Poetry is dead.
April 29, 2003 8:48 AM   Subscribe

To me, poetry is for that which can't be communicated by other means, and there's a hell of a lot of other means now, thanks to human dedication to story-telling technology. In fact, so many people decry the monopolization of media and decrease in choice among media that poetry might increase its available canon of exclusive emotions and subject matter that just doesn't fit into our commercial media choices.

Poetry isn't dead, it's just that it isn't filtered through the whims of publishers anymore. Online poetry sites abound (http://dir.yahoo.com/Arts/Humanities/Literature/Poetry/).

My theory is that there'll be a personalized database that works likt http://launch.yahoo.com where users will give scores to poets and poems and build a sense of what they like and don't like as the database matches other likely hits to their tastes.

I prefer reading poetry online. That way I can print and reread the poems I wanna explore without carrying a book of poems I don't care about.

Poetry, as a creative work consumed by people, is awkwardly evolving out of its previous delivery and distribution system. I believe it's succeeding.

I believe that poetry appreciation will be the most altered by these changes. Self-directed online poetry will invite exploration of why one likes a poem, and each poem can be associated with its own online discussion, academic or otherwise. People who care about symbol and allusion in a poem can read about it. People who don't, don't. The important thing is that they know what they like, don't like, and why, and that they have a chance to learn what they want to learn.
posted by basilwhite at 8:49 AM on April 29, 2003

Good friend of mine is a huge fan of Rilke.

I like Emily Dickinson myself, though admittedly, I don't actually own any books of poetry.
posted by Foosnark at 8:57 AM on April 29, 2003

Okay, but I still hate Robert Frost.

and his stupid wall, and his fucking roads in a yellow wood. who doesn't love a wall? i don't, you shitty obvious-metaphor-using motherfucker. how about you take the road most travelled, the fuck out of my way.

I like Yeats though.
posted by padraigin at 9:00 AM on April 29, 2003

Slate, "In Other Magazines": A bizarre Newsweek essay by Bruce Wexler, who admits in the kicker that he's never heard of poet laureate Billy Collins, contends that the poetry is an outmoded art. His primary evidence—he no longer reads it.
posted by Shadowkeeper at 9:03 AM on April 29, 2003

yeah, yeah. poetry is dead. so are art, fiction, music, and the finer things in life in general. oh, also the sky is falling. yup.
posted by sodalinda at 9:03 AM on April 29, 2003

Poetry may be dying, but rap has never been more popular.
posted by vito90 at 9:04 AM on April 29, 2003

I just finished reading Alfred Corn's excellent The Poem's Heartbeat and I've never thought it was more relevant and alive. I think the concepts I've learned about poetry from this book, things like meter, rhythm, rhyme, versification (line endings, stanzas etc), and enjambment etc, have much wider applications. I've started to analogize things to a poem, paintings, movies, TV shows, computer programs, music (songs of course but also the music behind them), architecture (particularly the older buildings here in town), anatomy, anything that structured and formulaic I start thinking about it like a poem. Now I find poetry pretty much everywhere I look.
posted by wobh at 9:10 AM on April 29, 2003

I prefer reading poetry online. That way I can print and reread the poems I wanna explore without carrying a book of poems I don't care about.

Poets prefer that you buy their books instead. Of all the fine arts, I can't imagine of a single one more financially frustrating to the artist than poetry.
posted by PrinceValium at 9:11 AM on April 29, 2003

I believe poetry is in an irreversible coma, but without a living will it can never be removed from life support.
posted by cachilders at 9:13 AM on April 29, 2003

Benjamin Zephaniah. An excellent, living poet.
posted by plep at 9:13 AM on April 29, 2003

Charles Bukowski is one poet that just seems to get more relevant.
posted by letitrain at 9:15 AM on April 29, 2003

The excerpt I used is from one of Bukowski's novels, but he also wrote poetry.
posted by letitrain at 9:18 AM on April 29, 2003

Whoa. At first I thought the FPP said "Pottery is Dead."

Wonder if I'm going dyslexic?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 9:20 AM on April 29, 2003

Yeah, poetry has been dead for some time. The only living poet that interests me is Billy Collins. Granted I am not all that familiar with modern poetry, but that's mainly due to having stuck my toe in the water a long time ago and thinking it was a bit too cold to swim in.
posted by Hildago at 9:22 AM on April 29, 2003

it's so easy to be a poet
and so hard to be a

  - Charles Bukowski, 40,000 flies
posted by cachilders at 9:23 AM on April 29, 2003

Letitrain: If by more relevant, you mean more obviously rubbish, then you're right.
Another link on the main (non trolling) subject (via poetryWhore) ...
Does Poetry Matter
posted by seanyboy at 9:23 AM on April 29, 2003

Poetry is dead.

For anyone not reading the article:

The man's making a point, not suggesting that poetry should be dead (or really is dead).

