I've said it before and I'll say it again: we have this notion that poetry is somehow only for academics. Only for those properly schooled in the art of verse and its various forms. What I've seen these past two weeks has not surprised me. A great number of intelligent readers and writers who have a so-so relationship with poetry have said that they simply don't feel qualified to participate on anything more than an overview level. The truth is, I don't either. Yet we are the shrinking few that enjoy the written word in the first place -- what better audience could there be than us? We spend our days talking of 900 page novels and how many we'll read in the next few months. We are an audience painstakingly dedicated to the written word and we make sure our lives pivot around this point. Yet, when it comes to poetry, we still we peck at it, taking what we need and moving on. Never really committing to it in a substantial, ongoing way. Why?
We bemoan the closing of small presses, the lack of proper advances for struggling writers, the lack of book fiction coverage in major newspapers and the shrinking amount of ink new fiction gets unless its sensational. We should understand better than any other group how important it is to celebrate artists of the written word. Yet it's not on our radar. It's certainly not on mine.
In my searching for an answer, I came across this well-known article by Dana Gioia that you may already have seen. It's a tad dated, but it highlights what I think we've all been dancing around & this feeling that poetry flourishes only in academic communities. Here's an excerpt:
"American poetry now belongs to a subculture. No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group. Little of the frenetic activity it generates ever reaches outside that closed group. As a class poets are not without cultural status. Like priests in a town of agnostics, they still command a certain residual prestige. But as individual artists they are almost invisible. "
Most importantly, Gioia hits on the shift from poetry once being an outward expression to it becoming an insular, inward expression to a select few:
"Decades of public and private funding have created a large professional class for the production and reception of new poetry comprising legions of teachers, graduate students, editors, publishers, and administrators. Based mostly in universities, these groups have gradually become the primary audience for contemporary verse. Consequently, the energy of American poetry, which was once directed outward, is now increasingly focused inward. Reputations are made and rewards distributed within the poetry subculture. "
The article is long, but well worth your read. It is also featured in a book (also published a while ago) I picked up last night: Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture. I'll be back with more later today as I struggle to wrap up this week in a meaningful way.