Ask ten American poets if poetry is dead, and seven will say it’s not, one will say it is, and two will contort themselves gymnastically trying to prove to you that the fact that poetry is dead is somehow a boon to the art-form.
Ask ten non-poets living in America if poetry is dead, and it’s a clean sweep: ten of ten will tell you it’s deader than Stephen Miller’s bedroom eyes.
This article is for all twenty people—as well as those who, on principle, don’t answer questionnaires.
It’s for poets because contemporary American poetry has, since the early 1970s, routinized being a national disappointment. Barely a fraction of the energies endemic to poetry-as-art are now being harnessed by (we) contemporary poets, and it’d be high time for an end to that even were it not the case that poets are more or less the only people who read poetry regularly. American poetry has become a niche culture—like the ones available for players of Magic the Gathering, or self-described “Bronies,” or advocates of “furry” sex—and not the vibrant performance of endlessly differentiated artistic perspectives it should be. This means that decisions about how to write poetry are being made, both implicitly and explicitly, with an eye toward what a very narrow subculture of artists demands and will reward. The result is a betrayal of the very capacity for historic, system-challenging idiosyncrasy that makes poetry worth composing in the first place. For every game-changing book of poetry by a poet like Claudia Rankine, there are three hundred that join the freeway of American poetry publishing as indistinguishably as a Camry or Civic does I-90 in Sioux Falls.
All that said, there’s little point in writing an article about the death of poetry that’s explicitly aimed at working poets because American poetry today is—besides terminally wounded—a death-cult. In installing the rigid subcultural economy so many of them frequent, American poets have entered a suicide pact that ensures their own perpetual unhappiness as well as the demise of poetry as a relevant public gesture. Indeed, in my experience so committed are poets to the rituals of their aging cult that any challenge whatsoever to its key mantras is taken as an act of betrayal—one punishable by violent expulsion from the group. In my case, that’s okay, even fortuitous; I was a member in reasonably good standing within the cult for a number of years, and I’ve largely left it now. But I’ve also found that one of the only honorable gestures one can make when one has escaped a cult that eats lives and devours the very principles it claims to elevate is to expose it for what it is as often and as publicly as one can. And since every missive filled with cult-rage sent in response to that sort of extroverted self-exorcising has already been written in my head innumerable times, there’s no reason now (detractors, please take note) to hand me the hard copy of same or “cc” me on a digital reduction.
This article is therefore more vigorously intended for the non-poet because you, more than anyone, have been lied to about what poetry is—which you couldn’t have known because the people most loudly denouncing any definition for “poetry” alternative to the false one were either (a) self-avowed “poets” themselves, and thereby capable of “pulling rank” on you, or (b) educators so thoroughly tortured over the years of their own education into a false consciousness about poetry that the very least they could do was honor that generation-spanning cycle of violence by perpetuating it.
So let’s be clear: the poetry most non-poets are likely to have been exposed to in high school or college or anywhere else is to the maximum capacity of the poetic act in 2017 what the Wiggles are to the entertainment of small children.
The poetry you’ve read, that is, is either (a) poetry that was dangerously revolutionary at the time well in the past it was written, but is now presented to you as an aesthetic rather than political achievement in order to ensure it remains as alien to your contemporary aesthetic sensibilities as possible, or (b) whatever contemporary poetry was able to get through a complex subcultural system exquisitely designed to keep you permanently uninterested in poetry. So the fact is that most non-poets hate poetry about the same way I hate bluegrass: I haven’t really heard any of it, and I didn’t like what little I heard, and I didn’t give much thought at all to what I did hear, so I’ve decided not to hear any more—which seems reasonable given that there are so many things to do in life.
That attitude toward poetry worked just fine during the Johnson administration—about the last time poetry could claim broader cultural relevance, due to the sometimes explosive work of the Beats, the Black Arts Movement, the San Francisco Renaissance, and the poets of the New York School—but as a nation we badly missed the vibrant poetry scene we desperately needed during the horrors of Vietnam’s final years, the Nixon resignation, the rise of the “Me Generation” under Reagan, and the thoroughly immersive horror-show of a fake hunt for WMDs in the aughts and a tinpot dictator arising from American soil in the present. Look in desperation for a Pussy Riot in poetry, or a Marina Abramović, or a Robert Mapplethorpe, or a Lenny Bruce, or even as congenial a rebel as a David Foster Wallace, and you’ll come up empty. That’s in part because you’re asking the wrong questions and looking in the wrong places for such poets and poetry—and in part because 100,000 working American poets (the largest committed poetry-writing population of any nation on earth) are doing their level best to keep you looking their way rather than any other.
