It’s been a tough year for American poetry. In a recent issue of Harper’s Magazine, Mark Edmundson published an essay titled “Poetry Slam, or the Decline of American Verse” bemoaning the current state of poetry and longing for a modern William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, or Robert Lowell, a poet willing to address serious issues. Specifically, Edmundson called out W.S. Merwin, Robert Hass, Seamus Heaney and other contemporary heavy weights for failing to use their talent and skill to seriously address social and political issues. That is the author’s claim, not mine.
This essay followed an online blog post by The Washington Post titled “Is Poetry Dead?,” which ran shortly after Richard Blanco, one of my favorite contemporary American poets, read at President Obama’s second inauguration in January. The blog post’s author, Alexandra Petri, asked if poetry can still “change anything,” but has that ever been the point? I have always viewed poetry as an art form that makes us see the ordinary differently, that makes the common thing new, to paraphrase Williams. Furthermore, it is an art form that pushes the boundaries of language and indeed challenges language. Perhaps most importantly, poetry is a community-builder. I have seen that time and time again over the last decade or so that I’ve been doing readings and attending readings.
This point is why I bring attention to a an article in the HuffingtonPost entitled “Top 200 Advocates for Poetry (2013).” What impresses me about the list is the range of names- including some well-knowns, such as current Poet Laureate Natasha Tretheway and several former Poet Laureates, such as W.S. Merwin and Billy Collins. But the author, Seth Abramson, includes several people that work for small presses, such as Fence and Black Ocean Press, and folks that run various reading series. His list points out that poetry is indeed still alive and well and has several big names left, which I’ve mentioned above, but more importantly, poetry is about community, about small presses and reading series. There are plenty of people keeping the art form alive and plenty of people writing it, since over 20,000 books of American poetry are published each decade, according to Abramson’s article. It is nice to finally see a publication as well-known as the HuffPost point out that poetry is indeed alive and well and there are several people, especially at the small press level, working to foster community through poetry.