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Poetry is not dead.

Byline: Bob Keefer The Register-Guard

Poetry is coming back.

Yes, yes, I know, for some of you out there it never went anywhere. But for the rest of us, poetry hasn't made any sense since the days of high school, e.e. cummings and Robert Frost. I used to love poetry. But read a contemporary poem? I tried that once, 15 years ago. I'd rather read the phone book.

Now consider all that's happened in the past couple of years:

The United States has a poet laureate, Billy Collins, who writes poems that can be read, understood and enjoyed without a Ph.D. in semiotics. Collins, an affable, balding guy who reads his work on Garrison Keillor, is so popular that he's actually made money publishing poetry. And he's using his post as a bully pulpit to advance the cause of poetry that actual people can read and enjoy.

Dana Gioia, named head of the National Endowment for the Arts in January, is a poet who argues that contemporary poetry has lost its connection to real life. A former business executive, Gioia - pronounced ``JOY-yah'' - became famous in lit circles in 1991 for writing a pointed book titled ``Can Poetry Matter?'' laying out his case that universities have hijacked poetry into utter meaninglessness. Postmodern deconstructionists beware: Gioia now controls a $116 million arts budget.

Speaking of large sums of money, last year a wealthy amateur poet left tiny Poetry magazine a bequest worth $100 million. The stunned editors, after fixing up their offices a bit, plan to use the money for poetry education in schools.

Poetry is even creeping into consumer culture. The latest commercial for the Chevy Tahoe SUV features ``Rockford Files'' actor James Garner reciting - yes - a poem.

``Nobody Knows It But Me'' was written by Patrick O'Leary, a Michigan advertising executive who moonlights as a science-fiction writer. The 12-line poem may be bad imitation Rudyard Kipling with a touch of New Age sensibility (``And wherever you're going, that's wherever you are ...''), but just when was the last time you heard any poem recited in a national ad campaign?

And it's not just national. Four years ago, the Lane Literary Guild in Eugene used to have a single group of a dozen poets who met twice a month to share poems. Then a second group formed. Now a third group is being organized.

Poets, needless to say, are excited.

"Poetry is having a big resurgence," says Eugene poet Cecelia Hagen. "People are turning to poetry more than ever before. When people feel marginalized by their government, or by their lack of effectiveness or ability to be heard, poetry always has a resurgence. People turn inward and find things that bring them pleasure."

Hagen agrees that poetry has not exactly been in the cultural forefront for many years. No one much reads poetry anymore. Magazines - except for those cute little literary magazines that nobody but poets cares about - seldom publish poetry. New poetry is infrequently if ever reviewed in general publications.

That means that even successful poets like Hagen work in near obscurity. She's published poems all her life. She's won awards. She has a poem in an anthology of poetry from a real publisher.

Last year Hagen made exactly $40 off her poetry.

"It's long been poets reading to other poets," she said. ``Poetry is really quite easy to write. It's hard to write well. When I get on a plane, if I say I'm a poet, people look uneasy. They say, `I used to write poetry in high school.' And then they look mortified.''

It's not hard to understand why. Since the days when popular poets were published in newspapers and general circulation magazines, poetry - like a lot of visual art - has retreated into the turgid world of academic theory.

One of the most acclaimed poets writing today, John Ashbery - think Pulitzer Prize, MacArthur Fellowship - writes poems that make so little apparent sense that they've been compared to abstract expressionist painting. (Gioia once wrote: ``Ideas in Ashbery are like melodies in some jazz improvisation where the musicians have left out the original tune to avoid paying royalties.'')

Postmodern art, as has often been observed, is largely post-audience art. And poetry has left its audience in the dust. How many of you out there could name three contemporary poets? How many could name a single one?

I'm not talking to people whose idea of art starts with "Survivor" and ends with "Jackass," but to the large educated public that loves other contemporary art forms, from movies to novels. People who support opera and ballet. People who listen to Bill Moyers. People who might read poetry, if it were readable, but don't, because it isn't.

An unintendedly but wickedly funny news release from a college in Virginia three years ago announced that ``Graduate Student Receives Award for Making Poet Jorie Graham More Accessible.''

Graham is another one of the poets you'd be able to name if you knew or cared about contemporary poetry. She's also won the Pulitzer Prize and MacArthur Fellowship.

Nevertheless, Graham's work is nearly incomprehensible, which is why Virginia Tech student Terry Pettinger won a $1,000 award for her thesis, which was titled "Where Intellect and Intuition Converge: Epistemological Errancies in the Poetry of Jorie Graham."

But there's hope. Not everyone writing poetry today believes that the point of art is knowing how to operate the secret decoder ring available only in graduate school lit seminars.

In his poem "Introduction to Poetry," Billy Collins writes:

I want them to waterski

across the surface of a poem

waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose

to find out what it really means.

