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Commentary: Ode to the Inaugural Poet; It’s Passe, Don’t You Know It?

President Barack Obama, left, and Vice President Joe Biden listen as poet Richard Blanco speaks at the ceremonial swearing-in on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol during the 57th Presidential Inauguration in Washington, Monday, Jan. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

President Barack Obama, left, and Vice President Joe Biden listen as poet Richard Blanco speaks at the ceremonial swearing-in on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol during the 57th Presidential Inauguration in Washington, Monday, Jan. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Inaugural poet Richard Blanco has overcome numerous obstacles — to excel in a field that may well be obsolete.

I say this lovingly as a member of the print media. If poetry is dead, we are in the next ward over, wheezing noisily.

But sometimes I worry about poetry.

The prestige of poetry dates from the days when it was the medium for getting the most vital news: your people’s stories. The Iliad. The Odyssey. Gilgamesh. All literature used to be poetry. But then fiction splintered off. Then the sort of tale you sung could be recorded, and the words did not have to spend any time outside the company of their music if they did not want to. We have movies now capable of presenting images to us with a precision that would have made Ezra Pound keel over. All the things that poetry used to do, other things do much better.

Yet the poem goes on. The people who craft them insist that poems are as important as they ever were. Unlike, say, the hammered dulcimer, which people play with great enthusiasm and precision but admit is no longer in its heyday, poets cling to their banner as “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” as Percy Shelley put it.

Do they still deserve the spot?

The inaugural poem is a tradition recently revived. Should it have been? Or should we have let it go the way of the inaugural releasing of the dodo?

After all, on one end of the scale, poetry has gone from being something that you did in order to Write Your Name Large Across the Sky to a carefully gated medium that requires years of apprenticeship to produce meticulous golden lines that up to 10 people will ever voluntarily read. The last time I stumbled upon a poetry reading, the attendees were, almost without exception, students of the poet who were there in the hopes of extra credit.

Yes, it’s a stereotype, but one that has been years in the making. No truly radical art form has such a well-established grant process. “The good writer never applies to a foundation,” William Faulkner said. “He’s too busy writing something.”

I understand that this is the point when someone stands up on a chair and starts to explain that poetry is the strainer through which we glimpse ourselves and hear the true story of our era. But is it really?

Poets are like the Postal Service — a group of people seduously doing something that we no longer need, under the misapprehension that they are offering us a vital service. It’s not that letter-writing is dead. We write more letters than ever, now that no pen and ink and careful sealing are required. But we no longer send them through the mail. World War I brought a desperate rush to express the wounds of a nation in poetry and led to new frontiers of verse. What now is so urgent that it can be said only in poetry? What frontiers remain?

“Poetry is dead,” playwright Gwydion Suilebhan tweeted Monday. “What pretends to be poetry now is either New Age blather or vague nonsense or gibberish. It’s zombie poetry.” It is a parroting of something that used to be radical, as useful as the clavichord, a reenactment, not a performance.

As someone who loves books, I hope this is wrong. I want to hear the case for poetry. I want to hear a case other than, “I do it, and mine is exceptional.”

Something similar could be said of journalism, after all. And whenever people say this about journalism, they note that while it may not continue in its present form, journalism will continue. Otherwise, where will the news come from?

This might be the silver lining for poets. The kind of news you get from poems must come from somewhere. If you don’t get it at readings or slams, you can find it in diluted doses in song lyrics. We get it in rap. If we really want to read it, it is everywhere. Poetry, taken to its roots, is just the process of making — and making you listen.

When I am optimistic, I think poetry must be like dance: Forms go in and forms go out, but the impulse to move in this way persists and will always persist, with variable prestige. More people pump out poems annually than you can shake a stick at. Even among Americans who said they did not read poetry in a 2006 survey, 36 percent admitted to having written a poem in the preceding five years.

Still, I worry. Hope is as fresh on our lips as it ever was, as Blanco said. But poetry?

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Petri writes the ComPost blog at washingtonpost.com/blogs/compost.

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