American Readers Have a Love-Hate Relationship With Poetry

For the Valley News
Published: 6/2/2016 10:01:48 PM
Modified: 6/2/2016 10:01:57 PM

As a poet and professor of English and creative writing, I often feel like a cultural canary as I witness the staggering decline in liberal arts majors, not just at the college where I teach, but also at colleges and universities across the country. Poets are “singing” in greater numbers than ever before as they’re lowered further and further into America’s mine.

But it’s not anything literally toxic that’s overcoming them: It’s neglect.

Yes, there are thousands if not millions of poetry lovers on the Internet who follow daily poetry postings on such sites as Poetry Daily and the Academy of American Poetry’s Poem a Day. But if you ask most incoming freshmen to name one contemporary poet, as I have for the last 10 years in my introduction to literature classes, 99 percent of them can’t do it. Occasionally I get such answers as Shel Silverstein, Billy Collins, and “that lady who writes about animals” (Mary Oliver), but that’s pretty much it.

On the other hand, if you ask these same students to name four or five contemporary pop artists, they can not only do so immediately, but recite the lyrics of several of their songs as well. For the young, song lyrics have supplanted poetry.

It was also this way when I was in college, but the lyrics of Bob Dylan led me directly to Rimbaud, T.S. Eliot, and Allen Ginsberg. I don’t get the impression that Jay Z or Taylor Swift or Beyonce or Kanye West are having the same effect on this generation, but I could be wrong.

Most poets today live in what Soren Kierkegaard called an “acoustic illusion,” that is, a virtual realm in which they think something is true that isn’t. This is primarily because poets need to believe that someone’s listening to them as they travel in small, usually academic circles where even the smallest numbers of followers become inflated in their minds.

But the reality is that very few Americans outside the miniscule poetry community, if that’s the right term (poets tend to be more like cats than community members) read poetry, which isn’t to say that there aren’t also a lot of folks who, like Emily Dickinson, read and write poetry as a secret discipline. I run into them in the most unlikely places, on trains and buses, at board meetings, summer workshops, and even family gatherings.

It’s these “secret poets” who remind me that ‘most everyone possesses a yearning to find the right essential language to express their most exigent and mysterious feelings — whether it’s their love for their spouse, their anger at their boss, their grief over a lost loved one, or just what they might call a particular experience of being alive.

So what to make of the marginal status of poetry in America, where so many crave poetry for its essential, memorable expression — what the great modernist poet Ezra Pound called “the news that stays news” — at such occasions as weddings, funerals, and anniversaries, but nonetheless remain reluctant to read or write it?

I often see fright, shame, and even disdain on people’s faces when I tell them I’m a poet, although I’m reluctant to call myself that as it’s “so marvelous an accomplishment,” as Galway Kinnell once remarked to me, “that it would be boasting to say it of oneself.” It’s certainly a conversation stopper on a plane or bus when I inform a fellow passenger about what I do.

Is this because people are intimidated by poetry and are therefore ignorant about a subject they feel they should know more about? I think that’s probably only the consequence of something else, not to let my fellow passengers off the hook too easily.

But there is another larger reason for this negative reaction to poetry, which is that schoolchildren, as well as high school students, often feel stupid during their first, second, and third encounters with poetry. I know I did.

Students consequently tend to go on to believe that there are more important subjects to study than poetry, especially if they want to find gainful employment. (This attitude among the architects of higher education has led lately to a greater belief in and concomitant emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) than its alternative STEAM, which adds art to this acronym.)

Too few teachers of early and secondary education know how to teach poetry effectively. They too often feel stupid themselves teaching it, an attitude that redounds on their students. This isn’t always their fault, but that of the overly quantitative approach to education in this country, the right or wrong pedagogy that drives most education majors and accreditation programs.

This right or wrong approach works against a more enlightened pedagogy for teaching poetry, one that requires not only a deep investment on the teacher’s part for appreciating poetry as a verbal art form, but also a trust in the poet’s imaginative use of language.

William Carlos Williams’ popular poem, The Red Wheelbarrow, provides a poignant example of just how challenging poetry can be to teach without some insight into its suggestive nature. One searches immediately for a single, correct answer to this poem. Just what is it specifically that depends “so much” on “a red wheel barrow/ beside the white chickens/ glazed with rain water”?

“So much” is Williams’ simple poetic answer to what the image does to stimulate the reader’s imagination both intellectually and emotionally. Williams, who was a physician, wrote this poem on a prescription pad while tending to a boy who was dying of TB. He gazed out the window of the second-story tenement where the boy lived during his vigil and saw a red wheelbarrow surrounded by chickens in the alley below.

The reader, of course, doesn’t know this background information when encountering the poem for the first time, but he or she doesn’t need to in order to understand the electric power of this image alone. It triggers other scenes and emotions in the reader.

Although this particular image may be private and specific to the individual it nonetheless translates lyrically in a vicarious current to any other image the reader herself may hold just as dearly in her memory as a similar emblem. It could be a white sailboat in the harbor surrounded by gulls in the snow. It could be a childhood sled with the name “Rosebud” emblazoned across its steering bar. One pregnant image speaks for another.

A fascinating assignment after reading this poem is to ask students what exactly depends on this image, with the caveat that there is no right or wrong answer — simply something one feels is important in relation to a vital emotion or thought this image evokes. When poetry isn’t taught in this open way, especially in the early curricular stages, it robs students of one of poetry’s most exciting attributes, namely its power to transport the reader from the literal to the imaginative, from the mundane to transcendent.

So how to unlearn one’s initial negative experiences with poetry? There’s nothing more impressionable than a bad early experience with something. The curriculum in early and secondary education programs across the country must be revamped to include a more enlightened approach to teaching poetry as an art form that involves the imagination and emotions, as well as the intellect. Books such as Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry and Rose, Where Did You Get That Red by Kenneth Koch, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, and Poems and Stories for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages by Harold Bloom should be assigned as essential poetry primers in all elementary and middle schools.

The strong American tradition of building a better mousetrap has led to a primarily utilitarian, capitalistic culture in which the arts, and poetry in particular, have ranked pretty low in importance on the cultural scale. The Nobel Literature Committee seems to have taken note of this recently and avoided awarding any American poet or writer the Nobel Prize since 1993, when Toni Morrison won it. But who knows their precise reason?

Walt Whitman wrote, “The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he absorbs it.” Maybe American poets have not been affectionate enough lately toward their country, writing more as critical witnesses than affectionate bards. But they have felt ignored and excluded, which has had the adverse effect of causing them to become ingrown and rarified, unlike poets in Latin America, Russia, Japan, and Europe where they are celebrated as senseis, witnesses, prophets and cultural paragons. Sit next to a Russian on a bus and most likely he or she will recite entire passages from Eugene Onegin if you ask them.

In his 2007 book, The Republic of Poetry, Martin Espada concludes the title poem with this stanza, which he claims is precisely what happened to him the last time he visited Chile: “In the republic of poetry,/ the guards at the airport/ will not allow you to leave the country/ until you declaim a poem for her/ and she says, Ah! Beautiful!”

Poetry doesn’t have to be difficult and abstruse and off-putting. How wonderful it would be to sit next to someone on the plane or bus and tell him or her that you’re a poet and then engage in a wonderful conversation about a poem as short as The Red Wheelbarrow for the rest of the trip.

Chard deNiord is Vermont’s poet laureate. He lives in Westminster West.

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