Making Poetry Public
By Jordan Mills Pleasant
For the most part, the term “poetry” falls on deaf ears — even for the average reader in 2012, the term is less significant than it once was. Over the course of the last 50 years, poetry has in many ways been relegated to a very specialized part of academic society in America, in stark contrast to other cultures’ embrace of the “art of words,” where poetry often plays an integral role in the daily comings and goings of even the least educated classes.
The reason? While there are a myriad of different reasons for the relatively recent decline in public interest in the poetic arts, one of the main reasons is perhaps the “academicization” of poetry, which carries along with it a host of complications, sometimes good, sometimes bad.
The acadmicization of poetry refers to the process by which poetry has become an accepted topic for academic study in colleges and universities, generally couched in “creative writing” programs, which are in turn couched within English departments. This process began with the University of Iowa’s Iowa Writer’s Workshop program, which formally opened its doors in 1936. The greater trend in academia didn’t boom until the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when many universities adopted similar programs. Today, there are hundreds, if not thousands of creative writing programs, and each program is populated by any number of poets.
This process has enabled some really positive progress to the art of poetry. If nothings else, poets in America now have a better chance of avoiding the starving artist stereotype by being accepted into honorable careers in universities. In many ways, the move from the wandering troubadour type poet to the professor poet has also created its own book boom, having established a network of academic poets, both professors and students, to fuel the market.
Perhaps the bad effects of academia accepting literary artists into its traditionally more cerebral environment outweigh, in important sense, the good effects. For example, when poetry is relegated almost exclusively to academia, it tends to become very cerebral, niche and often difficult to understand. When super-literary intellectuals fuel the poetry market, those are the minds to which poets naturally must cater, only to exclude and alienate the general reader.
It is with some of these points in mind that Dana Gioia, former Poet Laureate of the United States, composed his now canonical essay Can Poetry Matter?, published by Graywolf Press in 1992. Regarding how to make poetry an integral part of American culture again, Gioia writes, “All it would require is that poets and poetry teachers take more responsibility for bringing their art to the public.” He then suggests six “modest proposals for how this dream might come true,” all of which have, to some extent, gone unnoticed in literary circles. These are his suggestions, in a nutshell:
Poets that give public readings should spend part of each program reciting other people’s work. This would help expose audiences to more of a variety of poetry.
People who plan events that center on poetry should make sure to avoid including poetry at the exclusion of the other arts. Mixing in other forms of art and integrating new genres with poetry can perhaps liven up the normal, and sometimes boring, reading or lecture.
Poets should write critical work about poetry more often, yet make it more candid and more accessible for the common reader, in order to defuse some of the shyness with which many readers naturally approach poetry today.
Anthologists should be sure to include only poetry and poets they admire in anthologies, and be sure not to bow to the expectations of publishers, academia or other poet peers.
Poetry teachers in high schools and colleges should spend less time on critical analysis and more time on actually performing poetry. Recitation was once an admirable art. Whatever we can do to revive the respect that recitation once held as an art will help contribute to making poetry more accessible.
Finally, poets, critics and events coordinators can do a lot to help expand the waning audience that poetry currently holds simply by making poems more prominent: include poetry in public events, on the radio, on television or even in ceremonial events or as a part of any formal address.
While Gioia’s suggestions are all very helpful, there is a lot that the common reader can do to slowly acquaint him or herself with the amazing and vibrant art of contemporary poetry in America. My own suggestions include visiting poetryfoundation.org and browsing their admirable database of poetry, resources, critical analysis and virtual programs. Also, visit poets.org and sign up for their “poem a day” program, which emails subscribers a new poem each day and helps introduce those interested to the art. Finally, check out the resources that the Poetry 180 program, sponsored by the Library of Congress, has to offer by visiting loc.gov/poetry/180/.
The debate about the “academicization” of poetry has long been a hot topic in and out of universities, and is very dear to the hearts of many poets, critics and interested readers. The debate has also blown up a lot of dust. Is the academicization process ultimately good or bad? Not for me to say. If you’re even the least bit interested in either acquainting yourself with the art or helping to engage and acquaint others with the art, I hope this article serves as a useful guide.
Reach DCP editor Jordan Mills Pleasant at Editor@DaytonCityPaper.com.