Friday, July 15, 2005

Art, Poetry, and Culture Wars

This essay emerged from an interesting conversation that began on my internet poetry home: Wild Poetry Forum bemoaning the fact that there is no market for poetry.

I think it has more to do with what our culture values. Poetry as an artform has the same problem all artforms have. How many of us buy paintings? Sculpture? Have subscriptions to the ballet?

Perhaps it has always been this way--a small percentage of a perceived 'elite' supporting the arts; the rest of us unwashed masses too worried about basic survival to spend our resources on adornment.

In fact, wasn't the idea behind the craft's movement to bring beauty to utilitarian items, so that gap between function and aesthetics might be narrowed?

Perhaps the influence of mass media has so completely shaped what we view as beautiful and valuable that art is no longer relevant. I hope this is not true. But I do see our society as one that worships personal adornment (fashion and self-improvement) and performance art (via professional athletes and actors) rather than any of the other art forms.

In terms of poetry; I have come to appreciate that it is an auditory art form in a culture that seems increasingly visual and increasingly impatient for stimulation. And what about music? Are lyrics poetry? Some certainly are. The complexity and skill of lyrics by Joni Mitchell, Pink Floyd, and Peter Gabriel are unmistakeable. But there is more to poetry than rhyme and rhythm and I wish for an appreciation of the musicality of the words themselves without the embelleshment of the intrumentation.

I grew up in a household where words were valued. Books were always a part of my childhood--both my parents were/are avid readers. Verbal expression was also important and we were pushed to articulate our thoughts at the dinner table with precision.

It does not surprise me that I am a reader in my adult life. I read fiction and non-fiction, narrative and poetry. One of my favorite places is my local independent bookstore, Newtonville Books. It is a place to immerse yourself in the glory of words in a space that combines the sacred sense of a library with the comfort of your favorite living room. And they have a wall of poetry. Oh joy! Classic poets next to chapbooks from little known names. My guilty pleasure is buying a new volume of poetry and discovering someone else who believes in the power of words as much a I do.

Even among writers, poetry is often marginalized. Too often, their conception of poetry careens between the doggeral in greeting cards or the ultra avant-guard that feels deliberately inaccessable to anyone shy of a PhD.

The true secret is that poetry is probably the most accessible of the arts. I have read poetry written by school children that is beautiful, articulate, heartfelt, and well written. But somewhere along the way, education took a wrong turn in teaching poetry. By the time many of us reached adulthood, we had it pounded into our heads that poetry was this dry, academic craft in which each word had to echo a high literary reference. And god help us from righteous interpretations of what a poem "means".

I have often said that a poet writes one poem, a reader reads another. We use words and images to attempt to convey meaning but we cannot read without bringing our own interpretations of those images to the reading. That is a good thing: it keeps poetry relevant to our changing lives and our changing society.

I think that the internet may be the best thing that has happened to poetry in a long time. I belong to a vibrant internet based poetry forum (Wildpoetryforum) where week after week, I see poets writing, reading, commenting, and critiquing works of increasing complexity and beauty.

Poetry matters to all of us. I hope it matters to you.


  1. Hi Lisa

    I regret to say it but I believe you are exactly correct that most of the public do have it drummed into them that poetry is dry and academic or else doggerel. They have not been encouraged to see the beauty or the fun in poetry and thus stay away from it. I have to attribute this to a defect in the education system. It was certainly my experience, going through the school system, both here and in England, that there is a vast and unfortunate difference in quality in the teaching community, with most teachers being so-so or even mediocre, and so unable to strike a spark in their students. I was probably lucky to have several teachers at various stages of my academic life who helped to inspire in me a love of learning and writing. Certainly I think it is true that the teachers who can make literature and poetry appear exciting for their students are a great rarity. The more's the pity.

    All my best


  2. ljc,

    I, too, think the internet is one of the best things to happen to poetry in a long time. Poetry is not being taught the way I think is best, true, but it is getting better in my opinion. And the voice of this generation of poets will be louder than all the previous generations because the internet is such a humongous megaphone and that's a VERY good thing for the artform. It makes it more exciting. I don't think there will ever be a time without poetry.

    I'm not as down on academics as Chris George. I know and have known sooo many dedicated, competent teachers of poetry. And they certainly made it exciting for me. But I am down on the schools (the intitutions, not the instructors) for not including 'surviving as an artist' in their curricula. That's the thing that puts people off about pursuing the 'arts'. Kids are taught from the time they can understand language that 'Art' is an AVocation. boo.


  3. I agree with the post and with both comments. It's not necessarily the teachers who are "at fault;" it's the educational system as a whole.

    In elementary school, I don't remember being exposed to much poetry by my teachers. There was the usual "write haiku" session (which, btw, put me off writing haiku for a while), but that's about all I remember. What poetry I *was* exposed to was through my own action.

    And I developed enough of a love for poetry that, when confronted with a wonderful image in 6th grade, I immediately had to write a poem about it. That poem got compliments from the teachers then, and I used it, unchanged, for assignments in both junior and senior high. Got an A both times.

    In junior and senior high, I had good teachers. Yet poetry was still treated in that dry way, implying that deconstruction and analysis was the only way.

    I think it's just the way the education system is designed. You can't have the students do something just to enjoy it. It all has to mean something. It all has to *teach* something.

    And that's the "traditional" way to teach something with poetry. Unfortunately.

    Good post, Lisa. And good comments, too. ;)

  4. Thank you all for stopping by and for your cogent comments. One of the things I do is volunteer in our elementary school and have run poetry workshops for kids in grades 1-5. The work they produce is uninhibited and joyful. They love to play with words. Perhaps the kids I have worked with will grow up to remember a different and more positive experience of poetry.