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Poetry for the Rest of Us

Dan Neil

April is national poetry month. If this comes as news to you, don’t feel bad. This annual occasion to renew and deepen the American love of verse is too often drowned out by the ballyhoo around, say, National VD Awareness Month. Indeed, statistically, more people are likely to contract syphilis in April than read a book of poetry.

If you’re asking, I’ll take poetry.

A century ago, verse was everywhere--elegiac, patriotic, nonsense and nursery, odes to great slaughters of Indians, ballads of admirals and brigands. Newspapers and magazines routinely used poems to fill the empty cellars of columns when stories were too short. The bare bones of this tradition can still be seen in magazines such as the New Yorker, Harper’s and the Atlantic Monthly.

Fifty years ago, schoolchildren memorized Emily Dickinson and the taffy-sweet quatrains of Marlowe and Burns and Lovelace. Poetry was easy and portable popular entertainment, the iPod of literacy.

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Whatever happened to poetry, anyway?

It became homework. Beginning with the Moderns of the early 20th century--T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, among others--poetry climbed up an ivory tower and never really came down. Like other imaginative arts, from painting to physics, poetry became abstract and fractal, allusive and ambiguous and oriental. No fun, in other words. Swig a few mouthfuls from Pound’s “Cantos” and see what I mean.

“If it’s not a pleasure, it’s not a poem,” William Carlos Williams observed.

While more vernacular and democratic, the postwar Beat poets held that meaning itself was bourgeois and wrote poems with a kind of superheated emptiness to them. They were the first to say, existentially, What-ever....

Poetry discovered alienation but lost its audience.

By the time I went to graduate school in the early 1980s, European literary theory had martyred poetry old and new in the cause of political and academic fashion, and practically nobody outside universities read it. So much poetry of the time, in the name of experimentation, read like words and lines had been left off at the typesetter, a dense, mad muttering, signifying--with all the critical freight the word connotes--nothing.

It made common folks’ heads hurt.

“Poetry of the 20th century was the first poetry that had to be taught,” says Ted Kooser, poet laureate of the United States, whose modest “Delights and Shadows” won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Kooser credits his mentor, Karl Shapiro, for the thought, but it’s Kooser who is doing something about it. With funding from the Poetry Foundation in Chicago, Kooser has started American Life in Poetry (www.americanlifeinpoetry.org), which will provide free to newspapers and online publications a weekly column featuring a short poem from selected writers with Kooser’s own explication. When I reached him by phone he was at the American Society of Newspaper Editors convention in Washington, D.C., shopping his column around.

Kooser--like Wallace Stevens, a former insurance executive--is a humble man, a cancer survivor, with a voice like dried leaves. Humble or not, he has set out for himself a huge task. “I’m going to try to get these completely understandable poems in front of as many people as possible to prove that poetry doesn’t have to be impossible or difficult.”

Good luck with that. While buying “Delights and Shadows,” I also picked up “The Best American Poetry 2004.” Epigrams from Kant? Please. I think I’ll watch TV instead.

Does Kooser’s rise to laureate, and his Pulitzer, signal a shift in the literary climate, a new age of accessibility? John Barr, president of the Poetry Foundation, thinks so. He calls it a “return to plain talk and elevated speech.”

“Sometimes poetry is difficult because it is talking about difficult things,” Barr says. “Other times it’s trying to intimidate the reader.”

Nap-of-the-earth poets like Mary Oliver and former laureate Billy Collins are reaching the mainstream. Collins’ loose-limbed and conversational “Sailing Alone Around the Room” was last year’s best-selling book of “serious” poetry (not children’s verse, translated classic or specialty interest, like cowboy poetry, which is, by the way, huge). Collins’ book was a blockbuster by poetry standards, selling almost 26,000 copies, according to BookScan.com, a site that tracks sales for retailers and publishers.

BookScan’s list, by the way, has some surprises. The top poetry book of 2004? Shel Silverstein’s 31-year-old children’s book “Where the Sidewalk Ends” (100,000 copies sold). Next on the list is--brace yourself--Kahlil Gibran’s sweet and lumber-laden “The Prophet” (47,294), an 82-year-old book apparently still given by college-age men to their girlfriends to shore up their sensitive-male credentials.

Then there’s the “Jewel” effect. Singer-songwriters Tupac Shakur, Alicia Keys and former Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan have written soft-core poetry books that handily outsold the poet laureate.

You could argue that we live in poetry’s new golden age. Hip-hop and slam have returned the art to its reckless performance roots. Thanks to Internet and desktop publishing, would-be poets have access to as big an audience as may find them. But until the poet laureate can sell more books than, say, Suzanne Somers, America has a ways to go in appreciating this simple and complicated art.

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“HORSE,” by Ted Kooser

In its stall stands the 19th century,

its hide a hot shudder of satin,

head stony and willful,

an eye brown as a river and watchful:

a sentry a long way ahead

of a hard, dirty army of hooves.


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