(They’re failing, of course, inasmuch as, if you’re like most Americans, you’re not reading any poetry at all.)
So below are ten ideas that could save American poetry. The list is obviously non-exhaustive, and these ideas do not comprise a prescription for poetry-writing. It’s consistent with American poetry’s radical birth in the First Amendment that every poet should write however they damn well please, and that different people come to poetry for very different things. What these ideas are, however, is a confession, by a longtime poet, that while not many poets need to be integrating these ideas into their poetry-writing practice, and not many non-poets need to re-dedicate themselves to reading poetry and poets undergirded by the principles below, at least some do if poetry is going to survive much further into the digital age.
In short, America, poetry needs you in a much more obvious way than you need poetry. Fortunately, the poetry that needs you the most, and which, in turn, non-poets most need whether they realize it or not, is not the poetry that many poets are now writing or the poetry that non-poets are currently not reading. Instead, it’s an entirely different and in certain respects particularly American beast that deserves your attention as much now as the Ramones did in the 1970s. And it’s just about as good for you.
NOTE: Every video in this article is poetry.
Note also that while some of these ideas are ones I’ve developed, others have been in development for a very long while by a great many people who are not me. The point is not that a person—me or anyone else—can individually do anything to rescue poetry from a poetry subculture that daily celebrates falseness, cruelness, smallness, and exclusion, but that the same subculture that is now systematically strangling poetic innovation on occasion produces the tools of its own dismantling. If there is a good thing to be said about contemporary American poetry, it is that it is not yet so disconnected from its own distress that it cannot provide clues to those on the lookout for a course correction. So here’s a start in that direction, at least:
1. Poetry is not a genre of art. What poetry is is a “meta-genre,” meaning that it’s a concept you find—and already enjoy—in innumerable genres of art you love and regularly consume. The most succinct definition of poetry I’ve come across holds that a poem is a “reflexive language system,” which means, taking those three words in reverse order, that it’s (a) a phenomenon that exhibits signs of a formal structure, (b) expressed in any mode of communication that qualifies as a “language” (including oral, written, visual, nonverbal, experiential, multimedia, transmedia, augmented-virtuality, augmented-reality, and virtual-reality modes of communication), which also (c) shows signs of self-awareness that it is (i) communicative and (ii) has form.
Still shorter: any form of communication self-consciously informed by a philosophy of communication (what we call a “poetics”) can be poetry.
Shortest: poetry is an idiosyncratic literacy operating on a common language.
What this means is that any comedian worth remembering after they’re dead—Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, or Robin Williams, for instance—was probably using the meta-genre we know as “poetry” to create an unforgettable series of performances whose attitude toward language was complex, internally coherent, and worthy of long-term recall and study. The same is true of every musician who pioneers a genre, whether it’s Gil Scott-Heron and rap, The Monks and punk, Roky Erickson and psychedelia, or diverse trailblazing figures from John Cage to Joanna Newsom, Charlie Parker to Sturgill Simpson.
Simple fact: if you’re artist and you don’t have a “poetics”—an idiosyncratic philosophy, arising from the sum of your interests and knowledge and experience, about the purpose of communication—your work won’t just be forgotten when you die but will be forgotten while you’re still alive.
2. Don’t feel obligated to connect with any poetry that’s not as meaningful to you as your favorite music, comedy, cinema, or visual art is. Somewhere along the way poetry got separated out from all the other art-forms in a very particular way: it became all right to say “I like poetry” or “I don’t like poetry”—everyone would know what you meant—when you’d sound ridiculous if you were to say, “I don’t like any music” or “I don’t like any movies” or “I never laugh at comedians.”
The truth is, when it comes to art we all like about 5% of what’s out there. If you could sit down and hear every band that ever cut a track, or watch every film ever made, or listen to every stand-up comedian who ever booked a gig in a two-bit basement bar, you’d have no interest in 95% of it and find the rest thoroughly engaging.
Poetry is the same way, inasmuch as I can tell you now that, whoever you are, at least 95% of poetry isn’t for you and shouldn’t be. And your dislike of it no more means you “don’t like poetry” than disliking Garth Brooks means you don’t like any music. But all that said, I bet I could find some poetry you dig.
