Monday, December 26, 2016
Poetry Matters, A Collection of Essays. R. Ritzema, Ed.
ISBN 978-0-9965026-3-413.95. April 2017
Can We Talk About Poetry?
By Ed Meek
Does poetry matter? Apparently some people don’t think so. Others do. The New York Times did a “Room for Debate” a couple of years ago asking this question of seven poets who each, in a couple of paragraphs, answer in the affirmative. There was an influential essay that appeared in The Atlantic Monthly way back in 1991 called “Can Poetry Matter?” In it, Dana Gioia discussed the way that poetry had, on the one hand, developed through burgeoning MFA programs and published books, but on the other hand, wasn’t really read by most of us. So this is a question that has been around for a while. Robert Pinsky made an attempt to confront this issue with the “Favorite Poem Project” when he was Poet Laureate of the U.S. He traveled around the country recording ordinary Americans reading and reciting their favorite poems. Although this seemed like a good idea to promote poetry, listening to ordinary Americans recite favorite poems was not exactly inspiring.
For about thirty years I taught English. I taught in colleges and in high schools. At the college level, the number of English majors kept shrinking over those years. Luckily, we discovered that students still needed to learn how to write so we focused on Composition. Now pretty much everyone has to take Composition. Poetry is optional. Yet Creative Writing as an elective remains popular and MFA Programs are growing and thriving.
Teaching high school I was surprised to learn that a number of my colleagues didn’t teach poetry or creative writing. There were state tests to prepare for. “What do you do with poetry, anyway?” one colleague complained. Getting students to read and analyze poetry isn’t easy, but in my experience they love writing it. Maybe this is partly due to their somewhat misguided impression that it is just a way to express your emotions and no can criticize the way you feel. But there has also developed over the past thirty or so years a respect for rhymes and raps and spoken word—an appreciation of wordsmiths. Students, it turns out, enjoy wordplay, clever turns of phrase and heartfelt expression. So poetry does apparently matter.
Roseanne Ritzema, publisher and editor of Presa Press seems to think so. She has put together a collection of essays called Poetry Matters. It’s a slim volume of thirteen essays by half a dozen poets and publishers of independent poetry. In Poetry Matters, the essays are by Hugh Fox, John Amen, Erix Greinke, Harry Smith, Kirby Congdon and Richard Kostelanetz. These are not formal essays. They are more like conversations with the reader about what poetry is, what elements it must contain, the role poetry plays. There has existed, for as long as higher education has been around, a division in poetry and probably in other arts as well between academics and those outside of academia. Being on the inside has numerous advantages for writers in terms of publication, reviews and of course, making a living teaching writing. But what happens when we have hundreds of MFA programs? Schools of poetry are developed and that results in poetry being aimed at a rather narrow audience that speaks a certain insider language. When these academic poets become poetry editors, poetry becomes incestuous. Anyone who submits poetry to magazines will see some variation of the following in most guidelines for submission. “Read our magazine so you’ll know what we like before submitting.” The implication is: don’t send us anything original! The problem can be seen and heard in how readers respond to the poems that regularly appear in The New Yorker, The Atlantic and Poetry Magazine. They seldom understand them and they don’t often like them.
The poets and publishers in Poetry Matters understand this division. They are writing from the outside. They identify with poets like Whitman, Ginsberg, Bukowski, Bly, Lifshin and, although they don’t mention her, Eileen Myles. They want the gatekeepers on the inside to open the gates. The best essay in the anthology is by John Amen, the Vice-President of New York Quarterly, the editor of Pedestal Magazine and an established poet and editor. Amen says, “What keeps me engaged in the editorial process…is encountering an example of unconsidered excellence.” As writers, this is all we can hope for in an editor. Poet and publisher Eric Greinke argues for a poetic community that is more inclusive. “If poetry is the highest form of art, as Plato stated, then why aren’t our poets sanctioned with the same artistic freedom as the presumably lower arts.” In other words, if Picasso can experiment with so many different forms and styles, why can’t poets? In “Eight Attributes of Poetry” Harry Smith, poet publisher and literary activist, attempt a definition of poetry by elucidating what he sees as its elements: symbolism, metaphor, prophecy, music, play, experience, emotion and design.” Frost, of course, claimed poetry must move from “delight to wisdom” but wisdom seems in short supply today. Poetry can also be thought of as a mix of metaphor, music and meaning. The best poets, to my way of thinking, combine all three.
In a recent interview in The Paris Review, Ben Lerner talks about a problem he sees as endemic to poetry.
The main demand associated with lyric poetry is that an individual poet can or must produce both a song that’s irreducibly individual—it’s the expression of their specific humanity, because it’s this intense, internal experience—and that is also shareable by everyone, because it can be intelligible to all social persons, so it can unite a community in its difference. And that demand… is impossible.
Well, it wasn’t impossible for Yeats or Frost or Whitman, but it does seem more difficult today.
Still, when a loved one dies or when we are confronted by momentous events like the recent election, people reach for poems. My friend Steve Wood called me up to talk the day after the election and he started off referring to “The Second Coming.” “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” I mentioned Auden’s line: “We must love one another or die.” For poetry to matter, it must be able to fulfill those kinds of needs. There must be great poems we can reach for when we want to respond to death or to calamity or change. It’s obvious that journalism and our media cannot play that role. Social media, addictive as it may be, leaves us unfulfilled.
If you write poetry it is a pleasure to read writing about poetry by other people who love poetry. You might not always be on the same page with them but hearing their point of view is still a pleasure. Apparently, poetry does still matter. I do wish it were a little more significant and that it mattered a little more.