Monday, June 22, 2009

Why hasn't poetry disappeared?

[pictured: The "poet" tags a train in Slovakia.]

Every so often, I get excited about the discussions that wax and wane regarding the cultural relevance of poetry. This
has more to do with globalization, but it had me thinking again about poetry's cultural relevance. Lately, it seems that national newspapers and magazines have been chiming in with articles about the disappearance of poetry and nearly the same few names are always mentioned (i.e., Remember John Ashbery? He’s the one who writes the cryptic poetry that still confuses all the critics. Or, what about Bob Dylan, wasn’t that poetry? Wait, Bob Dylan is still around. He just came out with a new album. Or, didn’t Jewel and Billy Corgan write poetry too? Didn’t Byron get his cousin pregnant? Remember suffering through The Waste Land in college?)

Well, why hasn’t poetry disappeared? Good question. Does it still have cultural relevance? Yes. Answering why it has cultural relevance isn’t easy.

It’s easier to make the case why poetry doesn’t really matter, in the sense that fiction matters or popular music matters. Namely: Poetry cannot truly be sold. This, paradoxically, is "good" for poetry.

It isn’t a commodity, although it does have an aesthetic weight. It can’t be sold for much more than the cost of its materials. Rare first editions of select books and folios notwithstanding, poets are not working for the marketplace. Fiction authors who are successful receive large advances and enjoy commissions based on book sales. Painters and photographers, even, are producing new works and hope to sell their work for huge sums of money. Artists like Jeff Koons even take orders from benefactors and tailor commissioned works so that the final product is more pleasing to the buyer. Koons is a visual jukebox and that’s why I have no respect for his work. Collectors now pay millions for paintings. Painting as an art form is gaining in value as it becomes an anachronism while other art forms that are more ubiquitous are becoming less appreciated. Video art, which seemed so novel 20 years ago, is now becoming devalued as the technology to create it becomes available to everyone.

In June 1855, Walt Whitman presented his brother George with a newly published first edition of Leaves of Grass and his brother stated flatly that he just “didn’t think it was worth reading.” Modernist poet Ezra Pound called Whitman "America's poet... He is America."

However, poetry does serve a function that is crucial to society because poets are the Geiger counter that registers the fallibility and the struggles of the human race. Poets create imaginal language that portrays abstract thinking in vivid visual descriptions. Poetry is also supremely portable. The best poetry has the power to transcend cultural differences and national borders. The best poetry defines human consciousness in such a way that the universal nature of our existences comes into clearer focus. Poetry introduces us to ourselves.

Poetry resists commodification because it cannot be quantified. Its value is fleeting and indefinable. I would say that this is a best-case-scenario for poetry, because its nebulous qualities ensure that it will never gain mainstream popularity of understanding. In this age of information the need for understanding our surroundings hasn’t disappeared, although most get it from other sources. Resonant themes and problems that were first presented as poems filter into resonance through movies, television, and the Internet. A popularizing of poetry wouldn’t help it become more relevant or alter its function.

As we look back into history, the lens through which we view literature has led us to make an error in judgment. Poetry has never been popular, so it can’t be “less” popular now. Ezra Pound, Walt Whitman, or Emily Dickinson were relatively unknown to the masses during their lifetimes. Only succeeding generations recognized that their work had any cultural relevance.

Although there has been a boom in creative writing programs nationally since the 1980s, emerging poets find that what they take so seriously is received with indifference but this is not dissimilar to the reception that ground-breaking art has always received. It’s the perception on the part of those creating the art that has changed. College students now can decide to become poets, much like someone might decide to become an engineer or a physical therapist.

In this world that’s drowning in data, abstract written thought that represents a synthesis or a culmination of information into a digestible form is in short supply. That’s always been the prescription for poetry that matters.

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