The key difference between music and cinema and stand-up comedy—art-forms which increasingly are not “managed,” meaning you can access the full range of performances they have to offer with little or no difficulty—is that poetry is beholden to a system that distributes a narrow band of the art-form to American audiences. Our high schools, our colleges, and even many of our local reading series are a devious form of “managed care” inasmuch as they take care of poetry’s legacy by imposing atop it a massive, labyrinthine subcultural bureaucracy under whose ministrations the patient has died unnecessarily.
The upshot: hold poetry to the same standard you do any other art-form, but also militate, alongside me and many others, for poetry to unlock its doors so that you can experience its range (and so its poets can be encouraged to produce and expand that range) in the same way every other American art-form now permits.
3. Poets are charged more than any other type of artist with torching language and all its conventions. There’s a reason that, throughout history, poets have been among the first targeted for death in every autocratic power-grab, though you’ll find almost no evidence of that history in the interviews American poets give about poetry. If you’ve ever read or listened to an interview with an American poet—and you probably haven’t; even most poets haven’t when they say they have—you’ll hear a lot of saccharine talk about how poetry either (a) preserves language and memory and the sensory elements of communication beneath a beautiful bell jar (perhaps like the one in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast), or (b) uses language in some other esoteric way certain to have a dramatic impact on the life and sensibilities of no one but the poet.
Along with either one of these two lines of reasoning you’ll hear a lot of wild claims about the power of poetry that no poem you’ve ever read has substantiated. You will suspect, rightly, that what many poets see in poetry is simply a mirror-image of what they need from poetry—psychologically, emotionally, and/or socially—not what poetry is likely to be to anyone else who does not harbor those specific needs.
But there are poets out there who take a different view, who say that having a “poetics” means trying to create either an entirely new System of the World or firebomb (metaphorically) the existing one with the same manic energy you’d find at a death-metal concert.
The first exertions of an autocratic or revolutionary cultural pulse are always felt in language, and as any poet’s core milieu is language—sometimes accompanied by music, sometimes by the moving images of a film, sometimes performed on a stage with comic timing—a poet’s most profound palette is always power itself. The poet contests the world with language; while it’s equally true that the poet constructs new worlds with language, for too long in American poetry the contestations found in poems have been excessively coded ones and the constructions it enables about as private as Trump’s Mar-a-Lago.
My point is that as and when you find yourself looking for examples of humans using language to decimate the chains that bind them, you are in search of poetry. And when you find the reflexive language system you’re looking for—the human communication that knows exactly how and why and where it must exist—you may find it in music, in a political speech, in the cinema, or anywhere else fellow homo sapiens are battling death and eternity.
4. Poetry is more forgiving of “error” and more celebratory toward what makes you a weirdo than anything else because it’s worthless. Music, stand-up comedy, cinema, political speech-making—all have boundaries and standards of “taste” applied to them because all are commercially viable. For the “badness” of a film, say, to be celebrated, the badness must not just be extraordinary but something to be held up to the smugness of our collective scorn—as is the case with Tommy Wiseau’s The Room.
Music does a bit better—the reflexive disposability of glam-rock (a poetics) and the celebration of amateur musicianship we sometimes find in punk (also a poetics) acknowledge “badness” as a necessary component of communication—but then we find, in political speech-making, that there is a right way and a wrong way to do it, and the wrong way is near-universally derided. (This is one reason why, for all that nearly every aspect of his character and his political agenda is odious, Donald Trump should be celebrated by those with the hearts of poets for just one thing: his ability to subvert the mechanics of political speech-making. Trump, out of folly rather than genius, has reshaped, for instance, at what grade-level a political speech can be written, how often a word—particularly an empty platitude or verbal tic—can be repeated, and what sort of body language or voice inflection is eligible for the adjective “presidential.” We might not like the result, but we can still agree that there should be more ways to rouse a crowd in American politics than just the one. Incidentally, Bernie Sanders also found a new language in which to encode a politics, which is why he too struck an unlikely chord this last election season).