But I take exception to his inability to name a living poet. Heaney is the first to spring to my mind.

Poetry Slams also come to mind as a living, "new" form of poetry. Not the kind of amateur adolescent whining (potentially peppered with gems) you might hear at your local coffeehouse open-mic night, the regional and national poetry slams are something to experience. I recommend them as brilliant and entertaining for anyone, poetry fans and non-fans alike.
posted by Shane at 9:24 AM on April 29, 2003

Poetry has always been dead to most people. Some of the finest, most sensitive and intelligent people I know hate it. It seems gratuitous, lazy, wilfully enigmatic or pretentious to them. Stupid idiots! ;)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 9:25 AM on April 29, 2003

There are hundreds of great contemporary poets, you just have to search them out. Unfortunately MFA programs have contributed greatly to so much mediocrity and a "poet-factory" aesthetic that I don't think editors can be as astute as they used to be--the market is so flooded with dull Iowa Writing Program-style work, the poor magazine editors can probably no longer separate the wheat from the chaff.

Here's an excerpt from a much more comprehensive essay ("Can Poetry Matter?") by Dana Gioia that was published way back in 1991.
posted by dhoyt at 9:27 AM on April 29, 2003

Ack, seanyboy beat me to it.
posted by dhoyt at 9:30 AM on April 29, 2003

Poetry as an exclusive entity which only the wealthy and distinguished can appreciate is no more. It's become a part of every day lives for every day people in ways that Bruce Wexler obviously doesn't understand or even see.

"...can no longer even name a living poet."

He's not lookin very hard.
posted by ZachsMind at 9:31 AM on April 29, 2003

There was a great little segment on utopia / dystopia poetry on NPR the other day (for nat'l poetry month) that included some profound contemporary poetry. Of course, I didn't write down any names, so I'll have to do some more searching...

The NYC poetry scene has a few different segments (slam poets, downtown rock n roll poets, and then the more mainstream 92 st Y / NPR poets) but they all seem pretty much alive and well. As always, a limited community, but thriving nonetheless.
posted by mdn at 9:35 AM on April 29, 2003

poetry is dead
so la la la la la la
i'll dance on its grave
posted by paladin at 9:42 AM on April 29, 2003

He's not lookin very hard.

Zach, I think the author deliberately omitted Maya frickin' Angelou when he was thinking of skilled or interesting living poets ;)

The same Maya Angelou who writes Hallmark cards, btw.
posted by dhoyt at 9:44 AM on April 29, 2003

I, who once spent countless hours reading contemporary poets like Lowell and Berryman, can no longer even name a living poet.

And I, who once spent countless hours listening to contemporary musicians like Lennon and Jagger, can no longer even name a living Top 40 artist. Therefore pop music is dead.
posted by languagehat at 9:44 AM on April 29, 2003

Hear, hear, Ed. Whatever happened to light verse?
posted by wanderingmind at 9:45 AM on April 29, 2003

Whenever I go there everything is changed
The stamps on the bandages the titles
Of the professors of water
The portrait of Glare the reasons for
The white mourning
In new rocks new insects are sitting
With the lights off
And once more I remember that the beginning
Is broken
No wonder the addresses are torn
To which I make my way eating the silence of animals
Offering snow to the darkness
Today belongs to few and tomorrow to no one

He doesn't even know W.S. Merwin? I am bewildered.
posted by y2karl at 9:51 AM on April 29, 2003

Bukowski is an acquired taste no doubt. But then, so is Frost.
posted by letitrain at 9:52 AM on April 29, 2003

Hear, hear, Ed. Whatever happened to light verse?

Well, how about Rod McKuen and Nipsey Russell?

Oh, that's what happened. Or is ol' Rod more lightweight than light?
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 9:55 AM on April 29, 2003

I, too, dislike it.
posted by DaShiv at 9:57 AM on April 29, 2003

I ... can no longer even name a living Top 40 artist. Therefore pop music is dead.

No, that's totally different: contemporary pop music really DOES suck!
posted by ZenMasterThis at 10:00 AM on April 29, 2003

I, who once spent countless hours reading contemporary poets like Lowell and Berryman, can no longer even name a living poet.

Well, Bruce doesn't get out much. Poetry has been given premature obituaries for centuries: at least, ever since Plato wanted to ban poets from his ideal city-state. I don't think one hack columnist is going to deliver the death blow.

(I'm still protective of my signed copy of Heaney's 'Opened Ground'. And there's Geoffrey Hill. And Thom Gunn. And Tony Harrison. And so on. Even Wendy Cope if you're looking for 'light'. And looking at the Faber site, I'm glad to see a new volume of Logue's translation of Homer, which is one of the best literary examinations of war to come out in half a century. Fucking top.)
posted by riviera at 10:02 AM on April 29, 2003

Or is ol' Rod more lightweight than light?

