What’s the Matter with Poetry Today?

Today, I came across an interview with John Timberman Newcomb on Inside Higher Ed. The interview centers around Newcomb’s new book, How Did Poetry Survive? The Making of Modern American Verse. I haven’t had a chance to order the book yet, and I’ll have to save for it, since it’s currently available in hardcover only and $75. However, the subject fascinates me, and I’m glad someone is exploring what has caused the current status of poetry and why so few Americans read it.

That said, I disagree with a lot of what Newcomb says in the intervew. Near the end of it, he makes the argument that part of the problem with contemporary American poetry is that it fails to address historical and world issues, and what he calls, “ordinary life.” He states, “Don’t turn your back on the world around you, or on history, or on ‘ordinary  life.’ I am not an expert in very recent American poetry so it’s presumptuous  for me to say so, but some recent verse I’ve read seems primarily or entirely  concerned with the inner life of the poet — his or her responses to the natural  world, to works of art, to somewhat rarefied emotional states.” He also says, and this part I do agree with, that some contemporary American poets and scholars feel poets writing now should not address the political. Is this advice given to ensure young poets aren’t just writing diatribes?

There are plenty of contemporary American poets that address the world around them. Terrance Hayes, Major Jackson, Brian Turner, Kim Addonizzio (her most recent book, Lucifer at the Starlight), Patricia Smith are only a few examples, and there is the generation before them, Carolyn Forche, Adrienne Rich, Maxine Kumin, and SO many more. Jackson, Hayes, and Smith do an excellent job addressing race. Turner has two collections out about the war in Iraq. Forche, Rich, Kumin, and others have a long history addressing feminism and gender roles. Last year’s poet laureate, Philip Levine, is a champion of the working-class, so again, I don’t understand Newcomb’s statement, and it makes me question how much contemporary verse he has read.

I think several other reasons exist for poetry’s problems, the least of which is the content currently offered. It is sometimes a challenge to get young people to read much of anything, let alone a collection of poems. Furthermore, there is the issue of bad poetry, meaning people that get up there at open mics with very little practice, having read very little poetry, and as a result, the work is melodramatic and cliche, rife with too many worn-out references to Greek myth, or it sounds like it was written in the 19th Century. One bad reading can turn a lot of people off. There is also the issue of how poetry is taught in schools, especially  middle schools and high schools, where it is reduced to a disection of meter and form, nothing more. Yes, those elements are important to know, but poetry is not a math formula. Restricting poetry to only a formal aspect squeezes all pleasure out of it.

I am eager to purchase Newcomb’s book and understand more his views on contemporary American poet and how it got to the state it’s in.

2 thoughts on “What’s the Matter with Poetry Today?

  1. Kent says:

    I agree with the “one bad apple spoils the bunch” premise in terms of people’s taste being decided by a single negative (or simply limiting) experience with poetry. I recently met a guy who, when he found out I write poetry, said he hoped I didn’t write in “singsong” like Robert Frost. The problem wasn’t so much that he hated Frost, but that he didn’t know anything else. I gave him a copy of Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died,” and he absolutely adored it. Another friend who is an actor was looking for new monologue material, and said he loved Bukowski but wanted to find other poets to expand his range. I gave him Robert Hass’ “Some of David’s Story” (from *Apple Trees at Olema*) and it blew his mind.

    Half the battle is simply letting people understand that there’s a type of poem for every taste and topic, and that they shouldn’t stop searching if they don’t find their favorite right away. It’s like those “every flavor jelly beans” from Harry Potter— sure, sometimes you get ear wax or vomit, but it’s worth the effort when you find creme brulee or bubbling champagne.

    • Brian Fanelli says:


      I’ve had some of the same experiences as you, especially with some of my students. When I teach a literature survey class or intro to creative writing, I have students that are so sure they are going to dread poetry, because, as you pointed out, their views on the genre are often colored by the limited poetry they had in middle school or high school, Robert Frost, for example. But when you show them the range of forms, styles, and content out there, their views really change. I even had a student tell me once that she “didn’t know poetry could be like that.” This followed some leessons I did that involved the work of Patricia Smith, Sharon Olds, and Adrienne Rich, poets that she could connect to, that she never encountered prior to the class.

      I still think there is a daunting task to make more more accessible, though.

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