The Space for Poetry

Lately, I’ve been re-reading a lot of Adrienne Rich’s poetry and essays, in part because I’m working on a field exam about the intersection between personal narrative poetry and social and political issues. Beyond my research, I’ve always enjoyed Rich’s theories and poetry and teach her work when I can. There are two essays/notebook entries of Rich’s I’ve been thinking about lately, “The Space for Poetry” and “What Could We Create?,” both available in What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics.

In both pieces, Rich addresses poetry’s dilemma in the U.S., namely that is not leashed to profit and consumerism, so it is pushed to the margins, given little space in public discourse. In “What Would We Create?” she states that poetry has been placed under house arrest and is irrelevant to mass entertainment culture and wealth, thus out of sight and out of mind in a hyper-capitalistic society.

In another essay/journal entry from the same collection, “Those Two Shelves, Down There,” Rich explores this idea a bit more while addressing chain bookstores and the fact poetry occupies very little space in such stores. She concludes the essay with the statement, “I’m on a search for poetry at the mall. This is not sociology, but the pursuit of an intuition about mass marketing, the so-called free market, and how suppression can take many forms-from outright banning and burning of books, to questions of who owns the presses, to patterns of distribution and availability.”

I keep thinking about Rich’s essays and journals on poetry and politics and this idea of accessibility and poetry under house arrest. I keep thinking of these essays as yet another report has surfaced that Barnes & Noble plans even more stores closures by year’s end. With the loss of the indie bookstores, thanks to Borders and Barnes & Noble, and now the loss of the chain stores, thanks to Amazon, what does that mean for the state of poetry and its accessibility? Sure, Amazon and other online stores offer countless poetry books, but don’t most people visit those sites with specific purchases already in mind? I find it quite unlikely a consumer is going to discover a poet by browsing Amazon.

There are certainly numerous poetry events happening in communities and countless reading series, but young poets only get better from reading, reading, and re-reading different poets and different traditions. As much as I’ve griped about Barnes & Nobles’ poetry selection, the closure of more stores means greater inaccessibility to poetry. What does that mean for the future of poetry? Will we continue to see the journals and magazines filled with names of recent M.F.A. and Ph.D. grads because they’re the ones most reading poetry? I don’t know, but I’m optimistic that maybe, just maybe, the loss of the chain stores will lead to the rise of more indie bookstores in communities again, run by people that stock not only the heavyweights, but also indie authors and small presses. We’ll have to wait and see how this all shakes out, and meanwhile, I’ll continue to ponder Adrienne Rich’s warnings.

 

Why People Hate Poetry

I came across this article (http://mobile.onmilwaukee.com/ent/articles/poetryhate.html) posted on the website OnMiluakee.com. It attempts to answer why people hate poetry. Some of the reasons given are simplistic, such as poetry is hard, but I do think the article comes up with some sound explanations, including that people have been exposed to a lot of bad poetry. Ed Makowski, the author of several poetry collections says, “There’s a lot of bad poetry. Much of it sounds like written down babble from a support group that somebody got on stage to talk at people. ‘I’ve got my five minutes here on this open mic and I want to make sure I confess every failed relationship or each time I was disappointed in my life, thanks for sitting there and taking it.'” I’ve been to too many open mics where this is true, where the poetry was written five minutes before sign-up time, or the reader goes way, way over the allowed time.

The article also provides some good advice for those unsure about poetry. Jennifer Benka, the former managing director of Poets & Writers, says, “It’s helpful to think about a poem as more like a painting. It is an art object that requires reflection, which requires a willingness to investigate and empathize and time.” Her quote is probably my favorite piece of advice given in the article. Yes, poetry does require a lot of reflection and time. Don’t expect meaning after one shallow glance.

There is one explanation left out of the article that I wish was explored, and that is the way poetry is taught. Too often, especially in high school and sometimes in college, poetry is taught like a math equation, where it is reduced to a mere series of beats and meter, pinned to the board and dissected. I have found this teaching method to be used by teachers or professors who have very little knowledge of poetry, but still have to fit it into the curriculum, so they teach nothing contemporary and reduce the craft to pure technique and equation. A few times I have taught an intro to literature course, and my students groaned when I told them we would be spending weeks on poetry. When I asked them to write about their experience with poetry, they wrote down horror stories of previous college classes or high schools classes in which all they did was dissect meters or circle metaphors in poems. No discussion of how they could or could not relate to the poem. No background given on the poet. Nothing taught to them other than the typical canonical poets. No opportunities given to write their own poems.

There are so many poetic schools out there that it’s likely something will click for the student and reader after more exploration. As poetry professor Susan Firer says, “There are many poetries. When someone tells me they don’t like or ‘get’ poetry, I just assure them they haven’t found their poetry yet.”