Rod McKuen was cottony detritus
bustling on the breeze
stirred by each sneeze of a gnat.

('Cause he's that lightweight!)
posted by dhoyt at 10:02 AM on April 29, 2003

I like poems by Joseph Duemer who is very much alive and has a weblog with lots of links to contemporary poets. And for a daily shot of poetry, the ever wonderful riley dog can't be beat.

And then there is A. E. Houseman's fun defense of poetry over beer as a way to gird oneself for life's challenges.
posted by madamjujujive at 10:10 AM on April 29, 2003

Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
Poetry is dead,
and Pop is too.
posted by Lafe at 10:11 AM on April 29, 2003

I agree about the comment on rap.

That's a form of poetry, isn't it? And it's alive and well.
posted by linux at 10:15 AM on April 29, 2003

Poetry is not dead, it's just taken a new job as spam filter.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 10:27 AM on April 29, 2003

Even Wendy Cope if you're looking for 'light'.

I'm waiting for a volume called "Chopping Cocaine for Wendy Cope".
posted by liam at 10:34 AM on April 29, 2003

Dhoyt, for your information, Maya Angelou is an american poet laureate who has served at the behest of three us presidents (Ford, Carter & Clinton), and she also served at the request of Dr. Martin Luther King. She is internationally respected as an educator, writer and poet. She's written for tv, stage and screen. She's a composer, a university professor, and has won many awards for her excellence.

Still I Rise. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. She's a great mind and a fine author and poet. Just because you personally find her unacceptable in your little world, this does not diminish the fact that humanity as a whole finds her a living treasure.

And another thing. Greeting cards are a multi-million dollar business so they must be doing something right. Bite mah bohiney!
posted by ZachsMind at 10:34 AM on April 29, 2003

Yeah; I think poetry in the academic sense may have, for all intents and purposes died, though it still has its followers, while the art of the rhyme went down to the streets. Allegory shifted to pop culture references, and the symbols became new, urban symbols, to represent a world where Frost is a long time dead. The musical medium makes the stuff a lot easier to consume; you don't have to read it 20 times to figure out the rhytmic structure. Though many don't like 'em, some of these kids have a hell of a lot of talent.

"Behold, as my odes, manifold on your rhymes
Two MC's can't occupy the same space at the same time.
It's against the laws of Physics.
So weep as your sweet dreams break up like Eurythmics
Rap rejects my tape deck, ejects projectile
Whether jew or gentile
I rank top percentile,
Many styles,
More powerful than gamma rays
My grammar pays,
Like Carlos Sanatana plays
Black Magic Woman
So while you fuming, I'm consuming
Mango juice under Polaris,
You're just embarrassed
Cause it's your "Last Tango in Paris"
And even after all my logic and my theory,
I add a muthaf**ker so you ignint niggas hear me.
And you remember take notes,
As I sow my rap otas
And for you biting zealots, here's a quote. "

-Lauryn Hill back in the Fugees days, from "Zealots"

posted by kaibutsu at 10:35 AM on April 29, 2003

I, who once spent countless hours reading contemporary poets like Lowell and Berryman, can no longer even name a living poet.

And I, who once spent countless hours masturbating to contemporary pr0n stars like Candy Samples and Juliet Anderson, can no longer even name a current pr0n star. Therefore pr0n is dead.
posted by basilwhite at 10:35 AM on April 29, 2003

mah bitch ain't rich
mah bitch be bored
i'ma keel dat bitch
soon's i git's a sword.

yah poet!
you know it!
yah poet!
don' blow it!

tho' mah bling be king
it ain't no thang
bitch was puttin' the sting
on mah po' sore wang.

yah poet!
you know it!
yah poet!
don' blow it!
posted by quonsar at 10:36 AM on April 29, 2003

mtv killed the poetry star.
posted by quonsar at 10:38 AM on April 29, 2003

"...can no longer even name a living poet."

I would like to reassure UK readers that Pam Ayres is still amongst the living.

(And is currently touring).
posted by biffa at 10:39 AM on April 29, 2003

Poetry is dead, and poetry.com is getting sued.
posted by misterioso at 10:42 AM on April 29, 2003

They seem inured to the idea that poetry can actually be playful -- in a word, human. Go to any poetry reading and you will see the ghastliest gasbags droning on, taking the life out of a poem.

where are you seeing that?
downtown nyc still has fun with its poetry, like the new year's
marathon which includes people like john s hall, maggie estep, & penny arcade.

Uptown ny definitely has moments of levity but I'm less familiar with all the names - I just know when I go to readings, there are deep, moving pieces, and there are lighter, fun pieces. The best ones slip between.
posted by mdn at 10:44 AM on April 29, 2003

He seems to have forgotten about Seamus Heaney too...
posted by plep at 10:45 AM on April 29, 2003

Go to any poetry reading and you will see the ghastliest gasbags droning on, taking the life out of a poem.

