Thursday, January 24, 2013

Petri, Poetry, and Propriety

One good thing about the Coronation of Obama I (when did this become such a thing? Bush II?) is that, owing to the inclusion of an inaugural poet, folks are talking about poetry, even if to decry its usefulness.

In that vein, I'm sure you've already read the engineered-to-get-all-ten-million-US-poets-to-generate-ad-revenue hit piece on poetry by one Alexandra Petri.

Ms Petri's first relevant piece of information:

"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 were 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.

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."

My good friend Jessica Piazza rightly said on her book of the face that, fundamentally, Ms Petri was correct (if a bit rude). If one only knows about Contemporary American Poetry (CAP) from what is praised in the press, taught in survey courses (when they were in college a decade or so ago--or worse: high school), and bandied about at bookstore poetry readings one would likely get the impression that poetry is:

"generally in free verse, although it could be a sonnet, if it wanted. It describes something very carefully, or it makes a sound we did not expect, and it has deep layers that we need to analyze."

I've written extensively before on why this is inherently a problem with CAP--but that was five years ago. 

Since then I have discovered a few things about poetry in America today.


Poetry's position in the traditional publishing world is absolute garbage--and not without reason. The best selling living American poet (*) is Billy Collins (or was last I checked--Mary Oliver may be on top now). He has sold about a quarter of a million books of poetry during his lifetime. Ender's Game sold that many this year. Fifty Shades of Grey sold (I shudder) six million copies. Why? Because poetry's not as interesting? Well, I think that we have to at least admit, poets, that we're not doing a very good job of marketing. But I think also we aren't doing as good a job of entertaining. The collection Hot Sonnets is at least as sexy as 50SoG and I daresay Jill Alexander Essbaum's Harlot is a hot mess sexier. But, if you followed those links to Amazon you'll see the inherent problem with poetry distribution. Hot Sonnets, at least for Amazon, is unavailable--or, you can get it for $215. Harlot is $15. Neither book is available as an ebook. 50SoG is $9 (for an order of magnitude more text--irrespective of quantity vs quality). Nine dollars.

Now, I understand the economy of scale preventing the availability of Hot Sonnets and Harlot as cheaply available traditional print books. But why aren't they print-on-demand? My own With Rough Gods is POD and so is Jill Alexander Essbaum's The Devastation. But Jill's book isn't available through Amazon. Why? Because the publisher isn't interested in dealing with Amazon. Now, I dearly love Cooper Dillon press--they're one of the best micro presses in the country--but to not have distribution through Amazon seems just silly. It's where people go to buy books. That and real book stores (my students are forever complaining that our local Barnes & Noble doesn't have X edition of Y book--I keep reminding them to go online) which will have to be addressed at a later date. Moving production to POD (with distribution through all available channels) eliminates this problem of unavailability (though it can clearly reduce profits--hell, WRG only costs $4 per author copy but I only get $2 when Amazon sells it--insert eye roll).

But it still doesn't address the more important question: why aren't these books available as ebooks? It's not *that* hard. Take a .doc, save it as .html, open it in Sigil, format it as an .epub, and then convert it in Calibre to every format you need it in. Then distribute away.

Why don't we do this? Partially (if not wholly) it is because poetry publishers are either 1) huge conglomerates who don't care but still publish "names" for recognition or 2) small publishers who are still dearly in love with the idea of "making books" and not "distributing literature." Note: I'm not even going to touch the distribution of literature-as-performance which is offered to us by the ubiquity of distributed video.

So that's the production side of marketing addressed--but not the marketing side. TV and Radio and Magazines exist to sell ads. Movies are replayed on TV to sell ads. Movies also exist, like plays and novels, to sell themselves. Poetry needs to either get more entertaining or figure out how to sell ads. Either way folks need to get out of their own navels and write better poetry. We need to take Longfellow as a model, not Zukofsky.

Of course, most poets reading this immediately are no longer interested: how DARE I tell them what to write? But you know what? Yes. I am telling you what to write. I am telling you to expand your boundaries and horizon--to get over yourself. To find out what actually WORKS in poetry to get the most people in and try writing that for a change. Give it your own personal stamp but do what works. Of course, one has to find that.


