Friday, December 30, 2022

not dead, but waiting to be born

Like clockwork, every once in a while someone dusts off the very tired mantle and declares poetry dead.  It happens in little magazines, blog posts, facebook/twitter rants, and sadly on platforms for the normies like The New York Times Opinion Section.  Suddenly, like a bunch of rats feeding on the corpse, we are all illuminated by a set of headlights for a moment, all of us who consider ourselves poets or poetry lovers, then we scurry back into the woods or behind a dumpster or into our notebooks and word docs until the next article comes looking for us.

This particular one irked me even more than usual because it took Eliot's name in vain.  Not derogatorily of course, but placing The Wasteland on a pillar and declaring everything since irrelevant. I get excited when I see discussions of The Wasteland, it being sort of thing that set me on the course to become the poet I am, but also, I know that audiences were split between it's brilliance and the WTF? factor, as perhaps all brilliance should be experienced.  Those 1922 audiences didn't quite know what to do with it, nor really any of the modernists like HD and Pound. Something new was born and launched poetry in a new direction, or at least a new direction for magazines like The Dial and The Little Review who were looking for innovative work.  Because of course, formalist poetry still thrived everywhere else and continued to do so, particularly in the halls of the academy. Some formalists will say it still does.  But for those who were paying attention to more avant gard channels through the 1920s, things were shifting and those things, like they always do, were moving into what we consider the canon. But then again, the lines between the canon and mainstream readers, ie the average Joe who would pick up a book of poetry was much thinner. It would be thickened of course by new means of stories and language like radio, films, television, the internet. It would be strengthened by anti-intellectualism and distrust of academics, bohemians, and artists in the McCarthy era. Eventually, by the time I was born in the mid 1970's, and certainly by the time I reached college in the 90s, they might have existed on entirely different planets. 

But then people will want poetry.  Even if it's just for weddings and funerals.  While I was studying Dickinson and Eliot at a tiny midwest liberal arts college, slam poetry was hitting its stride about 90 miles away in Chicago, even in places like MTV, and though many would argue that slam is closer to performance art than poetry, I would argue in return that poetry is in fact a slippery little beast. That while academia and what passes as the literary establishment (ie, places like the New Yorker and Poetry Magazine)  scoffed, poets were paying attention. In the mid -90's I remember stumbling upon a tiny article in Glamour magazine talking about how woman poets were taking the poetry world by storm (Olena Kalytiak Davis, Lisa Jarnot, Lee Ann Brown--all poets whose work I later came to love.) I was smitten by the idea of being a poet, and had already been trying to write it (badly, but still). By the time I arrived in Chicago, the open mic scene was one of the best ways to share work. But when I enrolled in an MFA program at the college I worked at, the canon was already shifting, transforming, as younger instructors brought new poets to the classroom. The poets that inspired my MFA classmates was an entirely different set of poets than who inspired my open-mic friends.  As the internet bloomed, I found other poets there--many, occupying blogs and online lit journals and myspace accounts.  I started my own. These all sometimes overlapped in their reading interests, but just as often did not.

But the thing is, and perhaps this why articles like the NYT's one infuriate me, is that if you ask any one of us, poets that is, what is a good poem, we may have (will have) entirely different answers. This was a pivotal scene in a workshop I once took, where the teacher had us go around and tell everyone what we thought was most important in a poem, and I think with one or two exceptions, in a room of around 15 people, no one had the same answer. Also,  young poets may be astounded that there really is no singular poetry world, but more like an overlapping map of constellations of aesthetics and influences and presses/journals. It might seem sprawling and chaotic, but it makes room for everything, including underheard and underrepresented voices. For visual poetry, for language poetry, for more traditional verse. For insta poetry and verse epics and strange word collages like mine.

Poetry, on one hand is Rupi Kaur and her innumerable fans that while not my taste, has brought "poetry" as a word to the lips of younger millennial and gen-zers. It's also amazing poets who get some recognition like Ada Limon, who was finally a US poet laureate whose work I already liked.  Or Claudia Rankine, who I was aghast one day when a friend who knows nothing of poets said she was reading Citizen on a bartender's recommendation. It's also me and my fellow poets who are writing their best work to date and have like 5 dedicated readers. While poetry is something like Poetry Magazine or the American Poetry Review, it's also tiny indie presses and journals that are publishing (at least for me) the most exciting work. On the other, performance poets and cinema poets and open-mic poets. It's also the girl writing bad poetry in her diary as much as it is the crochety "established" poet writing crappy poetry during his sabbatical already under contract with a major journal. Or the girl writing really good poetry on her tumblr and the guy who writes poems on his phone but never shows them to a soul.

So when you declare poetry is dead, I ask which poetry? Which beast? Because really poetry is a shape shifter more than any other language based art form. You think you have it pinned down and its gone. And the more whimsical among us would say poetry does not have to look like a poem (or even language as we know it) at all, but can be a painting or a sunset or even a meme. Maybe the best poetry is being written on a wall in a can of spray paint, or with a tiny brush on a seashell. 

As for 100 years from now, who knows,. canons and trends shift. The poets who were taught in the 1960s are barely on the lips of poets now. Probably the most famous poet in 2122 may be Rupi Kaur, not because its the best but because there were just a lot of copies floating around and cluttering up libraries. Or maybe its some random poem that has yet to be written that goes enormously viral for whatever reason and the whole world, even the non-poets and normies, take it home and make a place for it in their bed.