Not Merwin; not Linda Pastan, of the simple poem “Marks”; or Steven Cushman, who writes plainly in “Cussing Lesson,” “I worship the sacred and savor the profane.” Plenty of live poets are reading accessible work … and dead poets can still mesmerize. (Isn't Rilke praised in every poetry thread?) Why don't poetry-bashers trade complaining for exploring? Poetry may be the most expanding section of my bookshelf.
posted by win_k at 10:53 AM on April 29, 2003

Why do we wear white flannel trousers when there isn't any beach?
Why is it called reality when they've scripted every speech?
How can I praise the sunshine if it's raining all the time?
How can we call it poetry when it doesn't even rhyme?

the red wheelbarrow
upon which so much depends
sits idle, broken

Imitation of Swinburne
Let us make haste, depart ; she will not dance.
Let us quaff our drinks and move to France.
She would not pluck the fruit from off the vine,
Nor help our Bacchanal one step advance.
How humourless she is! like hemlock wine ;
Yea, though we poured a thousand ants into her pants,
   She would not dance.

Poetry isn't dead. Good poetry might be (I wouldn't be one to judge), but I write bad stuff all the time. I also own as many poetry books as economics books, and I'm an economist by profession.

My socks don't match today.
posted by dilettanti at 10:58 AM on April 29, 2003

madamjujujive: I would argue that the immortal lines "And malt does more than Milton can / to justify God's ways to man" places beer at a higher tier in the usefulness hierarchy than poetry. For making sense of things, for girding for life, for pre-copulation rituals, and what have you.

mdn: The soporific effects of any academically-sponsored poetry reading easily surpasses the potency of its prescription-based competitors. It is a well-known secret among those who practice non-traditional medicine. I personally swear by it.

win_k: You must change your life.
posted by DaShiv at 10:59 AM on April 29, 2003

I spent 2 months of my life nitpicking every word of this to get it right for my girlfriend:

A thousand poets for a thousand years,
despite their efforts, beyond any doubt,
would fail to grasp the whole of your great soul:
angelic beauty both inside and out

I thought myself a weed before that night,
but lest I wake I know our bond is more:
a new born flower reluctant to bloom,
a rose in Eden matched not once before

The sun has never shone so bright and clear,
the stars now make a solemn day from night;
yet, with one look and shimmer from your eyes,
to shame you put the brilliance of their light

Be still my heart for now I'm not alone,
A gem I've found now, in a world of stone

Poetry sucks. Stupid bitch.
posted by paddy at 11:03 AM on April 29, 2003

Poor poetry, gone so soon. We hardly knew her.

Also, just for irony's sake, from yesterday's NY Times:
There was an aura of self-congratulation about the [first-ever convention of state poets laureate], with many of the poets extolling what they said was poetry's newfound power. Many said the best thing that ever happened to them was the postponement by the first lady, Laura Bush, of a White House poetry conference this year after she learned that the invited poets were sending antiwar poems to one of the scheduled participants, Sam Hamill, who was organizing a protest. "Ever since Laura Bush, my readings have been crowded," said Grace Paley, poet laureate of Vermont and, at 80, a rabble-rouser. "Even if they're not about the war, they've been crowded."


Like the poets before him, [Dana] Gioia spoke of poetry's resurgence. "This enormous reawakening is now an undeniable fact of contemporary American cultural life," he said. In Northern California, where he is from, he said, "you cannot swing a cat without encountering a poet laureate."
posted by mattpfeff at 11:04 AM on April 29, 2003

Shucks, I guess I'll have to get rid of my link to Verse Daily, wherein, fairly recently, I read the coolest poem I've seen in a long time.
posted by elendil71 at 11:05 AM on April 29, 2003

It's not that poetry is dead so much as it received a re-branding of its name. Poetry just brings up too many negative introductions to poetry. If we don't call it poetry, it'll have a better chance.

It's called rap. To me, that is poetry. Not all of your thug/gangsta' rap is all good, there is conscious rap. Sure, nowadays they put a beat to it and sell it on CD's as opposed to books of rap or a book of poetry.

As someone mentioned, I don't want to walk around with a book of poems, when I only like a few out of the book. Kinda like a CD of music huh? Interesting.

Let's call them MC's,
such as KRS1, Run DMC or Linton Kwesi Johnson, Gil Scott Heron??? That's not poetry?

poetry planet has streaming spoken word.

Or check out DaveyD 's hip hop corner and news.

Toronto has a large hip hop culture. Some more known names like Choclair, K-OS, Kardinal and Swollen Members represents the poetry of today.

You can't deny justus league records' The Dope Poet Society isn't poetry. Political dope like "Fuck Mike Harris" [the last premiere of Ontario], scroll down to 1999, Hipolitics: First Ontario then....

Allright, I'm shocked, they dropped the P word!

So it's not always shout outs to your homeys or free styling about how great you are on the mic you see.

