The Righteous Skeptic's Guide to Reading Poetry
A few months ago, my friend Ben wrote a series here exhorting contemporary listeners to give classical music a second chance. When asked if I would do something similar for poetry, my first response was at first, sheepishly: has poetry dropped into the same cultural dead-zone as classical music??
As a teacher of undergraduate creative writing classes, I'm often forced to admit that it has. I remember, as a young person, being posed the question, "what kind of music do you like?," and coolly, sensibly replying, "everything but classical!"** Now, as a graduate student and adjunct professor, when I ask my students what they like to read, I generally hear the following:
"Oh, pretty much anything."
"...except poetry. I really don't like reading poetry."
Why? What had poetry ever done to them?
And yet, as a teacher and poet, I often find myself strangely identifying with their answer. Yeah, poetry sucks! It's confusing, it's pretentious, it's precious, it's frivolous and disconnected and has nothing to do with my life. Right on.
It is to and from this perspective—that of the absolute, and righteous, skeptic—that I would like to address this series on poetry—a series in which I will actually appeal to you to read the stuff. Now, odds are you already experience "poetic" language almost everywhere in your everyday life—from music videos, to creative advertising formulations, to the rhymes and mnemonic devices that circulate through our days from early childhood. But this series will focus on those strange creatures that actually still choose to call themselves "poetry." What does their world look like today? How to introduce it to an outsider?
Here's my sense: American poetry is in a period of "fertile uncertainty"—in other words, it's confused. That's a good thing. Poetry, as a genre in the U.S., remains paradoxically flexible—carrying expectations, habitual moves, and taboos, for sure, but also within these boundaries the expectation that they continue to be violated, expanded, collapsed. This extreme adaptability gives poetry plenty of chances to remain relevant in today's contemporary culture, where memes and high-speed Internet rule the roost. And poetry's patience (or obliviousness, you could call it)—the degree to which it is exceedingly insulated (unlike the art world, say, or fiction) from an economic and cultural sphere increasingly dominated by finance capital and advertising—gives it a chance to play a vital cultural role in an era of pressing ecological and economic crisis. When the bottom falls out—or, as it keeps casually downshifting—which art form are we most liable to trust? Which are we most likely to want?
I introduce this five-part series, a sort of "state of the union" for poetry, in the hope that it will spur a broader discussion among poetry readers and non- readers alike. As a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop—and a big MFA program is probably as good a place as any to get a sense for what's happening, for better and for worse—I'll try to play the Virgil to your Dante.
As we enter this dark and shadowy world, the best place I can think to start is the debate around "accessibility"—what makes (or makes not) a poem accessible to its readers. Accessibility, as an idea, is in desperate need of an update.
Next week: Adam discusses what makes a poem "accessible."
** Full disclosure: I now listen to plenty of classical music.
Adam Roberts at The Atlantic.