Poetry is still being taught incorrectly in schools. If we taught watching movies or listening to music the same way we insist on teaching poetry it would be no wonder if folks turned off their eyes and ears.

Part of this is overzealous teachers. In their NEED to make sure we know that "poetry doesn't have to rhyme" they make it seem like good poetry never rhymes (or doesn't any more). Because "poetry doesn't have to have meter"--and hasn't for the better part of a century in schoolrooms--they don't teach meter and they were in turn not taught meter so they couldn't if you convinced them they should. So kids just get some dribbly crap thrown at them and then the teacher acts as if they poem holds a secret message that must be unlocked.

If you are a teacher and do this, stop. If you know a teacher who does this, tell them to stop.

Here's the "secret" to teaching poetry:

Poetry is supposed to sound, if not "good" at least "interesting." Read it aloud. Don't let the kids read it unless they're good readers. Or if you do, immediately read it afterward. If you're not a good reader, you probably shouldn't be teaching literature.

Poetry has no room for context. So yes, allusions must be explained.

Poetry uses figurative language. So yes, one must talk about what the metaphor "means."

BUT "what the metaphor means" or to what the allusion refers are simply things that expand the purpose of the poem. Imagine them, not as messages to be decoded, but as a word you don't know. If you saw a piece of writing with "concupiscent" in it and didn't know the word, you'd look it up. If a book referred to the Boer War and you didn't know about it, you'd look it up. Now, frequently in prose there's room for context--but poetry doesn't have that. It demands the reader bring that. But once you understand the allusions and have at least thought about the metaphors, there's not anything "secret" to do. You can "get" the poem. Maybe it's about love. Maybe it's about memory versus love. Maybe it just sounds good (though we hope not) but if it "has deep layers that we need to analyze" then something is wrong. Specifically because of that word "need."

But part of this is the problem of the poet as well.

The word should be "want." A poem should be able to draw you in but also be enjoyable in one experience. You know, like any bit of litertainment. There are folks that see a movie once. There are folks that see a movie a hundred times. The same with novels. Why should we as poets expect only the second group and attempt to cater to them (if we actually think about catering to anyone except ourselves)? Why shouldn't we also think about group one? I.e. if your poem must be analyzed to be enjoyed you're doing something wrong.


The world of Contemporary American Poetry is lush, diverse, lovely, and alive.

Excellent performances (as well as terrible ones) can be found at poetry readings. I recommend, Ms Petri, that you seek out poetry readings that are regular occurrences, not one-offs for a professor's new book. 

Some of the best poets writing today are writing in meter and rhyme. Indeed, when I started writing I was pretty anti-meter and rhyme. Of course, I was also fifteen. By the time I discovered form, rhyme, and meter several years later I felt for sure "I was the only one." And then I discovered folks like A.E. Stallings, Kim Addonizio, David Yezzi, Erica Dawson, and David Mason. And then I was lucky enough to meet them (note: this isn't actually luck, folks--go to a poetry conference like AWP or West Chester and you can meet them, too!). It's not just that they're nice people. 

They're great poets. I've reviewed several books here. I wish I had the time to review more. Anyway, Ms Petri--if you're reading this--read those poets and the others I've already mentioned. You'll find that Contemporary American Poetry is far more diverse than you've been lead to believe.

That doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement. I continually say we need, as poets, to tell stories. The grip the lyric mode has on Contemporary American Poetry is destructive. We ought to also explore illustrated poetry distributed similarly to webcomics. We can do more. But, Ms Petri, it would help if you used that passion not to excoriate poetry but to support it.

It is likely that you didn't know there was poetry worth supporting. But there is. Those folks I mentioned. Those books I linked to. The reviews I've done. Read those books. Discover that poetry is alive and well. It can and will be stronger. More folks should and will read it. It needs to adapt, not die.

Would you, instead of being "harsh" be helpful?

I do hope you will.

(*) actually the best selling living American poet is Ellen Hopkins, the author of the Crank series. If anyone knows how I can get an agent to look at one of my two verse novels without first publishing my own prose novel (as that seems to be the model), fill me in.


JP said...

