Reading & Literacy Commentary

Poetry, Dead or Alive

By Morris Freedman — April 26, 2000 9 min read

A bookstore in a suburb of Washington not long ago held a “Poetry Slam,” at which persons read, chanted, and howled their creations. The Washington Post reported the incident as an effort to keep poetry alive, one of many such events that have become popular throughout the country.

Is poetry dead? Will “slams” and similar devices revive the corpse or just belabor it? Can “poetry” ever really die?

Unfortunately, answers to such questions can never be plain and direct. Poetry belongs among the many things we say we “know when we see” but can’t readily define. The last thing we want to do is linger over a definition when we are finding our sentiments in verse on intimate personal occasions, like births and anniversaries, or vast public ones, like Princess Diana’s death, or when we are simply deriving pleasure from the subtleties of a poem.

Professors of literature and serious critics sneer at less than poetic high art. The British journalist and critic Christopher Hitchens, writing in The Nation, contemptuously dismissed the sentimental, derivative versifying after Diana’s death. Students and decently educated adults, who find their rare deep feelings expressed in words of others, may resent being baffled by the sorts of works professors and critics admire.

Yet might not the current awareness of poetry, however we define it and whatever we prefer, motivate schools on every level, teachers and students, to pay it again appropriate respect and attention?

In our recent cultural history, the respectability of poetry has indeed declined precipitously among those who take serious literacy seriously. Many prominent newspapers no longer review or print poetry. Jonathan Yardley, the book critic for The Washington Post, put it this way: “Contemporary American poetry is read by poets, by writing students, and by students of literature—and by almost no one else.” Joseph Epstein, the former editor of The American Scholar, assumed its death in a Commentary essay called “Who Killed Poetry?” Louis Simpson, a critic and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, regards the current practice of poetry as having fallen into the hands of self-promoting guilds.

Nevertheless, the country now has at least two large national prizes for poetry, in addition to the Pulitzer. The Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award brings $50,000. The older Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize has been increased to $75,000, to ensure, in the words of its sponsors, that it is “once again the largest poetry prize in the United States.” The Book of the Month Club, with its vast captive clientele, announces it will publish volumes by Philip Larkin, W.H. Auden, and William Butler Yeats, no casual versifiers. The Internet has dozens of Web sites devoted to “poetry.”

Poetry is even helping political reporters interpret the news. At one point in the saga of the Clintons, The Washington Post ran an Op-Ed essay by staff writer David Von Drehle with the subtitle “I Confess—T.S. Eliot Matters More to Me Than the Thomasons.” He quoted Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Richard Cory” in a try at fathoming the suicide of Vincent Foster, and a fragment from Eliot’s “The Waste Land” as he tried setting Mississippi flooding in the context of history.

We continue to regard poetry reverentially, and many learn to recognize great names in poetry even without reading a word they wrote. T.S. Eliot’s name went up on Broadway when his children’s verses were turned into “Cats,” the musical. Hollywood starred lovable Robin Williams, in “Dead Poets Society,” as a poetry-loving prep school teacher misunderstood by his philistine headmaster. We are supposed to admire the teacher even though he irresponsibly guides a susceptible student to suicide. In rewarding faculty members, universities assess indifferent poetry, published or unpublished, as superior to any prose.

Much poetry today is unabashedly exploited for plain profit. Periodically, something called The National Library of Poetry, billing itself as “the largest organization of its kind in the world,” emerges to promote a contest for “amateur” poets, guaranteeing publication to nonwinners if they buy copies of the book in which they appear. It claims to have “featured poems by more than 100,000 poets” in its volumes. (A little arithmetic impressively demonstrates the fruits of free enterprise.)

But even professional poets—that is, those who expect to be paid in the genuinely open market for their writings and readings, whose work is taught in colleges and reviewed by literary critics, who teach and write criticism themselves—are not their own best advocates. They shamelessly promote themselves and friends, hustling teaching appointments and reading fees. Some think of themselves as businessmen concerned mainly with sales and profits. When I once asked a fellow teacher, a published poet, his opinion of another poet, he replied by estimating the man’s earnings. He genuinely did not understand any interest in the man’s worth as artist.

The art of poetry remains difficult to appraise justly. Editors of highbrow journals, when they publish obviously faddish and impenetrable efforts, and the critics who approve of them, inflict on the state of poetry the anarchy that muddles judgment in the art world. Shameless publishers and critics promote poetry of invisible merit, confident that few would dare declare the emperor without clothes.

The art of poetry remains difficult to appraise justly.

