Tuesday, June 09, 2009

the problem with poetry

There's a minor fuss happening online today concerning poetry and how we either appreciate it or do not.

Two of the main voices are British critic James Wood (writes for the New Yorker; made a funny speech at last week's Griffin Prize dinner and then danced the night away) and British columnist Harry Eyres (writes for the Financial Times; wishes to examine poetry-hating).

A transcript of Wood's speech appears in the Globe & Mail. In it, he bemoans the shrinking of poetry's public space:

There are at least two effects of this shrinkage. One is that, pragmatically speaking, poetry has less muscle, less heft, less public presence, than it should have. “Not bad, for a poetry reading,” is how people talk, already twisted into a cringing posture of self-disrespect. The second is that the crucial function of criticism – to explain texts – is not going on in the world of poetry. The middleman – the critic – has been capitalistically excised, and the poem and its audience stare at each other across a vast ignorant space. Recently I heard the poet Robert Pinsky and the thriller writer Elmore Leonard on the radio. Pinsky had just reviewed Leonard's new novel. (Tellingly, we can't imagine Leonard reviewing Pinsky, for that would seem, commercially speaking, like the master dressing his own valet.) Pinsky said that some of Leonard's prose had the compression of verse, then asked the novelist if he read much poetry. No, was the reply – it's too difficult to get into.

Eyres is more to the point in his column, flatly claiming respect for poetry no longer exists, and simply wanting to know why that is so:

Poetry is up against it in all sorts of ways. Unlike video games, reality television, amateur dance troupes, it is not a cultural phenomenon that is generally welcomed into people’s lives. But what could it do for us, if we would allow it?

I don't know. Both arguments paint poetry as some forgotten ancestor of modern entertainments and distractions. Is poetry dead? Hardly. It may seem quiet these days compared to more amplified cultural offerings, and it may sit at a far table near the back of the party, but that's a lively table and you can be sure the best toasts will come from it.

I do agree with Wood that the decline of poetry criticism is alienating to the form, but I'm not sure poetry is the only victim of this trend. Besides, once this Internet thing really finds its legs, there's bound to be tonnes more of this stuff.

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1 comment:

Pearl said...

yep, take alone the poem a day challenge at writers digest. just among those who posted added 25,000 new poems to the world thru prompts in one month and I know 3 or 4 people who participated privately without posting.