As poet laureate, Collins has embarked on a project to rescue poetry from the clutches of professional academics and reintroduce it to young people as a lively art form.

The result is ``Poetry 180,'' a book and a Web site (www.loc.gov/poetry/180). Both provide 180 poems from contemporary poets in the form of a new poem a day for the approximate number of days in a school year. Though aimed at high schoolers, the poems are serious works and make a great introduction for the rest of us, too.

Collins selected the 180 poems with an eye to quality and accessibility, seeking "short, clear, contemporary poems which any listener could basically `get' on first hearing."

He also strongly discourages analysis.

"I ask high school teachers and administrators to adopt the program by having a new poem read every day," he wrote. "No discussion, no explication, no quiz, no midterm, no seven-page paper - just listen to a poem every morning and off you go to your first class."

Two of the poets Collins selected, Dorianne Laux and Joe Millar, live in Eugene and are, as it happens, married to each other. (A third, the late Richard Brautigan, lived in Eugene as a youth before moving to San Francisco.)

Laux teaches poetry at the University of Oregon. A former waitress and housewife who started writing poetry in a community college class in California, she has won the Pushcart Prize for poetry and a National Endowment for the Arts grant.

The poems in her 2000 collection titled "Smoke," published by BOA Editions Ltd., deal with the commonplaces of life (``I loved him most / when he came home from work, / his fingers still curved from fitting pipe ...'') but also soar to more ethereal planes:

Death comes to me again, a girl in a cotton slip.

Barefoot, giggling. It's not so terrible she tells me,

not like you think: all darkness and silence.

Laux shares Collins' belief that poetry should communicate rather than obscure.

"I don't know exactly when it happened that you had to solve poetry like a riddle," she said. "What is going on now is fairly recent. Robert Frost is saying something very simple when he is writing `Snowy Evening.' Everybody gets what he is saying. It is a very complex and difficult thing he is talking about, and yet you don't need to write 50 thesis papers to figure it out."

"It is getting much better," agreed Millar, who argues that poetry has become more comprehensible as it has been wrested from the control of elite universities. "It's become a much more democratic situation."

Millar regards the explosion of university poetry programs over the past generation with mixed feelings. "I think it's a good thing," he said. "It brings poetry into the culture. And it disseminates poetry throughout the culture."

But he also admits a claustrophobic feeling about all the master of fine arts programs out there creating academically certified poets, even though those poets provide an audience for other poets like himself.

"I'll tell you, there are some ways in which it could be considered a pyramid scheme. There are not going to be nearly enough jobs in the business for all these people after they get their MFAs."

Millar clearly likes Collins and his work. "Billy Collins has made a lot of friends for poetry," Millar said. "The thing I love about him is, he's ironic in a way that is not painful. He is ironic but not nasty, not bitter, not pissed off."

Collins has his critics. His poems "do not particularly demand or reward repeated readings," sniffs critic Ernest Hilbert. "It is a bit disturbing to enjoy a poem so much the first time that it becomes limp upon a second reading."

Another critic can't contain his rage. "Billy Collins is a very bad poet," writes Paul Stephens in Drunken Boat, an "online journal of the arts," after mentioning, with some exaggeration, that Collins had a "million-dollar" book contract. "Collins may not be a very learned poet, but he is not kitsch. Collins is much less interesting than kitsch."

But Collins isn't that light of weight. Even though he's making money, he isn't Jewel or Rod McKuen. And even if he weren't a poet at all, he could still be commended for his heartfelt and reasoned analysis of contemporary poetry and what has gone wrong with it.

What Collins does is offer hope for the rest of us, the marginalized audience without MFAs in poetry, people who might like to read a book of good poems now and then but have no interest in wading through deliberate and ponderous obscurity. "I am convinced," Collins writes, "that for every nonreader of poetry, there is a poem waiting to reconnect them to poetry."

Reach Bob Keefer at 338-2325 or bkeefer@guardnet.com.

CAPTION(S):

Cecelia Hagen of Eugene has been writing poetry since she was a child. Her first published piece appeared in Highlights magazine for children when she was 7. Hagen says of poetry, "It connects me to life more deeply than anything else. It makes me feel alive." Kevin Clark / The Register-Guard Joseph Millar of Eugene shows the start of his poem, "Slow Hands," which is about his years working with his hands before he was able to concentrate on poetry full time. Dorianne Laux with part of her poem, "Cello." Laux found the branch near the grave of Walt Whitman when she visited his home in Camden, N.J. Laux teaches creative writing at UO. For years incomprehensible and captive to academia, the art is regaining clarity - and maybe readers, too Poetry: Verse that is clear, readable, enjoyable is regaining its place Continued from Page G1 Kevin Clark / The Register-Guard Please turn to POETRY, Page G2
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Title Annotation:For years incomprehensible and captive to academia, the art is regaining clarity - and maybe readers, too; Arts & Literature
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Apr 13, 2003
Words:1937
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