Call someone a poet and it could almost be taken as an insult, I get the impression. It doesn't have to be.

I still remember Ogden Nashs', Women have antiques in their pantiques. Gee, I forget the title!
posted by alicesshoe at 11:05 AM on April 29, 2003

DaShiv - well true enough, malt works in the short term:

Ale, man, ale's the stuff to drink
For fellows whom it hurts to think:
Look into the pewter pot
To see the world as the world's not.
And faith, 'tis pleasant till 'tis past:
The mischief is that 'twill not last.

On the whole, I'd rather debate this whole poetry issue over a few brews tho.
posted by madamjujujive at 11:14 AM on April 29, 2003

The author of the more or less worthless article had a half-baked idea and decided that with the frosting of a few declaritives it could be served up as some sort of think-piece on culture. A pox on him and all lazy kulcha-journalism of this sort.

That said, "poetry" may be dead, but so, arguably, are sculpture and painting, in the sense that wider culture's interest in contemporary poems/paintings/sculptures has dwindled to a relatively small number of people. Dead painters in museums, dead poets in schoolrooms.

To which I say, so what? I'm tempted to hail, as Yeats put it, death-in-life, which has a sneaky way of outliving momentarily fashionable forms. Here's one example: observe the commercial (and literary) success of Phillip Pullman's wonderful His Dark Materials trilogy. The debt in those books to Milton's Paradise Lost is absolute and thorough: these books, which are popular successes, amount to a re-interpretation of a poem which is legendarily considered a big bummer for modern readers. To me, that extension through time into a new, widely read literary work, is life for the form indeed.

(That's all in addition to what's been mentioned by many others above -- that terrific poets like Heaney, Merwin, and Anne Carson continue to produce great work, if not as marketable as the latest Nora Roberts novel.)
posted by BT at 11:15 AM on April 29, 2003

Anne Carson. Jorie Graham. And for those interested in experimental, hyptertextual poetry and general messing around with language, The North American Centre for interdisciplinary poetics.

What languagehat said. Isn't there a logical fallacy of some sort where an argument is constructed in the same way as this article: I have never seen a [whatever], therefore it doesn't exist?

I actually think that is a middlebrow print arts reporting equivalent of a troll. People will write in to the magazine as we have been doing, and the editors will count this as a spirited dialogue on the health of poetry in the 21st century. In the meantime, I just feel sorry for anyone who can go on record saying that poetry is dead because they don't bother to read it.
posted by jokeefe at 11:19 AM on April 29, 2003

Ah, nuts. Sorry about my hangin' open tag there, folks. I was trying to link to Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red.
posted by BT at 11:47 AM on April 29, 2003

I think poetry has always been dead, in the sense that there have always been more popular artistic and literary mediums.

Poetry, however, is alive and well judging by the number of poetry publishers, magazines, MFA programs, and festivals.
posted by drobot at 11:58 AM on April 29, 2003

dhoyt - just a quibble, but I think that the homogenity in poetry blamed on Iowa and other writing programs is exagerated. You can't expect every graduate of such program to be creating something new - that just doesn't happen.

Studying writing and literature in a university is as important for a writer as studying sculpting is for a sculptor, or studying composition is for a composer. Yes, there are sculptors and composers out there who produce great work without studying formally, but they are far fewer than those who went through some kind of formal study. So yes, not every Iowa poem is going to be a knockout, but the chances of a great writer coming out of an MFA program are much greater than somebody who one day decided that they are going to be a writer without putting in time as an apprentice.
posted by drobot at 12:09 PM on April 29, 2003

Dhoyt, for your information, Maya Angelou is an american poet laureate who has served at the behest of three us presidents (Ford, Carter & Clinton), and she also served at the request of Dr. Martin Luther King. She is internationally respected as an educator, writer and poet. She's written for tv, stage and screen. She's a composer, a university professor, and has won many awards for her excellence.

ZachsMind, you do realize that none of this has anything to do with whether she's any good, right? In fact, most of it would seem to me to argue against the likelihood of her being any good as a poet ("served at the behest of three us presidents... written for tv, stage and screen.... a composer, a university professor...").

And surely we're not taking this stupid article seriously enough to argue whether poetry is actually dead? (News flash: it isn't. It never will be, as long as people use language. Poetry is distilled language. Mmm... brandy...)
posted by languagehat at 12:31 PM on April 29, 2003

at the last local slam i competed in, my wife took first and i took second. won $30 between us. not bad.

favorite modern poets, whom i read every day--really.

--jeffrey mcdaniels

....When I was little, I thought the word loin
and the word lion were the same thing.
I thought celibate was a kind of fish.
My parents wanted me to be well-rounded
so they threw dinner plates at each other
until I curled up into a little ball....

