Are poets today largely talking to themselves?
Are many of them happy to do so, locked away in academia or whatever other cloister?
Are the ones who want a wider public, and who want to take on larger subjects, just curating their shelf of books for future generations to find?
I heard somewhere that after September 11, Bruce Springsteen was seen on the street and told, “We need you now.”
In a completely other situation, when I lived in California I remember someone at my job quitting all of a sudden and moving across the country. To explain her decision and the sense of turning a page, she quoted Avril Lavigne on Facebook.
While it’s silly to mention Springsteen and Lavigne in the same sentence, it still struck me that, in general, nowadays when people want to explain themselves or sum up personal or national struggles, they don’t turn to actual poetry anymore. While I’m among those who didn’t mind Bob Dylan winning the Nobel last year, and while I admire Bruce Springsteen, I still wouldn’t call what they do “poetry.” It clearly moves people, and clearly moves me, but not in the same way that Whitman or Wordsworth do. (A wider distinction between poetry and song developed some time ago, though they may intersect again.)
It strikes me that many of the even older forbears I lean on, from the Old Testament poets to Homer or the authors of the Poetic Edda, all filled a need for poetry that Western culture no longer demands. When their contemporaries wanted what we now consider their religion or culture or history told back to them, they depended upon poets to do it. For many today, nonfiction scholarship fills this role; for popular culture, it’s the movies, or a documentary.
The example of the past also gives me this idea: from Beowulf to Chaucer to Shakespeare, even the most complicated poetry was once immensely more comprehensible to everyday audiences than they are now. The late Seamus Heaney was a generally “accessible” poet, and even though he gave many readings, it’s doubtful that people not familiar with Irish poetry or history would volunteer to listen to him, or comprehend much if they did. Add to this the slew of inaccessible and willfully unreadable poetry being produced today (or the other end, the completely transparent bad blog or slam poetry, which are little more than confessional prose with line breaks), and it’s obvious that poetry has both given up much of its performative heritage, and that the wider public is okay with this. The best poetry today, not to mention that of the past, seems to be best experienced alone and in silence.
While it would be easy to blame the MFA industry for this, I’m pretty sure poetry’s waning influence and public usefulness predates the insularity of writing programs and the nepotism they spawn.
And so, what use poetry? Regardless, writing it will remain a life-sustaining impulse that I at least can’t abandon. At most this really is just a diversion and place-holder in between writing and reading more poetry; but it’s still interesting to think about how any art-form—architecture, painting, theater, music, poetry—waxes and wanes in the public interest, or for entire generations goes through a period of effulgence or decline. I hate to think my own work is living in a time of decline, but I’m not sure what other conclusion there is.
A lot of generalizations and provocations here, I know. I’d be interested in what anybody else out there thinks.