Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Can Poetry Be Resuscitated?

So poetry is dead- or, if not dead, then moribund.

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) surveyed over 37,000 Americans in 2012 to find out about their exposure to and participation in the arts (visual, literary, performance, etc.). Not surprisingly (but no less disappointingly) only 7% reported reading any poetry in the preceding year, a number down 55% from the same survey back in 2002!

How has poetry become so marginalised, so limited to a small, mostly academic audience in the US (and probably in most affluent 'western' cultures) when poetry and poets have been celebrated and revered in other cultures (e.g., Middle Eastern and Latin American) elsewhere in the world?

How at a time when the internet and social media can make poetry and dialogue about poetry so accessible, at a time when there is a plethora of creative writing programmes and literary journals, both online and in print, has poetry disappeared from public view?

One reason, as has been discussed in previous posts, is that the teaching of poetry at secondary (and probably university level as well) has had the chilling effect of making poetry seem inaccessible and esoteric. In its emphasis on the 'the classic' poems and poets (no disrespect toward Shakespeare, Yeats, Keats et al intended!) at the expense of more accessible, topical contemporary works, the traditional high school poetry curriculum has turned poetry into a historic relic to be studied from an emotional and temporal distance. In its emphasis on analysis rather than the aural and emotional impact of poetry, the traditional curriculum has turned the reading of poetry into a boring, intellectual exercise to be dreaded rather than embraced.

As Dana Gioia suggested in his 1991 essay entitled Can Poetry Matter?:

"Poetry teachers especially at the high school and undergraduate levels, should spend less time on analysis and more on performance. Poetry needs to be liberated from literary criticism. Poems should be memorized, recited, and performed. The sheer joy of the art must be emphasized. The pleasure of performance is what first attracts children to poetry, the sensual excitement of speaking and hearing the words of the poem. Performance was also the teaching technique that kept poetry vital for centuries. Maybe it also holds the key to poetry's future."

Despite the support poetry has received from academia (in the form of funded literary journals, teaching positions for poets, development of MFA programmes, etc.), its ever tighter and more claustrophobic  relationship with academia has also served to isolate it and reinforce its inaccessibility. As poetry has increasingly been drawn into the realm of academia for its survival, academia has, in turn, become increasingly protective of it. What has resulted from this relationship is a kind of poetry that is more inwardly and pedantically focused rather than an art form that speaks plainly to the quotidian experience of a wider readership.

Poetry can be resuscitated, but as the NEA data suggests, it must be done quickly. More than any other literary genre, poetry can easily fit inside a busy modern life. Unlike a novel, a book of poetry can be picked up and put down without losing one's place. One can begin in the middle or even the end if so inclined. Read it aloud or go listen to someone else read it. As William Carlos Williams warned in his poem Asphodel, That Greeny Flower:

                                    It is difficult
                     to get the news from poems
                              yet men die miserably every day
                                     for lack
                     of what is found there.

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