Note that in calling a poem a “reflexive language system” we do not say it has to be marketable, that it has to please many people, or even that it need be pleasing in its form, mode of communication, or concept—merely that it have a form, a communicative capability, and a concept. A poem that makes you enraged, that makes you laugh, that befuddles you, that leaves you markedly cold, or that makes you join a political revolution like the one now forming in opposition to Donald Trump is no less a poem because it doesn’t offer slick production values or doesn’t appeal to your personal tastes. Poems can revel in sloppiness, in “badness,” in their schlocky fidelity to how we actually live, think, speak, feel, fear, love, and see. The idea that poetry must be an elevation of language above the mire of existence is a falsehood perpetuated by literary propagandists.
But part of this idea—the idea that poetry’s dodgy economics are a benefit to it, not a hindrance—is the idea that poets have to start fighting more vigorously for this ethos to invade poetry produced in the academy as well.
Since 1993, creative writing has grown faster in terms of terminal-degree program creation than any other discipline, but we don’t see the markers of that success in such programs’ funding packages. Too many young poets are kept from accessing the time and space to write that a writing program offers by an inability to afford the bill. And it is an actual evil—I use that word, evil, advisedly—that many of the powers that be in American poetry have worked so hard to ensure that graduate creative writing programs will never become the fully funded terminal-degree programs they should be. So treating the economics of poetry as a surprising asset for the art-form also means eliminating any barriers to that maxim being universal rather than just local.
In America today we have an opportunity for our creative writing MFA programs to be fully funded in the same way terminal-degree programs in all other academic disciplines are, and to the extent certain poets stand in the way of that progress they should be swept aside as enemies of not just art but the real lives of real people. (Note that I don’t include in this rhetoric those who work in programs that are not fully funded and are doing their level best to change the economic superstructure of their writing program.) The same can be said of any poet—and there are many today in this group, including many atop poetry’s subcultural hierarchy—who consider themselves entitled to decide who should or should not be writing poetry or what a poet can or cannot write. Poetry, however idiosyncratically defined and located, should be everyone’s pursuit, and to narrow the path toward it, whatever one’s self-righteous reasons for doing so, is as much an actual evil as is putting it out of reach of the poor. Poetry must be ever mindful, in particular, of opening its doors still wider to the shy, the Middle American, and the suffering—whether those suffering persons are straight and white and male or members of a minority population.
5. A poet knows better than anyone that words are just words. A poet can celebrate how much a single word is worth—can show us how just three words (say liberty, equality, and fraternity, or we the people) can move an entire nation to action—but knows too what comedians have long known, which is that language is endlessly malleable, fungible, ephemeral, and combinatory.
A poet can treat words like a jazz musician treats notes—as an opportunity for improvisation (a comment on form which is, of course, its own formal structure)—or like Girl Talk treats samples. That’s right: literary remixing is a thing, and is poetry. You can remix other people’s poems, or your own Facebook feed, or someone else’s Facebook feed, or the words on the back of a cereal box. You can also appropriate—or misappropriate—language as part of a poetics, such as turning a Donald Trump speech into poetry or falsely attributing a series of lyric monologues to a dead person. You can explode linguistic taboos and expose their innards. You can loop an unscripted Chat Roulette session into the middle of a poem that performs the experience of reading the internet, as I once saw the poet Jesse Damiani do at a reading in Oxford, Mississippi, or turn the Nirvana album Nevermind into an epic book of poetry with one line of Cobain’s lyrics per page, as has also been done recently.
You can do whatever the hell you want in/as poetry, provided it is done reflexively—that is, mindfully, and with consideration of form and concept—and provided it generates something more than a private (i.e., non-communicative) language system. Words are material, and so they act, and can be acted upon, just like any other material: they can break, explode, recombine, be poorly made, be dropped into the same space over and over, and so on. They can also generatively displease us, moving us to action or new philosophies by dint of their provocations.
6. Poetry is not just the best but perhaps the only way to authentically “perform” your life. I said poetry is a meta-genre, and it is, but of course this also means that, when we find it, we can identify its operations independent of any accompaniment. Miles Davis could make poetry with a trumpet, and Jimi Hendrix with a guitar, and Robert Mapplethorpe with a camera, but while we always carry our ability to make words with us, we do not always have a trumpet, guitar, or camera at hand.
Poetry, in other words, doesn’t come from the trumpet, or the guitar, or the camera, but from a series of competencies and knowledge bases that (say) Davis, Hendrix, and Mapplethorpe had been deriving all their lives from their experiences and their psyches. Poets ought to stop advertising poetry as an instrument for constructing something entirely different from the world we all live in, when what most of us need or would ever want to come to art for is to perform our lives as we live them. That is, in our words, our ideas, the sounds of our life, and the spaces in which we move.