RIght on, dude. If we want poetry to ever be an even remotely viable pop cultural medium again, we have to do something very differently. The insular nature of poetry and the poetry community (especially vis a vis academia) is screwing everyone over.

If readings were fun, people would go to them. See: the slam poetry revival. If we could do that kind of performance (not exactly that, but well performed and exciting and catered to an actual audience) with our own verse, people would want to be around us.

G. M. Palmer said...

Amen, Jess!

I hope our reading series will do just that. That's the biggest reason I want to try our hand at filming it.

Give poetry back to the people and what not.


stu said...


Give poetry back to the people...

Give? Give?

F' that. This is a revolution. Ain't no one gonna give you nothing. The word is take.

G. M. Palmer said...

Actually that is some of the attitude I've encountered. How dare I want to give poetry to people and, ergo, take it from those who are in charge.

Lots of resistance from a certain set of folks.

stu said...

“Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

G. M. Palmer said...

Precisely. I stopped fighting and started doing.

stu said...

The power of words cannot be trusted,
to common folk, who may have lusted,
after our degrees
and knobby knees
and fashion sense, so firmly rusted.

Anonymous said...

You make some excellent points not covered in the provocative essay you reference and, for the most part, I agree with you.
I had a different take on Ms Petri's post. I thought she was not so much advocating the demise of poetry as she was making a reluctant observation.
I think you are a bit harsh on teachers. I understand your point, but as an educator, I also understand their position. Most elementary school teachers were not English majors. They are uncomfortable with poetry, but there are certain specific elements they must help children understand because, for better or worse, they are part of the Common Core Curriculum.
The reason they try to steer kids away from strict rhyme and meter is the bump-te-bump-te-bump-te-bump/la-te-la-te-la factor. They hear this in Dr. Seuss and nursery songs from their earliest years and an emphasis on emotional content through free verse, however lacking in sound value or rhythm, is a compensation. Children do love poetry. When I worked in a school, I organized a poetry reading assembly, like a talent show, and it was wonderful. Everyone loved it. The kids chose poems and practiced their performances. Some were solo and others were groups. They just had fun. When I was a child, poetry was fun for me, and if it isn't now, I don't have time for it. By that I do not mean that it has to be humorous. Rather, I mean, it must, in some way, take my breath.
I liked some of Billy Collins' poems, and looked forward to hearing him speak and read, but was disappointed. There was no "Heaven of the Animals." Do you know what I mean? He did not take my breath.
I must admit that most contemporary formal verse I encounter is neither memorable nor original, though there are always exceptions. I think that, like abstract vs figurative vs conceptual visual art, it is a matter of taste. I write both and create all sorts of visual art.
I agree that poetry should be available through electronic outlets. One of the problems with poetry books was their limited availability. I had hoped that the Internet would remedy that and open, for us, an international market. I know that I enjoy the work of some British and Australian poets, and, as things often go, they might enjoy mine, but that has not happened, at least not yet.
I am hoping that poetry, and the long-neglected medium, the short story will have a revival soon, and that, as you say, we will have poems with all sorts of audiences, from the erotic to the scientific to the philosophical.
Our lack of influence and audience is because of our ivory tower elitism.

G. M. Palmer said...

I'm a teacher, too.

Granted, I teach English but still.

Why move from rhythm and rhyme? It makes little to no sense.

What really needs to be created (especially for Common Core) is a series of primers for the teaching of poetry.

Regarding contemporary verse, you could do worse than to start with (humbly speaking of course) my book if you like Greek mythology or AE Stalling's Olives or, if you want some steamier stuff, Jill Alexander Essbaum's Harlot. If you need a story above all try David Mason's Ludlow. I repeat myself frequently but these books are indeed excellent.

And read them as I suggested to Stu elsewhere on the blog: read them like you'd read any book. Straight through. Let the words wash over you. Then come back and dig into what you want.

Anonymous said...

I know this is pretty late in the game, but I agree with many points you make here--especially on education. Our education system is failing us, and teachers are a singular part of the problem. It's so refreshing knowing others share my views about this. (Recently graduated from high school... unfortunately, I can't find ANYONE my age who cares about classic poetry)

My blog covers topics like and encourages people to revisit classic poetry:)