--sharon olds

I Go Back to May 1937 (from The Gold Cell)
I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges,
I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head, I
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks with the
wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its
sword-tips black in the May air,
they are about to graduate, they are about to get married,
they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are
innocent, they would never hurt anybody.
I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don't do it--she's the wrong woman,
he's the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you never heard of,
you are going to want to die. I want to go
up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it,
her hungry pretty blank face turning to me,
her pitiful beautiful untouched body,
his arrogant handsome blind face turning to me,
his pitiful beautiful untouched body,
but I don't do it. I want to live. I
take them up like the male and female
paper dolls and bang them together
at the hips like chips of flint as if to
strike sparks from them, I say
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.

posted by th3ph17 at 12:31 PM on April 29, 2003

I find it heartening that this is today's most popular FPP. I think anyone with an ounce of sensitivity realises that poetry is the highest form of written art, and its death-shriek would also be humanity's.

"For poetry is the blossom and the fragrance of all human knowledge, human thoughts, human passions, emotions, language." --Coleridge
posted by cbrody at 12:49 PM on April 29, 2003

I don't know that Maya Angelou is "hastening the demise of literature," but if we're talking strong, black, woman poets who alternate between the personal and the political, I'd take Lucille Clifton or even Nikki Giovanni over Angelou.

The soporific effects of any academically-sponsored poetry reading easily surpasses the potency of its prescription-based competitors.

Ach, DaShiv! Hie thee to a Kamau Brathwaite reading! He sings, he drums, throws radical politics and stories of his childhood and mysticism at you between poems... And you can't tell it from his online works (cursed be that conformist formatting!), but he's as fascinating to read as he is to hear. "Letter SycoraX" from Middle Passages will toss you right into his phonetic and visual innovation, or "Duke: Playing Piano at 70" does the visual play in more standard English.
posted by hippugeek at 12:50 PM on April 29, 2003

She said she didn't know she was shy.
She said she had no idea.
She would often say:
"I am very voluntary."
-Paul Haines

(From memory, so, you know...)
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 1:03 PM on April 29, 2003

In a thread about it
I skim the parts
which are it.
posted by Opus Dark at 1:23 PM on April 29, 2003

This just in: Poetry Declared Pretty Fucking Exciting By MEFI Members.
posted by kozad at 1:40 PM on April 29, 2003

Some of the best often die by their own hands.
Those left behind often wonder why anyone would ever want to get away from them.

-- buk
posted by dobbs at 2:09 PM on April 29, 2003

"ZachsMind, you do realize that none of this has anything to do with whether she's any good, right?"

Whether or not she's any "good" is a completely subjective determination. I happen to think she kicks some major ass all over the place, and she's got more credentials and more life experience than practically everyone in this thread put together.

There's a bunch of critics who diss Stephen Spielberg too, saying he "sold out" or that he doesn't do enough of "Y" or too much "Z." They say his stuff is pretentious and formulaic. Is he good? I think he's good. You probably don't. I don't care.
posted by ZachsMind at 2:56 PM on April 29, 2003

Indeed, poetry is not dead, because like many abstract things, you can't actually crush it under your boot heel. However, a lot of people in this thread are sort of implying that poetry is thriving and important, and they are simply deluded. Far from the days of Alexander Pope lording over the world of letters, poets of today play to a very small niche market, and are famous only to a few people (usually these people are wearing wool).
posted by Hildago at 3:06 PM on April 29, 2003

In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen people.
This thread is a poem.
This language is a virus.
This is a church
This is the steeple
Open the door and there's all the people.
posted by ZachsMind at 3:13 PM on April 29, 2003

Hildago - Was Alexander Pope playing to something larger than a very small niche market?

You can't yet judge the importance of the poetry (or anything) being produced today on the next generation of artists and writers. It could be that among the young, wool-wearing poetry lovers, there is a brilliant essayist, novelist, or sitcom writer.
posted by drobot at 3:16 PM on April 29, 2003

Zach, I think you forgot to close your tags properly--the code should be:

[/doesn't read a lot of contemporary poetry, is championing Maya Angelou without much serious contemporary poetry with which to compare her, doesn't understand that someone who gets a lot of publicity and moves a lot of units isn't necessarily good--to wit: Celine Dion]

You are more than welcome to the Spielbergs, Angelous and Hallmarks of the world if that is your bag. But please don't imply that those of us who think Angelou is trite and sentimental live in a "little world" which is too closed off to realize that "humanity as a whole finds her a living treasure." Three-fourths of my book collection is modern poetry and in fact I enjoy the expansive world it brings to life.
posted by dhoyt at 3:50 PM on April 29, 2003

th3ph17, it's Jeffrey McDaniel. No "s".

If poetry is dead, why are all these people still making it even though it doesn't pay?