Davis’ plan for performing “So What” (see above), or Moondog’s relationship with the constituent sounds that make up his slice-of-life self-titled album (see below), would be where the poetry is even if neither Davis nor Moondog had ever cut an album.
In my own life, I find that much of what I say and do is built upon the invisible foundation of what the people I care about and admire have said and done to me in the past, so I sometimes write poems in which I combine my language with the language of those other people without distinguishing between what I “wrote” and what others have said. Why? Because what I am—all I am—is a superficially seamless combination of those two categories of language, and so I use poetry to perform that fact.
In music, it takes John Cage’s extraordinary composition 4’33”—which is just four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence, forcing the listener to hear the sounds of her own life (e.g., breathing, others’ coughing)—to make a similar point. Meanwhile, in poetry I (or anyone) can replicate that idea in innumerable ways whenever I feel like it. No trumpet, guitar, camera, or other instrument besides my own knowledge of my life is necessary, as I always carry my words and the sounds of my life and the relationship I develop between and among these things wherever I go. There’s a reason poetry is one of the oldest art-forms: it’s something you can create alone and without possessions on a deserted island, or when your village and all its resources have been destroyed, or when you’re so stricken by fear or sadness or anger that you can’t lift your head up or reach for anything solid. And as noted already, it animates even those arts in which the words “sonnet” and “stanza” have no meaning.
7. No other type of artist needs years of groupthink-oriented, aesthetically essentialist “workshopping” to become what they need to be, and neither do poets—so the contemporary poetry “workshop” can safely be detonated. In the conventional poetry workshop, (a) printed poetry written in the then-period style is consumed by students, (b) little emphasis is put on how poems are performed and how the certainty of future performance can inform the writing of a work, (c) students are given identical reading assignments rather than helped to find the poetry they personally would benefit most from encountering, (d) poetry is treated as an aesthetic artifact rather than a meta-genre, meaning that students discuss it as though it were a means of self-expression with ingrained rules and methods and modes for self-determining its own value, and (e) classes are run with an eye toward the deductive reasoning needed to “fix” a single student’s work, rather than as celebrations of the inductive philosophical discussions of “poetics” that using student work as a jumping-off point can deliver.
Why are workshops run this way? Because it’s easiest for the instructor, who is probably a working poet themselves with other things on their mind—like their own writing—rather than helping to guide ten to twelve emotionally volatile younger poets on their ten to twelve incredibly complex, idiosyncratic journeys of artistic discovery. The conventional workshop is also less scary for such a teacher-poet, who’s likely (like most poets) an introvert, as it operates under a series of common assumptions about the purpose of the class, the structure of the pedagogy, and the general outline of a “good” poem that are knowable in advance. It takes faith in how poetry provokes novel considerations of language to permit students to pursue wide-ranging, wholly exploratory conversations—conversations in which student work is a dialogic catalyst rather than a fetish.
The good news: the contemporary workshop is actually an idea stolen from the late 1880s, when it was used at Harvard to teach advanced composition courses. That means the poetry “workshop” as we know it today was never intended for use in the discipline of creative writing, and is in no way suitable to or tailored to that endeavor. We can dump it or simply reinvent it right now without doing any harm to anyone. A redesigned workshop would center idiosyncrasy, poetics, error, exploration, performance, collaboration, multimedia, getting outside the classroom, and much else that has only a very limited place in contemporary creative writing pedagogy.
8. Poetry is something you chase, not something you do. To be a poet is to chase whatever “poetry” is through the channels of time, and since those channels of time are multifaceted and variously bent or straightened by things like technology and politics we can be certain that poetry is changing as time slides on.
The gatekeepers of what poetry is or can be, or what a poet is or can be, are not very happy about the internet because acknowledging the internet means that poetry can’t ever again be what it once was. No more than sculpture can be for us now what it was for Michelangelo, given that unlike Michelangelo we have 3D printing, augmented- and virtual-reality modeling, and sufficient cultural bandwith to create “experiential art” in which the sculpture conforms to the contours of the user’s life rather than vice versa (see Meow Wolf for an example).
