsey and =angston Hughes, away from the long narratives about great deeds and larger,than,life events, toward an introverted, introspective, I, me, we, autobiographical, confessional, isolated, self,absorbed, self,centered, self,conscious, self,righteous poetry that is little concerned about the audience. 4. =imited emotion' >ven these confessional poets would toss out their 1ournals before being thought sentimental. In the academy, poets are alert to the 7reudian ambivalence of emotion, prone to intellectual skepticism -deconstructio n a perfect e4ample., so that they seldom speak with fervent conviction about anything. Bharles @e2nikoff said' A/oetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling. It should be precise about the thing and reticent about the feeling.A Heaven help the sentimental. 5. /ersistent irony. 6. 9editative 3uality. 7. Impersonality' <illiam Barlos <illiams believed that with the publication of A+he <astelandA Athe bottom had dropped out of everythingA he had cared about in poetry. . :agueness. !. Bontradiction. 1". Dnderstatement 11. >conomy. 12. <it. 13. 7ragmentation. 14. %iscontinuity. %ana &ioia wrote ABan /oetry 9atter?A long before he reali2ed what was going on in the urban centers across the country, in the night clubs and cabarets, at the &reenmill +avern in Bhicago and the #uyorican /oets Bafe in #ew ;ork, at the open readings and poetry slams. In a lecture he presented at /oets House in #ew ;ork on $ctober *E [1))F], which became an essay published in Poetry

Flash, A#otes +oward a #ew 8ohemia,A his greatest fears about the future of poetry seem to be assuaged. His argument runs something like this' 1. +he primary means of publication of new poetry is now oral. +his applies to older established poets as well as new unknowns. 2. +his represents an enormous paradigm shift away from print culture, in that' a. +he government is neither involved with subsidi2ing events nor appointing particular poets. b. +he physical audience listening to poetry greatly outnumbers the people who read poetry in books. -%o we need one more professor to tell us that the important thing is whether the poem will translate from the Astage to the pageA?.. 3. +his is a populist revolution, a distinct move from print to oral tradition, largely among groups long alien to the traditional, dominant, literary, academic culture' a. e.g., rap lyrics, in music and poetry. b. Bowboy poetry. c. /oetry slams. 4. 6urprisingly, most of this new populist poetry is formal' a. e.g., the four,stress lines in rap. b. +he >nglish ballad form in cowboy poetry. c. +he merger of poetry and e4perimental theater in performance poetry at poetry slams often uses elaborate rhyme schemes. 5. "s for the Dniversity, an institution better e3uipped to preserve old culture than foster the creation of new art, it will probably

hold on dearly to 9odernism, and will continue to do so until /ost,modern poetry(s last gasp.

Bart Baxter#s work has appeared in !rgo" #eattle $eview, $ed Cedar
$eview, The %hio Poetry $eview, $aven Chronicles, among others. He won the 1))! Hart Brane "ward for poetry at ?ent 6tate Dniversity0 the 1))! Bharles /roctor "ward -<ashington 6tate.0 the 1))F 9+: /oetry &rand 6lam. His second book of poetry is /eace for the "rsonist -8acchae /ress,1))F..

G +he @aven Bhronicles 1))H

http' www.ravenchronicles.org raven rvback issues 5!)H forum 8a4ter.html

$PD%T&' %fr(ca) %*er(ca) Poetry + Culture ,2-15. 3-31/4-10


1ro*' 7iona -fmills&email'unc'edu. Date' <ed Can 1) *555 , 1I'!!'!J >6+ 2ext *essa3e' 9ichael 9ahon' AD/%"+>' "frican,"merican =it., 1)*5,1)E5(s -grad. -* H0 ! H.A Pre4(ous *essa3e' %r =ucia 8oldrini' AB7/' Bomparative Coyce -D?. -* *0 E *).A Messa3es sorted by' [ date ] [ thread ] [ sub1ect ] [ author ] +he deadlines for submission to the &eorge 9oses Horton 6ociety(s second biennial conference A>4ploring Bommunity and Bulture in "frican "merican /oetryA at the Dniversity of #orth Barolina at Bhapel Hill has been e4tended.

+he new deadlines are as follows' regular mail ,, postmarked by 7ebruary 15, *555 email ,, 7ebruary 1F, *555. "ward,winning poet #ikki &iovanni will be featured as our keynote speaker. +he following local and national poets will also perform and discuss their work' %aniel <ideman, /hillip 6haba22, >vie 6hockley, 7orrest Hamer and Bandice =ove. /articipating scholars and critics include' Houston 8aker, Cr., +rudier Harris, Cerry <ard, "ldon #ielsen, and Hilary Holladay. A>4ploring Bommunity and Bulture in "frican "merican /oetryA 6econd biennial poetry conference focusing on "frican "merican poetry sponsored by +he &eorge 9oses Horton 6ociety at the Dniversity of #orth Barolina at Bhapel Hill. +he Horton 6ociety, an affiliate organi2ation of the "merican =iterature "ssociation, was conceived by %r. +rudier Harris in the 6pring of 1))E as a way to encourage sustained scholarly focus on the works of "frican "merican poets and to foster presentation and publishing opportunities for that scholarship. B$#7>@>#B> %"+>6' 9arch I1 and "pril 1, *555 B$#7>@>#B> =$B"+I$#' Dniversity of #orth Barolina, Bhapel Hill, #.B. 6D89I66I$# %>"%=I#>6 D.6. mail' /ostmarked 7ebruary 15, *555 >mail' 7ebruary 1F, *555 #otification' "uthors of accepted submissions will be notified by Canuary 1F, *555. /=>"6> #$+>' <e cannot accept submissions by fa4. 6D89I66I$#6' +he idea of community is one that assumes both literal and figurative e4pressions within the construction of "frican "merican poetry. Bommunity can stand at once for a place, a group of people, and or a set of values0 it can range from a small town or a few city blocks to the wide sweep of the A"frican "merican community.A +here are a variety of communal types that can be seen in the poem and the worlds outside of the poem which reflect and ga2e upon the poetry within. In focusing this

