Modern poetry is sick. It's dying in its hospice bed and we should walk away from its cranky carcass before the stench of colostomy and muscle rub leaves us brainless. It's not like we're in the will anyway.
From the image of its corpse I propose a new direction for poetry. For the last century we've been tied into a strangulating mode of creating, producing, and promoting poetry. To wit: Artsy poets write impenetrable crap; Artsy journals with tiny circulations publish it (Poetry has a circulation of 30,000 – why do we want our work in it? Not because we want readers), no one reads the publications or the poems in them, and the publication line on a CV gets artsy poets jobs where they teach impressionable others that accessible poetry is evil and their excrement is the only rose worth smelling.
I propose, instead, the following solution:
To change how poetry is made, consumed, and thought of. This means altering the production, distribution, and acceptance of modern poetry. I will deal with each aspect of the solution individually.
To change production of poetry we need to shift toward narrative verse. This is an easy task, as nearly all poetry published today is lyric poetry. Almost no one is writing or publishing narrative verse. This alone can explain the marginal state of modern poetry because people love stories. They crave them. They pay billions of dollars a year on movies, cable bills, novels, and video games just to experience stories. But they don’t turn to poetry. Why? Poetry can tell a story with such power that the reader or listener's body chemistry alters to fit the rhythm of the line. Nothing else can do this. But people don’t think of poetry because poetry no longer tells stories; it no longer entertains; it has become art for a dying art’s sake. When we ignore narrative verse in favor of the lyric we are depriving poetry of its natural audience.
Part of the reason has to do with today’s imbalance of lyric and narrative poetry. Lyric poetry is poetry that describes objects, feelings, and abstract concepts. Examples range from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet CXXX” to Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” to Ashbery’s “Just Walking Around.” Narrative verse is poetry that tells a story – from Poe's “Annabel Lee” to Jarrell's “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” to Forche’s “The Colonel” to Homer's Odyssey.
Poetry traditionally has had its greatest and widest appeal when there was a balance between lyric and narrative verse. No such balance exists today. In the pages of the major poetry journals you will find many pretty words and almost no stories. Month after month, quarter after quarter, publications print variations on the same ideas and wonder why their circulations remain insignificant. Readers are drawn to stories in a way that descriptions and ponderings can never match. The power of narrative verse keeps them reading and teaches them how to read poetry, so that they may enjoy both narrative and lyric verse. When there is no substantial volume of narrative verse to entice readers, interest in poetry subsides.
While an overemphasis on lyric verse is not the sole problem of contemporary poetry, it has allowed poets to ignore not only the structure of narrative but any structure at all. In writing narrative verse, we must never fall into the trap set by modernists and sprung by language========= poets and new formalists – that how the poem is saying something is more important that what it says. It is this emphasis on form and formlessness at the expense of content that drives away the lay reader of poetry. We can avoid this trap by committing our narrative verse to five points:
Our verse must:
be in the common tongue
bring us together.
For our verse to be clear it must be fathomable on the first read. This does not mean that our verse cannot be complex. Indeed, it must be unless we wish to be some soulless versifier. But complexity is only a part of the picture. If no one can possibly understand our poems without a decoder ring, we’re doing it wrong. Most readers don't want to decode poetry – they just want a good story. If a good story is there, they will read it. If it can be peeled and peeled, revealing layers like Eliot's multifoliate rose, then we have done a good job.
For our verse to be timely, it must be relevant to people working and paying and living and dying right now. It must depend on neither allusions from mythology, nor private experiences but be firmly secured in the present. Personal demons and classical gods may be important and relevant to the poem-at-hand but they are without meaning if they cannot be made relevant to the reader.
For our verse to be memorable, it must be beautiful, both in sound and image. If we aren't writing our poetry with an ear for how it sounds out loud, we aren't writing poetry. Furthermore, if our beautiful word symphony doesn't make any sense, we're writing music, not poetry. Poetry is the syzygy of image, sound, and form – all three must be in balance to have a poem. We must also strive to make our poems ring in the ears of our audience. We should ask ourselves and our first readers “what lines from this poem are memorable?” Then we should work our words until its lines stick in our readers’ heads like hooks in a pop song.
For our verse to be in the common tongue, it must be written the way we speak. Why do we eschew contractions in poetry? Why do we embrace archaic reversals or literary paper language? No one speaks that way – and as poetry is in many ways a perfection of speech, we must reflect and perfect current speech patterns. Listeners should hear our poetry and tell themselves "this is the way I would speak."
For our verse to bring us together, it must be uplifting. This is not to say that that we can't tackle difficult or deep or depressing subjects, quite the contrary. What poetry should do is present difficult subjects in such a way that hope is offered to the world. Remember that “The Waste Land,” for all its bleak obtuseness, ends with a prayer that all will be well. Poetry cannot be uplifting if it is engaged in self-referential navel-gazing. Solipsistic, pretentious, and inscrutable poems serve only to confuse, confound, and drive away readers.
Print is not dead. It is, however, brainwashed. Less than three million books of poetry sold last year. Mainstream publishers rightly ignore it. Moreover, small poetry presses are entirely subsidized by universities, endowments, and/or contests. This means they are beholden to the establishment and to publishing arcane academic poems. They don't care about accessibility, the public, or promoting what they publish because their survival doesn't depend upon these things.