When radio changed poetry, that was registered in Ezra Pound’s Cantos, which was celebrated in its time if not as much as it would be after Pound’s death; in many respects, television entered printed-page poetry with the documentary, peripatetic poetics of The New York School; today, poets are struggling to accommodate the internet because it feels technocratic rather than bohemian, is too large and invasive a sea change in human culture to readily grasp, and is much harder to market in the book-publishing milieu that American poetry’s rigid subculture still idolizes.
When I say that one “chases” poetry, I mean that the role of the poet is as much to determine where poetry is headed and to inhabit and explore that space as it is to perform (or, more commonly, to perform over and over again) what poetry was in some past moment. Poetry became a knowledge base—a skill-set teachable in the academy—in part to justify its positioning in the academy, not because poetry-as-art is static and knowable. In fact, poetry exists now, and is being permanently inflected now, in the technologies of tomorrow (e.g., advanced biomodification, nanotechnology, cryptocurrencies, haptic VR tech) even as poets are regularly publishing work that wouldn’t have been out of place in the 1950s. But that’s where poetry was; we should neither celebrate nor hold up as the Platonic “poet” one who is simply able to reproduce a form first perfected over a half-century ago. Being a poet is, in this respect, as much about a spirit of adventure, critical and creative thinking skills, and a high degree of self-knowledge (up to a “poetics”) as it is about distinguishing between a couplet and a quatrain.
9. The fact that nobody will buy, read, teach, or enjoy your poetry means that it’s the one thing that is totally yours. A little-known secret—even poets hush it up—is that the average book of poetry sells about 50 copies, mostly to the family and intimate friends of the poet, and even a top-selling poetry book (say, the top 1% of books of poetry published each year) sells about 1,500 to 2,000 copies, which means that it’s owned by 1.5% to 2% of the more than 100,000 working poets in the United States.
Now how many of those who own these top-selling poetry books actually read them cover to cover? Unknown. Probably less than half. How many of that half deeply enjoy what they read? Probably a quarter. And how many of that quarter are (a) teachers of poetry and (b) would teach a given book of poetry to others even where the poet is not a personal friend of theirs? Maybe one-tenth. And how many who ever read that book will not only read it cover-to-cover and enjoy it immensely, but also remember it for even a year? Maybe one in a hundred, and even then it’s most likely to be the author’s best friend or his mother. But it’s still more likely, if you’re a poet, that your best friend secretly dislikes your poetry and your mother wishes you’d done something more “productive.”
What I’m saying is that American poets have found innumerable ways to hide from themselves that no one’s listening: for instance, by habitually attending an annual literary conference that seems packed and therefore makes poetry seem vibrant; by never revealing to anyone their own books’ sales figures, and by frequenting publishing houses that pull the same sleight-of-hand; by pretending that having read one poem by a poet is the same as having “read the poet,” and thereby pretending to a broader knowledge of the poetry scene than any poet actually has; by fooling ourselves into the belief that when our friends or family “like” our poetry it means anything more than that our friends and family like us.
But what if we took the opposite view? What if poetry became widely understood to be the only artifact you can possibly make that is potentially history-altering for others both holds every bit of its value so long as it channels everything you are? What if poetry, whether on its own or accompanied by guitars or translated through a camera, is the only thing humans really know how to make before they die that freezes in time what it was like for them to be alive? What if the old adage that says the only way to make a blank piece of paper less valuable is to write a poem on it also means that what a poem can be is not restricted by economics, culture, or the psychosocial?
10. If poets for once steal a page from a group of seeming adversaries—professional writers—they’ll start to save poetry by habit rather than design. When I teach professional writing, I often contrast it to self-conscious (often a euphemism for “self-expressive”) writing in this way: I note that a “professional writer” thinks first and perhaps almost exclusively about the experience his or her audience is having. The problem, of course, is that this sort of ethos, necessary as it is for professional and technical writing, has always been thought of as the death-knell for imaginative writing. After all, if one’s audience is in the driver seat, able to demand from the writer that specific forms and conventions be met before a document is published, whither the “poetics” of the author?
In fact, the delirious glory of having a poetics is that not only is it definitionally a relationship with language and culture and identity—and a theory of same—that’s entirely unique to a given author, it’s also a near certainty that the more authentically idiosyncratic a poetics is, the better performed it will be by the author and the more mesmerizing it will be for its audience.
No poem is worse than the one that was written to someone else’s design—that’s true—but it’s equally true that no poem is less likely to be effective for a prospective audience (which has undoubtedly, in that scenario, heard a thousand such poems before). My point is that many poets loathe the idea of developing an idiosyncratic poetics because they fear it will alienate their audience; they’re fooling themselves, however, as in fact developing an idiosyncratic poetics is the only thing they can do that will allow them to discover an audience for the long-term.
