by H.V. Cramond
Since Richard Blanco read his inauguration poem, there’s been a lot of talk about whether poetry is still relevant. Of course there are supporters of both sides of the argument. There is some very good poetry being written, and some not as good. Some have argued that the very idea of occasional poetry is asking for bad work because it there’s a pressure toward simplification that’s not present at poetry-specific venues.
While the number of people writing poetry argues for the discipline’s vibrancy, the relatively few number of readers is distressing. I don’t know any readers of poetry who are not themselves writers of some kind. My last crop of continuing studies students knew two poets, Maya Angelou and Shel Silverstein, but could not remember the titles of any poems. These students had families and full-times jobs, so they did not have time for reading.
But of course, most Americans read every day. We read text messages, emails from work, and sometimes the news. It has come to my attention that a Kardashian uses her sister’s breast milk to help with her psoriasis. But of course, based on the comments section of newspapers and the replies I sometimes get to emails, we don’t read most things carefully. We want to get to the point, respond and move on. We want our own voices to be heard more than anything.
Writers, like all people, can be guilty of this. Josh Baines writes controversially in Vice that alt-lit is the boring navel-gazing of internet-addicted twenty year olds. Commenter Frank Hinton replies, “I guess, find me a scene Josh that isn’t loaded up with a bunch of self-absorbed shitheads outshouting [sic.] the genuine folk.” Is this a quantity problem? Can the number of poets writing make it more difficult to find those that truly shine? Perhaps, but I also think the more of us monkeys there are at the typewriter, the more likely someone will write King Lear.
The problem as I see is that much of literature, like most text, passes lightly through our lives and is never thought of again. When I read the text of Blanco’s poem, I thought that it was okay. It certainly didn’t change my life. While Blanco is an accomplished poet in his own right, media coverage suggests that part of the reason he was chosen was to drive home that voters chose an administration that celebrates inclusion and is able to recognize the changing face of America. If within Blanco’s story is every American’s story, then we can certainly agree with this particular poem. What’s to dislike? Where’s the discomfort? Similarly, Baines argues that readers of alt-lit will certainly see themselves reflected in that type of work: bored, young, and indifferent to punctuation.
Hinton, in disputing Baines’ claim, names some work that is both not-boring and sometimes labeled alt-lit; I read one of these texts, Blake Butler’s Scorch Atlas, when it first came out, and discussed it with a group of other writers. It was disturbing and I hated it when I first started reading it, but it actually did change my life, at least a little. It engaged feelings that I try to hide in the daytime, and not by screaming in an all-caps YouTube comment and demanding agreement. It said here is this thing. I’m going to examine it, and now you can’t hide from it.
I didn’t see myself in that landscape at all. But I could understand what was human about it, and I’ve kept it to reread and to talk about and to share. Rae Armantrout writes:
So here’s my wish — I wish people would stop looking to poetry for confirmation of what they already feel (or wish they felt) and that they would instead rediscover “negative capability.” Or, to put it another way, I wish that, in art and politics, people would seek a power other than that of voyeuristic identification.
Confirmation bias is tempting. Being right is awesome, and reading the news more often than not confirms what we think we know, particularly in the ghettoized blogosphere. Through the lens of the news, the world appears violent. People are loud and irrational. Things have been this way, and they always will be. You can overload your brain with these facts, as I do, ranting to your roommate about the destruction of public education and your own helplessness, or you can hide it from yourself, getting lost in escapist celebrity culture or conspiracy theories about attacks from outsiders.
If we are humans are unable to change, then perhaps Thomas Love Peacock is right when he says that while poems are useful, we already have enough of them to cover every possible feeling:
There are more good poems already existing than are sufficient to employ that portion of life which any mere reader and recipient of poetical impressions should devote to them, and these having been produced in poetical times, are far superior in all the characteristics of poetry to the arti?cial reconstructions of a few morbid ascetics in unpoetical times.
I’m not certain when poetical times are going to occur. One could argue that an economically depressed country locked in unending war needs poetry more than any utopia. It’s this very stubborn sticking to screaming, to violence, to greed that suggests we’re not doing it right. Humans have progressed in many ways, so we’re not doing it wrong, but we’re not doing it right yet either. If so many people do not “get” poetry, then those of us who write it we have to keep working until they can see beyond what they already know. The oft-quoted idea of William Carlos Williams, that people are dying from lack of what is in poetry, is no less true than when he wrote it.
But before new poems can fill this gap, people have to take the time to become real readers. Poets are no less guilty of running away from complexity; ask yourself if you regularly read those journals you submit to, or if you skim the website to get an idea of the aesthetic without resting on a particular poem. For me, reading in some offline format in bed is the only way to block out the world enough so that I can attend to the text. While online reading can offer the same content, it is the difference between a private conversation and trying to read with two opposing mobs of protesters trying to win you to one particular side, as if there were sides. The rush to cram information into our brains keeps us in our sympathetic nervous system: farsighted, quick to react, and unable to digest.
But what if we unplugged for a second and looked at what is right in front of us, with the closeness of attention that poets give to their own writing. To really read a poem, to let it inhabit your body without the interference of the public forum, is to let it change you.
And after we’ve really begun to read, perhaps we will have something to say.
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H. V. Cramond is the Poetry Editor for and a Co-founder of Requited Journal for Innovative Art and a Writing Instructor at Loyola University Chicago. She holds an MFA in Writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has received grants from the Illinois Arts Council and the City of Chicago’s Community Arts Assistance Program.Her poem “War of Attrition” was a finalist in the 2013 Split This Rock Poetry Festival Contest judged by Mark Doty. Cramond currently reads for XYZ Festival of New Works at About Face Theatre and for Pegasus Players’ Young Playwrights Festival. Some recent work can be found inSoundless Poetry, Keep Going, Wunderkammer, Ignavia, death hums, and Pandora’s Box(Southport Press 2011).
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