And... um.... me. To name a few.
posted by eustacescrubb at 3:55 PM on April 29, 2003

… poets of today play to a very small niche market, and are famous only to a few people

versus While traveling through one of the poorest regions in India, W. B. Yeats was amazed to discover the women in the tea fields singing the songs and poems of Rabindranath Tagore. This striking scene led the great Irish poet to appreciate the depth of India's far-reaching tradition of poetry and the fame of this one Indian poet.

Granted, Tagore won the Nobel prize for Literature in 1913—is that too long ago to count as “today”? I agree with the defenders of rap in this thread. I don’t think people have lost their taste for verse; there will always be something satisfying about rhythm, rhyme, and metaphor. Maybe some styles of poetry and new critical dissection are dying or dead, but they’re only one part of the poetic universe. What about the success of scams where one pays to be a “famous poet”? *Somebody’s* making money off poetry.
posted by win_k at 3:58 PM on April 29, 2003

Was Alexander Pope playing to something larger than a very small niche market?

Allow me to jump in here. Pope was one of the very few eighteenth-century poets capable of actually living on the income he made from poetry--and living very well, too, not least because he was a shrewd businessman who knew both the book trade and the copyright laws backwards and forwards. But you can't really compare Pope's situation to a modern poet's: there was no mass market in books and, as Pope became more popular, the publication of his poetry was subsidized ahead of time by subscription. (This very bare-bones page explains the basic mechanics of how an 18th-c. author might get paid.) He was a best-seller, but not really in a way we would now recognize.

Even nineteenth-century poets, writing in an age of increasingly cheap print with correspondingly more venues for their work (not only single-author volumes, but also annuals or other gift books, periodicals, newspapers, etc.), couldn't expect to make a living. Richard D. Altick once estimated that during the entire 19th c., maybe thirteen or fourteen poets successfully supported themselves through poetry writing. Poetry has always been a "niche" taste--as Victorian poets, contemplating the runaway success of the novel, grudgingly conceded. (Oral poetry, including folk genres, is a totally different matter.)

In any event, I've never been able to stand Angelou. Unfortunately for my appreciation of modern verse, however, my literary tastes are firmly stuck in the 19th c. (In practice, that means I usually enjoy formalism more than free verse.) That being said, I like Rita Dove, there's a Timothy Steele poem up on my door--"Advice to a Student"--and I took my first Victorian poetry course with Robert Peters (scroll down to "P" to find nine volumes of his work).
posted by thomas j wise at 4:09 PM on April 29, 2003

Whether or not she's any "good" is a completely subjective determination.

No, it is not.

It is not a completely subjective determination when someone can not play a guitar or violin or paint or dance--so why should it be when someone can not write poetry?

Poetry is a craft. Maya Angelou is a public persona. She evidences no familiarity with even the rudiments of the craft of poetry. She writes wretched prose, broken into random lines and arranged in columns. Her work is not even pedestrian--it is decomposing roadkill.
posted by y2karl at 4:12 PM on April 29, 2003

A couple of recommendations:
David Berman's Actual Air is playful, insightful, plainspoken, sad and funny.
(a sample poem and a half)
If you prefer grander, more celebratory poetry, Campbell McGrath also deserves a look.
posted by Treeline at 4:50 PM on April 29, 2003

Oh, and Stanley Kunitz, bless him. At the age of 98, still writing:

Outdoors all afternoon
under a gunmetal sky
staking my garden down,
I kneeled to the crickets trilling
underfoot as if about
to burst from their crusty shells;
and like a child again
marveled to hear so clear
and brave a music pour
from such a small machine.
What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.
One season only,
and it's done.
So let the battered old willow
thrash against the windowpanes
and the house timbers creak.
Darling, do you remember
the man you married? Touch me,
remind me who I am.

And gee, y2karl, how do you really feel about Maya Angelou? Don't hold back now. :)
posted by jokeefe at 4:54 PM on April 29, 2003

I read poetry.
Every day.
Right here.

Don't ever change.
posted by divrsional at 6:18 PM on April 29, 2003

Since people have mentioned Penny Arcade and Emily XYZ, I'll throw out the collection Verses That Hurt, in which they appear. (Fawning, angst-ridden review here.) I thought a fair amount of it was overwrought crap, but there are also some real gems. This David Cameron poem continues to delight me:

Oh how sad I'll be

when I'm an old man
and can't jump around my apartment
to all those funky
guitar riffs

please tell me
old men can jump
Tell me there is a secret society
of mad moon jumpers
who have abandoned this planet
for a thinner atmosphere
and less
gravitational bring-

Tell me there are
old men
across and above
the moon's surface, singing

We don't need no hundred dollar sneakers
Alls I need is a bigger pair of speakers!

posted by hippugeek at 7:15 PM on April 29, 2003 [1 favorite]

I'm still stuck a ways back before T.J. Wise's Victorians... give me Sappho, Sophocles, and this!