Luckily, we are left with the internet, a largely maligned section of publishing with the academy – but we aren't trying to get tenure; we are trying to change poetry. The internet affords us a much easier way to distribute poetry in its natural form – as audio. We can create videos with text to accompany readings, embed .mp3s of readings into web pages – there are nearly limitless ways online to bring poetry back to what it should be – something that both sounds and means good.
If you worry that internet publishing means we won't be getting paid for our poetry or able to control our copyrights, then you need only to look at homestarrunner.com, xkcd.com, or giantitp.com. These websites wholly support their creators through distributing creative content. People will pay for good content. Just like Radiohead's In Rainbows, distributing content for free only means that more people will come in contact with your work. If it is good, they will find some way to reward you – buying shirts, hitting a paypal donation button, etc. Any of these nontraditional forms of payment far exceed payments by poetry publications. Strong Verse is perhaps the only online publication that pays its authors ($10 a poem) and The New Yorker, the highest paying poetry publication pays only $150 per poem. Allowing our audience to pay us directly for our work will, even with a handful of readers, easily outstrip these token payments. But don't worry about money – worry about your work and your readers.
There are five major internet outlets for distributing poetry:
Emails are a simple and effective way to get our poems out to people. How many forwards do we get a day? Though we don't read most of them, what if one of them was the opening lines of "The Charge of the Light Brigade"? Would we keep reading? Would we pass it on? A great poem is certainly better than a story about how Barack Obama doesn't say the pledge or how someone’s cousin made money by forwarding “this very same email!” If we make a list of our contacts and send them a poem, they can keep it or not, but we may delight our friends and relatives with our words. We shouldn’t deny them the chance to love what we say.
YouTube is its valuable because we can harness its unique power to distribute poetry in its primal, aural form. The accompanying visuals can be anything – us reading, a background with text, a "poetry video" – it doesn't matter. What does matter is that YouTube allows us to get great poems into the public mind. If people will watch a father singing about his kids to the tune of "Canon in D", they will listen to a well-written, body-moving poem – and forward it to their friends.
We should each have a blog (I have two). We should comment and post on our blogs and forward them to others, digg them, etc. We should also find other poetry blogs and comment on them, contact their authors, and present our ideas. If we are not communicating with the world of poets, we cannot change poetry – and if we are not communicating with the reading public, we will never convince them that poetry has changed.
We should be promoting accessible, narrative verse on poetry forums. But we must be careful in a world of flame wars not to engage or defend ourselves against the blind and the stupid. We can’t get caught up in pointless arguments – if it is clear that the people in the forum don't care what we have to say, it is time to move on without looking back.
"Websites" covers a lot of ground. This category can be broken into networking websites – like myspace.com, meetup.org, and facebook.com; publishing websites – everything from strongverse.org to nytimes.com; filter websites like digg.com and reddit.com; and personal websites.
With networking websites like myspace.com, we can find like-minded good writers and show them the world is not wholly against them. We can also distribute our poems to friends who will, especially with encouragement, forward them on to their friends. If we can just make a poem as interesting as a survey, we will have hit gold.
Publishing websites as a category is best divided into new and established sites. We should create our own publishing websites in order to directly control the distribution and promotion of our work. Established poetry sites, like Strong Verse and Loch Raven Review may be responsive to our work and reviews. Large media sites like nytimes.com and National Review Online will be interested in any content that will bring new users to their advertisers.
Digg.com, reddit.com, and del.icio.us are websites that allow users to popularize web content by sharing and voting up interesting sites. These filter websites are a great tool for spreading the word. If you have a personal website or edit a publishing website, adding digg and reddit buttons to your site will help increase your visibility. A concentrated effort by even a few dozen readers will get our poems linked on these pages – and every time someone clicks that link and finds a beautiful, clear, narrative poem, we will have gained another reader.
Personal websites are, of course, your website with your name – gmpalmer.com (not that I've done anything with it. . .). These should be biographic with links and texts of poems we've already published (we should distribute new content through the above channels). These are best suited for disseminating information and philosophies – controlling what we say and believe before others can do it for us.
Once our work has begun to take hold in the world of readers and writers, we can begin to work toward canonization, that is, formal acceptance of clear, narrative verse. This will be a difficult process, as a great part of the Modernist ethos was the denigration of accessible, narrative poetry.
Canonization is achieved through two different ways. The first is textual – reviews, scholarly papers, etc. The second is positional – faculty postings, leading workshops, etc.
Written canonization begins with simple praise of our work and distributing it to as wide a readership as possible. After this begins, we can write and elicit reviews of our work. Reviews should be seen two ways. First we should make an effort to review each others work in online and print journals. This has been a core tactic of all literary movements. We should also work to get our poems reviewed by established critics. This will increase both our work’s legitimacy and visibility. After reviews come scholarly papers. These range from informal college essays to theses, dissertations, and books of critical theory. Though we may not have much control over this last category, we may be able to influence friends currently in school to look our way for research material.
Parallel to these written forms of canonization are inclusion in conferences and workshops, positions on the faculty of universities and textbook selection committees, and inclusion on textbook and anthology creation committees. Here we can directly influence both writers and readers in a much more direct way. Canonization is a far-away goal, to be sure, but any steps we can take – from writing reviews to teaching others to getting on textbook committees will be invaluable.
This will all be a lot of work, I know. But if you're dissatisfied with the empty poems you see touted as fresh and new – if you want to work to make poetry relevant to the two hundred million Americans who read, email me and let's get started discussing how to do what needs to be done.
Wednesday, March 12, 2008