A poetry informed by a poetics finds its proper audience over time.
This is especially true if we imagine poets wanting to reach a non-poetry-writing audience. Much like musicians don’t want to sing only for other musicians, or painters paint for other painters, poets who wish to be read by non-poets need to be less, rather than more, constricted by what other poets consider appropriate and artful. Poets should begin demanding of themselves work that could not possibly have been created by anyone else—work that is thoroughly (in form, content, concept, performance, and sensory contours) of and by them rather than anyone else. Poets and non-poets should demand this, too, of all the poetry they read, which may require shutting up a bit about the work of one’s friends and asking them to do the same for you (if you’re a poet). Only a poetry economy in which we celebrate that which delights us—not considering its author—is one in which we perpetually send the message that thinking about audience is okay, being idiosyncratic is okay, torching language and communicative conventions in the way singer-songwriters and comedians and screenwriters do is okay. What needs to be maintained in poetry, and what is threatened by poetry’s present provincial subculture—including the conventional writing workshop, the mob mentality of poet communities on social media, the cliquishness of cosmopolitan poetry enclaves, and the narrowness and inherent dishonesty of poetry’s publishing sphere—is the key element of surprise. While we should always seek delight in poetry, so too should we feel a poem to be a bracing wind that unsettles even as it inspires.
Many of these ideas may seem internally contradictory, such as saying that poetry can move nations even as it perfectly performs the idiosyncrasies of the self, but in fact this is merely the “meta-meta-genre” quality of poetry that makes poetry even more awe-inspiring a human construct than I’ve averred here.
In other words, our definition(s) of poetry have, themselves, a poetics.
Poetry is, after all, a system of seemingly contradictory ideas which, taken together, make the composition of poetry possible. Poetry would not be as rich as it is, or as resilient as it is, if its central character was purely political or, alternatively, purely personal. If it could not be disseminated via a market it would lose its cultural capital—or, its potential cultural capital—and that remains true even as we note that poetry fruitfully resides beyond economics. Creative writing pedagogy is crucial because it brings people together to wrestle with the question of what poetry can be, even as our current national pedagogy is harmful and ought to be discarded post-haste. Poetry is changed fundamentally by the fact that, like us, it moves through and is changed by the fourth dimension of time, but this doesn’t touch the fact that many a young poet was moved to chase poetry’s ever-retreating form by reading Walt Whitman as a child. Poetry is animated by Life, but often must traffic in destruction and reconstruction to do the difficult work of constantly refreshing what it means to be alive. And finally, as much as it may seem an act of prestidigitation, redefining what poetry is to view it as a meta-genre—present in the best music, cinema, comedy, and visual art—can be an essential act of resistance and redefinition even for those poets committed to poetry as an artifact for the printed page.
So, is poetry dead? Yes. Did poets kill it? Yes. Is the thing that died the thing poetry is now? No.
Which frees us to go in search of it.
And what we find when we do, particularly in congregations of aspiring poets both in and out of the academy, is that the ideas above draw into the ambit of poetry many who currently do not—but should—consider themselves “poets,” such as pioneers in music, VR technology, and performance art. We find also, as educators and as those hoping to encourage aspiring poets in whatever setting, that young men and women who come to poetry to produce the conventional forms of expression we associate with it—that is, printed, lyrically self-aware writings—benefit enormously from seeing their palette of options expanded, as to both a poetics and the execution of a poetics, to include the principles enumerated above. Any fear that poetry as poets understand it now will be lost in the contemplation of poetry as it really is and can be sorely underestimate the resilience and flexibility of even “conventional” poetic expressions (and convention-oriented authors as well).
As is the case with so many other human endeavors, poetry ceases to be brittle when the discussion of it ceases to be brittle. The same goes for politics, culture, and self-identity in an age of such entrenched inter-human divisions. Poetry is a path we can choose to take, and that many more of us than currently do should opt to explore, as the best means yet devised to move up and out and away from darkness.
Seth Abramson is an assistant professor of English at University of New Hampshire, the founder and series editor for the Best American Experimental Writing anthology series, and the author of The Metamodern Trilogy—whose final book, Golden Age, was published by BlazeVOX in January of 2017.
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