STEPHEN SMITH: Poetry Is a Genre Due A Revival
When I first started writing poetry -- that would be 40 years ago -- I firmly believed the genre was about to undergo a revival.
There were myriad little magazines and small presses that published the stuff. Poetry readings were sponsored by colleges, bookstores, and arts councils, and most people who called themselves poets were "serious" folk who'd read a good deal of poetry and understood the exactitude and creativity necessary to become an established practitioner of the genre. People listened to and read what poets wrote.
And there were sterling examples offered by other cultures and countries. American poets were encouraged by stories of poets in Ireland, Italy, or Poland who made a living writing verse.
In the Republic of Georgia, streets and parks were named after poets we'd never heard of. The Russians, brutes that they were, filled arenas to capacity -- 50,000 poetry lovers at one gathering! -- to hear poets who were like rock stars confined behind an Iron Curtain.
If Russians loved their poetry, surely Americans could do better. We were only waiting for the moment to arrive.
Academe, economics, and pop culture are the nefarious forces that have almost destroyed poetry in America.
In order to survive, American poets had to gravitate to the academy, where they attempted to teach hormone besotted youngsters the value of the craft. T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens may have been the finest writers in the universe, but they were, for most students, just another brick in the wall.
Undergraduates who were taught "The Waste Land" and "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" progressed to courses in business administration or statistics. That's where the money was.
Capitalism was never fertile ground for the cultivation of poetry. People were suspicious. Our economic system operates on the notion that we get as much as possible from each other while offering as little as possible in return.
Poetry does just the opposite. Poets offered as much as possible while expecting almost nothing in return. And that's what they got. In the final analysis, poetry is un-American.
Poetry slams, at which "poets" read or recite original work accompanied by histrionics, became popular. These performance-based readings are judged on a numeric scale by selected members of the audience, and the best performer walks away with a prize.
Unfortunately, most of the poems read at slams are doggerel, and the participants have little knowledge of the genre they are attempting to dominate.
Poetry/literary critic Harold Bloom has called the poetry slam movement "the death of art." And he may be right. The slightest whiff of egalitarianism and postmodern poetry dies instantly.
So what has happened to poetry during these recessionary times?
There are fewer and fewer presses, small and large alike, that publish serious poetry. The market for poetry books was small to begin with, and these days it's almost nonexistent. Most publishers won't even read poetry. Time is money, and these days there's not a cent to waste.
The good news is that there are poetry presses still active in North Carolina. St. Andrews Press is alive and well in Laurinburg and Main Street Rag continues to prosper in Charlotte. Press 53 is publishing in Winston-Salem. And there are other presses who wouldn't want me to list them here.
For the next few weeks I'm going to be reviewing books by North Carolina poets. Maybe we need to slow down and consider what we're losing before poetry becomes completely irrelevant.
To whet your appetite here's one of my favorite metaphoric ditties by Robert Penn Warren:
Cricket, On Kitchen Floor, Enters History
History, shaped like white hen,
Walked in the kitchen door.
Beak clicked once on stone floor.
Out door walked hen then;
But will, no doubt, come again.
Contact Stephen Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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