Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Poetry as scapegoat among the arts

Who can explain why the practice of poetry has become the object of so much satire and snide dismissal? Example: "Nobody reads poetry nowadays, or only other poets do." We're asked to take this on faith; the rules of evidence don't apply when it comes to smearing poetry. Even if having small audiences were a crime (which it isn't), why don't we hear either, "No one sees new works of choreography nowadays," or, "No one listens to new music nowadays." The audience for dance and contemporary non-entertainment music is smaller than poetry's. But it's more fun to scapegoat poetry. As for the poetry audience, I call on all published poets to confirm that their readers include people who don't themselves write poetry. Further evidence: When Robert Pinsky served as Laureate, he launched an initiative called The Favorite Poem Project. Participants didn't prove to be literary professionals--they were doctors, insurance agents, construction workers, what have you. If you doubt it, see the anthology that came out of the Project. Nor were participants' typical choices Edgar Guest, Robert Service, Rod McKuen, or Jewel. We got Keats, Borges, Dickinson, Yeats, Rilke, Whitman, Langston Hughes, Bishop. QED.

It's important to explode the canard about the unread state of poetry because, "Nobody reads poetry," soon leads to "We're not going to bother to review poetry," which leads to, "We're not going to advertise new books of poetry," which leads to poor sales and, "We're not going to publish poetry." Poets and readers of poetry, unite: Your lifeline is under attack.

If no one reads poetry nowadays, why are there so many journals that publish it? Why do those journals receive hundreds of unsolicited poems each week? Why do we have so many MFA programs in poetry writing? Why are there so many scheduled poetry readings every week in every major city in these fifty states?

Now let's turn to the scapegoating of poets: We're supposed to be career mad (or mentally ill), drunken, druggy, boorish, sex-addicted, ridiculously bohemian or else academically prim and proper, wind-up suicide dolls, silly little Chatterton-boxes. Granting that these terms describe some poets, why don't novelists, visual artists, composers, and indie filmmakers (or, for that matter, swinging suburbanites--remember The Ice Storm?) fall under the same gavel? Who knows? The scapegoat du jour is the poet.


Sandra said...

Welcome, Alfred! I'm happy to see you online.

--Cheers, Sandra Beasley

Seth Abramson said...

Hi Alfred,

I'd like to second that welcome...

I'm a fan of your work--The West Door was one of the first books of poetry I ever bought--and I'm thrilled to see you blogging!

Best wishes,
Seth Abramson

Alfred Corn said...

Thanks, Sandra. I just saw your poems online at =Drunken Boat=. Your book is in production now, right? Look forward to that.

Nice to meet you, Seth. And I was glad to hear about =The West Door=, which I'm sort of partial to, even though it's seldom mentioned. No doubt I'm like the parent who wishes people saw virtues in his least popular kid.
Sometimes they do!


Reginald Shepherd said...

Dear Alfred,

I also wanted to mention that, unfortunately, people do in fact say "No one wants to listen to new music" all the time, and even assert its intinsic unlistenability, without ever bothering to listen to it or to find out anything about it. I read an article a while back by Adam Kirsch in which he asserted that no one wanted to listen to Philip Glass, Osvaldo Golijov, or Henryk Gorecki, three of _the_ most popular contemporary composers.

There's a prejudice against modern music among much of the mainstream music audience, to whom Schoenberg (dead over fifty years) and Berg (dead over seventy years) still seem weird and unsettling interlopers in the sacred wood of Mozart and Beethoven.

Take good care. I liked your post on teaching.

all best,