year(s conference around community and culture in "frican "merican poetry, we would like to think through these issues, to interrogate the sometimes fraught relationship poets -and critics. have with communities cultures -both their own and others., and to work towards an understanding of how "frican "merican poetry functions moves breathes within various cultures and communities. Issues surrounding a sense of one(s place and culture have been integral to "frican "merican literature and scholarship. +he ABommunity, Bulture and /oetryA conference aims to combine critical analyses of "frican "merican poetry with the act of creating and performing poetry. In addition to scholarly sessions, this conference will also include workshop sessions with working poets as well as performance sessions. 6uggested topics for submissions could include, but are not limited to' +he intersection between poetry and prose in "frican "merican writers >4aminations of the place position of poetry within "frican "merican communities +he blending of AotherA communities and cultures within "frican "merican poetry -for e4ample, Bhicana o, lesbian gay, "sian "merican, "frican, Baribbean, etc.. Issues of AborderA within "frican "merican poetry +he community of poets' Harlem @enaissance, 8lack "rts 9ovement +he community of readers in "frican "merican poetry /olitical implications of poetry for "frican "merican communities +eaching writing poetry in "frican "merican communities +he role of poetry in culture' poem as cultural criti3ue poet as cultural worker +he poet as e4ile' problems with community <hite culture, 8lack poet' poetry as cultural negotiation &ender and the idea of community in "frican "merican poetry /ostcolonial or colonial communities in "frican "merican poetry -for instance, Barribean diaspora writers. 9odernist /ostmodernist communities in "frican "merican poetry Bommunal ties through family in "frican "merican /oetry Bommunities of performance in "frican "merican /oetry @eligion and community in "frican "merican /oetry 6D89I66I$# 7$@9"+' 1.. " cover page that includes' paper title, speaker(s name, academic affiliation, mail address-es., e,mail address, phone number, and a I55 , F55 word description of presentation. *.. 7our copies of a one,page proposal I%>#+I7I>% 8; /"/>@ +I+=> $#=;K

=>#&+H $7 /@>6>#+"+I$#6' *5 minutes for each paper -individual or within a panel.. 6ingle 6ubmission per /erson $nly, /lease' <e encourage submissions from advanced graduate students as well as professional scholars. B$#+"B+6 7$@ 9$@> I#7$@9"+I$#' 7or more conference information, please write to' +he &eorge 9oses Horton 6ociety B $ >nglish %epartment &reenlaw Hall B8LIF*5 Dniversity of #orth Barolina Bhapel Hill, #B *HF)),IF*5 "ttn' 9s. 7iona 9ills or direct your 3uestions to' 9s. 7iona 9ills at fmillsMemail.unc.edu 7or information on the &eorge 9oses Horton 6ociety, please see our website' http' www.unc.edu campus sigs horton 7iona 9ills fmillsMemail.unc.edu Dniversity of #orth Barolina at Bhapel Hill >nglish %epartment I*! &reenlaw Hall NNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNN 7rom the =iterary Balls for /apers 9ailing =ist B7/Menglish.upenn.edu 7ull Information at http' www.english.upenn.edu B7/ or write >rika =in' elinMenglish.upenn.edu NNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNN

2ext *essa3e' 9ichael 9ahon' AD/%"+>' "frican,"merican =it., 1)*5,1)E5(s -grad. -* H0 ! H.A Pre4(ous *essa3e' %r =ucia 8oldrini' AB7/' Bomparative Coyce -D?. -* *0 E *).A Messa3es sorted by' [ date ] [ thread ] [ sub1ect ] [ author ]

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The Pract(ce of Poetry' Culture 55


6or7sho8' Poetry a)d Culture' Part T9o 6eminar $b1ective' +o consider what materials the poet can legitimately use to create poetry and to introduce the students to new forms of poetry. -O+he History of 7oreplayP by ?ate %eright, OCoy @idersP by ?athryn &rey, O6elfQ/ortrait of as a <areo :iolinP by /ascale /etit, poems by +hom =eonard, O8ass BultureP by =inton ?wesi Cohnson.. +his week we continued to think about poetry and culture. <e began by studying an e4tract from the preface of the Heaventree anthology of refugee and immigrant writing, 2 3ave Crossed an %cean. +he e4tract e4plained how it has taken an editorial position that upholds the literature of certain marginalised cultures in society. <e then read a damning review of the anthology which appeared in 6tride0 the reviewer argued that the 3uality of writing had suffered as a result of the editorial policy. <e briefly looked at a poem by ?ate %eright that appeared in the anthology and discussed the issues surrounding the editorPs privileging of a specific writing identity over the 3uality of writing. <e e4amined a number of poems that dealt with certain cultures in detail. I asked you to discuss the poems in pairs keeping a number of issues in mind' R<hich poem is the most wellQwritten? R<hich conveys a certain culture most effectively? R%oes the use of vernacular or dialect distance one from a certain culture or does it convey it more effectively? R"re the poets writing from within a certain culture or from outside it? RHow do the poets use form to convey culture? +he students discussed the issues in pairs before reporting back to the group.