The end of poetry?

February 13, 2008
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I have flexible hours here at IBJ due to the amount of evening and weekend A&E events I attend.

One of the advantages of such a non-schedule is that at least twice a week I’m in the car at 9 a.m. when “The Writer’s Almanac” is broadcast on WFYI.

The brief show, in case you haven’t heard it, consists of Garrison Keillor reciting a poem after telling us about literary birthdays and anniversaries (lately he seems to be tipping further toward history than toward writers. Why announce Charles Lindbergh’s birthday here? Just asking.)

Keillor — or whoever makes the choices for the show — is savvy about finding poems that strike a chord without requiring revisits. For instance, today’s piece, William Reichard’s “Dream Home,” plays much better on the ear than it does on the eye. And it's last lines work beautifully — even in traffic. (Read — or hear — it here. And while you are there, dig around in the archive.)

On the eve of Valentine’s Day—a holiday often associated with poetry (although for most of us, that's limited to Hallmark Cards)—I’m wondering why my enthusiasm for that show hasn’t lead me to read more poetry? Are we losing our ability to process poetry in print while, at the same time, we're resistant to experiencing it live? Are we afraid to share in another person’s intimacies? Do we lack the faith to believe that someone else can inspire us to think deeper or differently about our own lives?

Or is it just that there are other, better media out there to satisfy us?

In short, do we still need poetry?

Your thoughts?
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  • When my son was still in utero I would read him poetry. I have found that anthologies can be a pretty effective way to speak to the zeitgeist of a specific cultural niche (or is that an oxymoron, maybe I'm using the term incorrectly).

    The I would play him rock and roll through headphones on the belly. Guess which one he found more exciting?

    Big fan of the Writer's Almanac myself. It's a great way to work a cultural minute into my life. I think I would rather read poetry because I'm not much of a reader and have a short attention span.
  • I love poetry and read it often. I just bought a new collection last week. We had a gathering at our house just last summer with a few friends who also appreciate it. We sat on my screened porch, drank wine and read poetry. We discussed favorite poets/poems and talked about ones we find overrated (Anne Bradstreet - every single poetry anthology I have contains that insipid, To My Dear and Loving Husband). My favorite poet is Edna St. Vincent Millay, who was in her day extremely popular and did tours where she recited her poems. I was lucky enough to find on Ebay an album recorded in the 40 or 50's of her poetry. Her style of speach is very interesting. It got me thinking wouldn't it be wonderful if we could hear all the great poets reciting their work? I know many of my friends are appreciative of poetry and I don't think that form of art is dead - only under appreciated by the masses. A favorite poem of mine is by a man named John Clare. He spent much of his life in an insane asylum. His poem, I Am, breaks my heart every time I read it. I think the simple human power of words is something that everyone can relate to. There is a poem that will resonanate with every single person on the planet, if only they would choose to find it. I think the world would be a better place if more people would take the time to sit down and read just one poem a day.
  • I Am

    I am: yet what I am none cares or knows,
    My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
    I am the self-consumer of my woes,
    They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
    Like shades in love and death's oblivion lost;
    And yet I am! and live with shadows tost

    Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
    Into the living sea of waking dreams,
    Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
    But the vast shipwreck of my life's esteems;
    And e'en the dearest--that I loved the best--
    Are strange--nay, rather stranger than the rest.

    I long for scenes where man has never trod;
    A place where woman never smil'd or wept;
    There to abide with my creator, God,
    And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
    Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
    The grass below--above the vaulted sky.

    John Clare
  • If love and hope and sex and dreams
    are still surviving on the streets
    then look at me
    I moved into the wrong neighborhood
    with its shattered streetlamps and broken sidewalks
    I'd love to hope for sexy dreams
    but damn baby
    sometimes I can't even sleep
  • I like Neruda's poetry, too. I borrowed FULL WOMAN, FLESHLY APPLE, HOT MOON: SELECTED POEMS OF PABLO NERUDA from my public library a few years ago and fell in love with the lushness of the words - both English and Spanish. I don't understand much Spanish, but I loved trying to read a page aloud, and then being able to see the English translation right next to it. Reading aloud the English was a pleasure, too.

    Listening to someone else read aloud to me was even more pleasurable. (Valentine's Day hint!)

    More recently, I read and loved YOUR OWN, SYLVIA: A VERSE PORTRAIT OF STEPHANIE HEMPHILL.

    Hemphill was a fan of Plath when she was a teen and again as an adult. For this book, she re-read everything she could get her hands on that Plath had written or that had been written about her. Then Hemphill wrote poems in what she imagined were the voices of the important people in Plath's life. She also wrote some poems in the styles of Plath's poems, as she imagined Plath might have written them.

    I would never in a million years have picked up this book if it hadn't been named a Printz Honor Book by the American Library Association this year, but I am so glad I did. It is very readable and interesting, and it makes me want to go read THE BELL JAR and Plath's poetry as well.

    For more info about the Printz Award please see:

    http://www.ala.org/ala/yalsa/booklistsawards/printzaward/Printz.cfm

    I think reading poetry is like reading graphic novels: you have to approach it differently than reading text novels or essays. However, once you put yourself in the right frame of mind, it is equally rewarding.

    So do we still need poetry? This question makes me think of the children's picture book: FREDERICK, by Leo Lionni. All of the mice scolded Frederick for daydreaming while they were working, but when the cold winter came, his supply of color-images and words and stories - in other words, his poetry - kept them alive until spring.
  • It's only dead to those that do not participate.

    Check your listings in the back of several free publications. Simply search with your favorite engine for poetry in Indianapolis. You will find your outlets there.

    Poetry is not dead. It lives everyday of everyones life. When writing that next email, read your words as if you where Mike Myers in So I Married an Axe Murderer. Read a newspaper aloud, even this magazine. You will find it. Laugh and enjoy your life.

    Try not to focus on the lack of understanding. Just live with the words.
  • I love poetry, but if I weren't already interested in it, I don't think the lugubrious droning of Garrison Keillor would motivate me. (I do occasionally hear the Writer's Almanac, but usually when I do I find myself distracted by wondering whether the guy gets excited about anything.) But your comments here make me want to investigate what new and cool things are happening in the Indy poetry scene, and what kinds of new, fresh, living voices are out there in the world of poetry today. Off to explore . . .
  • I attend several poetry readings a month in the Indianapolis metro area -- from the literary musings at the Writers' Center of Indiana to the spoken-word pyrotechnics at Kafe Kuumba, and it always amazes me that there's something for everyone. But for all the back-slapping of folks who proclaim, Poetry is alive in Indy, I look around and see a preponderance of other poets attending these events. What I would like to see is a healthy proportion of interested spectators who do not write poetry themselves, but are interested in hearing it. After all, I'm not an athlete, but that doesn't disqualifying from catching a game now and then.

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