The past 100 years just haven't produced much poetry I can take that much pleasure in. Poetry is not dead, but we are kidding ourselves if we try to imagine that intelligence, social energy, and life are pouring into it now as then. It would be too much to say that all contemporary poetry is narrow, confessional, precious, etc. But even the good, hard-nosed, well-made stuff usually tends in this direction. In a world with no makers of an Iliad, a Commedia, a world where verse drama is barely alive if at all, something has passed away. It's not enough to say it's there somewhere else (say, in another art form), because, as languagehat rightly said, poetry as distilled language bears a unique relationship to our human nature as possessors of language and participants in linguistic communities. There is no substitute, and thank God there are some good translators keeping that vanished kind of poetry alive (someone mentioned Logue, I agree).
posted by Zurishaddai at 8:55 PM on April 29, 2003

posted by wobh at 9:02 PM on April 29, 2003

Her work is not even pedestrian--it is decomposing roadkill.

At last, we agree on at least two things.

Norman Dubie is still very much alive.
posted by hama7 at 12:27 AM on April 30, 2003

1. poetry isn't dead
2. maya angelou is not a particularly good poet, but she has an excellent voice for reading it out loud though. that should count for something.
posted by juv3nal at 3:00 AM on April 30, 2003

Poetry is dead,
and yet stale
breath expands,
still reeking from
the corpse.
posted by walrus at 5:10 AM on April 30, 2003

Zurishaddai, it's a shame your perspective on poetry is so adamantly nostalgic. I don't happen to think Sappho or Homer would have agreed with you, though Sophocles might have. Poetry is in fact distilled language, but the unique relationship you mentioned is intrinsic to human life. The philistines will never kill it.
People do seem less well spoken to me as I grow older, but I strive to open my eyes and ears a bit more every day.
posted by divrsional at 8:13 AM on April 30, 2003

The author of this piece never claimed that people had stopped writing poetry, or even that they had stopped writing good poetry. Listing active poets does not invalidate the claim that poetry is dead.

And poetry is indeed dead. It has vanished utterly from the public arena. People don't make references to poems in casual conversation. They don't swap names of their favourite poets. They don't, by and large, even have favourite poets, or know where to look for one. The only poems a modern person reads after graduation are the eight or ten line snippets posted on buses as a public service.

Say what you will about popular music, there are thousands of people working to make music along entire spectra of quality and genre. Whether you know who's currently hot or not, you certainly recognize hundreds or even thousands of songs, you are familiar with dozens of band names, you know how to tell music you like from music you don't, and you have some idea how to find more music you like. The same goes for movies: whether it's obscure arty flicks or Hollywood blockbusters, you know what you like, you know where to find it, and even if you don't watch movies that often you still have friends who do, and you can almost certainly follow their conversations about movies. Photography, or even painting, have more effect on daily life and the cultural environment; you probably don't know the names of more than one or two photographers, if any, and you probably aren't familiar with any modern painters, but you still see their work. Photographs get printed, paintings get hung, and even if you don't pay any attention those arts still form part of your background.

Poetry, by contrast, affects those people who are specifically interested in poetry, and nobody else. It's a specialty art, like ballet.

Contrast this with last century, when Kipling's "Recessional" was printed in the newspapers and caused a major stir. People not only read it and remembered it, they had arguments about it. What poet now could possibly start arguments with the sheer impact of their words? Who would care enough to notice?
posted by Mars Saxman at 8:29 AM on April 30, 2003

And poetry is indeed dead. It has vanished utterly from the public arena.

Mars Saxman, surely you see the lack of any logical transition here. If you close your eyes, does the world disappear?

Zurishaddai, I don't know what your "this" link was, but it crashed my browser. If you'd given some indication of what it was, I wouldn't have had to click on it.
posted by languagehat at 8:48 AM on April 30, 2003

Yeah, no poet could ever start arguments with his poetry today...
posted by kindall at 9:05 AM on April 30, 2003

Sorry, languagehat. The link was actually to Jeremiah 14 (included the Hebrew text, which may have contributed to your problems). I deny nostalgia. I love much modern poetry. But ancient poetry was part of the tissue of life in a different way. Here's another fine Hebrew example in a perhaps more familiar poetic vein. I just couldn't find any good Gilgamesh on the web. :)

BTW, divrsional, I just didn't understand what you meant by Homer disagreeing with me. It's hard to imagine not seeming sentimental next to the Iliad, and I sure have a hard time figuring out where among poets he'd recognize his own narrative distillatory art still alive.

Long live poetry. God bless Ruth Stone, Trakl, Rilke, and all the other moderns!

Maybe I do have a problem: I like Anne Carson's quirky articles on Simonides and Celan, etc. (now pub. in a book, Economy of the Unlost) better than her—yes, very personal and particular in their way—actual poetry.
posted by Zurishaddai at 9:07 AM on April 30, 2003

I'm a little late with this: Death to the Death of Poetry by Donald Hall.
posted by josephtate at 1:55 AM on May 6, 2003

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