Indira Parthasarathy, my mentor and well-wisher, has opened his account with TWM through his column SOTTO VOCE in his own grand style by posing a glaring question whether the ‘Poetry is dead’. Well, there is nothing new in that. If we are talking about the ‘cultural importance’ of poetry here, then, the discussion had started way back in the nineteenth century itself. In modern times, the discussion was carried forward by Edmund Wilson in the year 1928.
In poets.org, Donald Hall writes,”For expansion on and repetition of these well-known facts, look in volumes of Time magazine, in Edmund Wilson’s ‘Is Verse a Dying Technique?,’ in current newspapers everywhere, in interviews with publishers, in book reviews by poets, and in the August 1988 issue of Commentary, where the essayist Joseph Epstein assembled every cliché about poetry, common for two centuries, under the title ‘Who Killed Poetry?’
And Hall concludes by saying, “While most readers and poets agree that ‘nobody reads poetry’—and we warm ourselves by the gregarious fires of our solitary art—maybe a multitude of nobodies assembles the great audience Whitman looked for.” Those who want to have a detailed study, please go to:
In her article, ‘Can Poetry Matter?’ Dana Gioia compares Wilson with Epstein and writes, “Epstein essentially updated Wilson’s argument, but with important differences. Whereas Wilson looked at the decline of poetry’s cultural position as a gradual process spanning three centuries, Epstein focused on the past few decades. He contrasted the major achievements of the modernists--the generation of Eliot and Stevens, which led poetry from moribund Romanticism into the twentieth century--with what he felt were the minor accomplishments of the present practitioners. The modernists, Epstein maintained, were artists who worked from a broad cultural vision. Contemporary writers were ‘poetry professionals,’ who operated within the closed world of the university. Wilson blamed poetry’s plight on historical forces; Epstein indicted the poets themselves and the institutions they had helped create especially creative-writing programs. A brilliant polemicist, Epstein intended his essay to be incendiary, and it did ignite an explosion of criticism. No recent essay on American poetry has generated so many immediate responses in literary journals. And certainly, none has drawn so much violently negative criticism from poets themselves. To date at least thirty writers have responded in print. The poet Henry Taylor published two rebuttals.”
Dana further goes on to question, “One sees evidence of poetry’s diminished stature even within the thriving subculture. The established rituals of the poetry world--the readings, small magazines, workshops, and conferences--exhibit a surprising number of self-imposed limitations. Why, for example, does poetry mix so seldom with music, dance, or theatre? At most readings, the program consists of verse only--and usually only verse by that night’s author. Forty years ago, when Dylan Thomas read, he spent half the program reciting other poets’ work. Hardly a self- effacing man, he was nevertheless humble before his art. Today most readings are celebrations less of poetry than of the author’s ego. No wonder the audience for such events usually consists entirely of poets, would-be poets, and friends of the author.”
As the critic Bruce Bawer has observed, “A poem is, after all, a fragile thing, and its intrinsic worth or lack thereof, is a frighteningly subjective consideration; but fellowship grants, degrees, appointments, and publications are objective facts. They are quantifiable; they can be listed on a resume. Poets serious about making careers in institutions understand that the criteria for success are primarily quantitative. They must publish as much as possible as quickly as possible. The slow maturation of genuine creativity looks like laziness to a committee. Wallace Stevens was forty-three when his first book appeared. Robert Frost was thirty-nine. Today these sluggards would be unemployable.”
The article in a ‘western journal’ referred by Indira Parthasarathy is one by Alexandra Petri, with the very same title ‘Is Poetry Dead?’ published by Washington Post dated 22.1.2013. There were plenty of volleys served here and forth after the publication of that article. To quote Ms.Petri, “I think the medium might not be loud enough any longer. There are about six people who buy new poetry, but they are not feeling very well. I bumped very lightly into one of them while walking down the sidewalk, and for a while, I was terrified that I would have to write to eleven MFA programs explaining why everyone was going to have to apply for grants that year. The last time I stumbled upon a poetry reading, the attendees were almost without exception students of the poet who was there in the hopes of extra credit. One of the poems, if memory serves, consisted of a list of names of Supreme Court justices. I am not saying that it was a bad poem. It was a good poem, within the constraints of what poetry means now. But I think what we mean by poetry is a limp and fangless thing.”
After saying this, “Poetry has gone from being something that you did in order to Write Your Name Large Across the Sky and sound your barbaric yawp and generally Shake Things Up to a very carefully gated medium that requires years of study and apprenticeship in order to produce meticulous, perfect, golden lines that up to ten people will ever voluntarily read”, She questions, “Or is this too harsh?” And she quotes Gwydion, “Poetry is dead.” Playwright Gwydion Suilebhan tweeted, “What pretends to be poetry now is either New Age blather or vague nonsense or gibberish. It’s zombie poetry.”
And she concludes by “These days, poetry is institutionalized. Everyone can write it. But if you want a lot of people to read it, or at least the Right Interested Persons, there are a few choked channels of Reputable Publications. Or you can just spray it liberally onto the Internet and hope it sticks….. Hope may be as fresh on our tongues as it ever was. But is poetry? ”
In one of the counters to Ms.Petri, Joseph Ross wrote on JANUARY 27, 2013, “No one needs ‘worry’ about poetry. Could it use more readers? Of course! Would I like for poets to sell more books? Sure. But the need for poetry is certain. We’ve been writing and reading poetry since we first wrote on the sides of caves and canoes. We’ll be doing it for as long as we draw breath.”
Even before Washington post, Times of India carried an exclusive on this topic on January 8, 2011, itself, http://www.timescrest.com/archives/ 2011-01-08 - with a full-page obituary.
I would like to conclude with the warning of Ezra Pound that ‘Good writers are those who keep the language efficient. That is to say, keep it accurate, keep it clean. It doesn’t matter whether a good writer wants to be useful, or whether the bad writer wants to do harm. . . .’
If a nation’s literature declines, the nation atrophies and decays.