No doubt, pedagogical ambivalence accounts for some of the genuine confusions and vicissitudes of poetry’s appeal. Schools stopped requiring students to memorize poems because memorizing became a substitute for teaching and learning. Under the pressures of intellectual fashions, teachers (properly) rejected the shallow sentimentality of traditionally popular works, like Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees” or Rudyard Kipling’s “If,” but foundered in dealing with respectable alternatives. When I tried one summer to get a graduate class of secondary school teachers actually to read Robert Frost’s “Birches,” I found they were at a loss, talking about dendrology, Frost’s biography, symbolism, or how the Indians made canoes from the bark of the birch. But then they didn’t read Kilmer’s words any more discerningly. They had no idea of how to judge Kilmer’s text against Frost’s, but they had been taught to declare almost by rote that Kilmer was inferior. My doctoral students, preparing to teach in college, have as a group not done better in focusing on texts.

Too many elementary, high school, and college-freshman teachers still prepare their classes to write without first teaching them to read. Students are allowed to regard poetry with an uncomprehending, grudging, pietistic awe, combinations of obscure words put together in the olden days when Shakespeare and somebody named Wadsworth hung out together. No wonder that so many suspect that much poetry written today is a hoax, like Pablo Picasso’s and Jackson Pollock’s paintings or Samuel Beckett’s plays.

After they leave school, graduates remain hostile toward classical poetry even though they continue to be enchanted by naughty limericks, children’s rhymes, ditties remembered from the nursery, the sophisticated lyrics of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, folk songs, even the grating rhyming of rappers. The greeting-card industry thrives on the lifelong fascination with rhymes that enter the memory easily.

Poetry is, of course, plain fun when responded to without layerings of pedantic interpretation. I still remember standing in front of my 6th grade class and, behind my back, counting on my fingers the succession of “bells, bells, bells, bells ... ,” as I recited Edgar Allan Poe’s poem. I remember my vague confusion when Sir Walter Scott’s young Lochinvar swam the Eske River where “ford there was none.” I thought that “ford” was a car. We learned a little history in the trochees of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Hiawatha” and in the dactyls of his “Evangeline.” We got prizes in “elocution” when we happily tore a dramatic text to tatters, like Poe’s “Annabel Lee” or Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “The Cry of the Children.”

Poetry seminars offer serious intellectual reward, opportunities to immerse oneself in the subtleties and ambiguities of carefully shaped language. You can’t properly study Emily Dickinson, say, without talmudically explicating a word, a phrase, a rime, a stanza. No lawyer, scientist, or businessman who has to use words to best effect does better than reading serious poetry with committed care, something another article in The American Scholar pointed out.

Professors and peasants among us forget that much poetry worthy of the name is commonly rooted in a sense of community and expresses a social response. When Christopher Hitchens sneers at the outpouring of verse at Princess Diana’s death, he discounts the inherent capacity of poetic form to express social grief in ritual fashion, to bind strangers together in common sadness. We forget how effectively poetry carries messages, often requiring nothing more than to be read aloud for full apprehension and appreciation. Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg might have found themselves joyously at home at a “Poetry Slam” (and not altogether uncomfortable in each other’s company). A bard’s chant kept alive Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey.” The poetry of classical Greek, Roman, and French tragedy and comedy achieved immortality through theatrical presentations. Except for the sonnets and a few long poems, Shakespeare wrote his great body of poetry to be spoken, in performance.

It might not hurt for teachers to revive the fun inherent in poetry by having children recite, possibly memorize again, catchy works, like Poe’s “Bells,” Scott’s “Lochinvar,” Browning’s “How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix,” Kipling’s “Gunga Din,” anonymous ballads, the irreverent doggerel in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the patter of W.S. Gilbert, limericks like those of Edward Lear, the chants of children’s games, like those that the Opies famously collected, even some works of Edgar Guest and Kilmer (the last two, one would hope, by way of cultivating skills in comparison and evaluation).

As Yeats admonished, we must separate the dance from the dancer.

We might revive with profit the recitation of classics when we teach “communication skills.” Consider how much Eliot’s dramatic recording of “The Waste Land” enhances our understanding of the text on the page. As Lionel Trilling once notably observed, Eliot’s readings have something of music hall presentation about them. We absorb the rhymes, alliterations, assonances, multiple meanings, and ambiguities of communication which unabashedly exploits the ancient rhetorical power of poetry.

Plainly, it is good to have serious poets recognized with the world’s goods, although we may expect the newly munificent awards to generate as much dissension as the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes have done, which seem so often to be determined by other factors than intrinsic merit.

But if we’re ever again to respond to serious poetry seriously in all corners of our national life, in classroom and living room, at poetry slams, on greeting cards, at every kind of memorial, to acknowledge the continued vitality of one of mankind’s noble forms of discourse, we must guard against glib enthusiasm for fashion or easy fascination with the hackneyed, shallow, pretentious, or incomprehensible, or casual reward for the mediocre and inferior. As Yeats admonished, we must separate the dance from the dancer, not like rock-star groupies infatuated by performers, oblivious to content.

Above all, we must not turn poetry into a commodity whose marketing is studied rather than its making and achievement.

A version of this article appeared in the April 26, 2000 edition of Education Week as Poetry, Dead or Alive


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