April is poetry's month-long party. In most major cities, poetry events seem as plentiful as spring puddles. The "resurgence" of poetry is covered in newspapers and magazines, on TV and radio. Last year, even Jay Leno got on the National Poetry Month bandwagon.
But when April ends, what do poets really say about the state of the art form they love? Is there a shared voice?
Poets know that poetry has a lot to offer our high-speed culture.
"What poetry does is feed souls," says Maria Mazziotti Gillan, founder of the Poetry Center at Passaic Community College in Paterson, N.J. Good poetry emphasizes what people have in common, she says.
"Poetry is a counterbalance to what's on TV. The TV keeps telling people that you can buy happiness, that buying things can make you feel good about yourself," she says.
Ms. Gillan founded the Poetry Center precisely because of poetry's ability to feed the heart and mind in declining urban centers like Paterson. She views poetry as a kind of balm that can be life-altering. Gillan directs a poet-in-the-schools program for Paterson, edits the Paterson Literary Review, and runs a reading series that regularly attracts an audience of 100 to 150 people.
But she also points out that poetry misses its mark when it is "so esoteric and incomprehensible, and when it can be read only by academics." The result of that has been audiences that are very small or made up only of poets.
Some would say the glass is half empty.
Not Robert Pinsky, America's poet laureate. Mr. Pinsky is definitely a "half-full" guy. He says poets shouldn't concern themselves with building an audience or making poetry as salable as other genres. Emily Dickinson and Ben Johnson write great poems, he says, and this builds an audience.
Counter to mass media
Pinsky, who teaches at Boston University and edits poetry for the online magazine Slate, agrees that poetry becomes more vital as our culture becomes more media-driven. "As our mass media become more and more dazzling ... we crave some haven in an art whose medium is inherently, by its nature, individual and on a human scale.
"The medium for a poem," he explains, "is the audience's body: one person's voice, the voice of the reader who says it aloud."
Pinsky points to his "Favorite Poem Project" (www.favoritepoem.org) as proof that poetry isn't as endangered as some might believe. Since 1997, he has collected audio and video recordings of hundreds of Americans reading their favorite poems. The finished project will be given to the Library of Congress next year and kept as a permanent record.
Pinsky says he is continually surprised by the variety and intensity of the responses and the readings. And he also makes it clear that "the state of poetry does not depend upon attention being paid to the official living poets." For Pinsky, the project is evidence that poetry is "not so very underappreciated in the United States."
That sentiment would resonate with many of his contemporaries, most of whom have their own tales of meeting readers who have connected strongly with their work. But what might bristle some is Pinsky's comment about the "official living poets."
For many, the poets are the reason for National Poetry Month. Or to put it another way, they'd like to see poetry work its magic on more souls.
What is that work?
According to Thom Ward, it means building a committed core of poetry readers, not just writers. But as editor/development director of BOA Editions Limited, a not-for-profit poetry press in Rochester, N.Y., he knows how large a task that is. Poetry books rarely make a profit (most don't even break even), and most press runs remain at 1,000 to 3,000 copies. Some university presses have cut back on the number of poetry titles they publish. Often, the printing costs for these books are paid for by reading fees.
Book sales went AWOL
Why such a dismal scene?
For one thing, says Mr. Ward, the small, independent bookstores that have traditionally supported small presses just can't compete with the chain superstores. And the large chains can't afford to be taxed on inventory that doesn't move. The result is a much faster return time for new books.
"When we put out our 1997 titles, we got returns as early as mid-'97. And we got returns of 30 percent, whereas in the days before chains, we got back 16 to 18 percent overall."
The problem is then compounded, Ward explains, by the fact that many literary magazines don't review new books right away. And review space in newspapers has dwindled. Some papers will only cover poetry books that come out near Poetry Month.
"I'm optimistic about poetry's future," says Ward, "but sometimes I wonder if National Poetry Month has given people an opportunity to drop the poetry banner come May 1. How is the hoopla being interpreted?"
Gillan agrees with Ward that poets need to buy more books and take a more aggressive approach to building an audience. "The [poetry] slams have done a wonderful job of removing fear,'' she says. But that fear still remains when many people pick up a book of contemporary poems. Why?
"The academy has been taking us down the wrong path for 50 years," she says. "People used to memorize poems and love them; then poetry became complicated, abstract, something people feared." People could no longer find the soul behind the words. That's why, she thinks, poetry has lost its place in many major newspapers and magazines. The New York Times, which used to print poetry daily, now publishes it just a few times a year. Harpers and The Saturday Evening Post have also been lost as regular, large markets.
Gillan's solution is one that takes time and effort: introduce as many people as possible to as much good, accessible poetry as possible. Since 1980, she has done that by bringing in a variety of talented poets to read at the Poetry Center. Gillan also works with the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation to help teachers learn to appreciate poetry and introduce it in their classrooms. (see "Fooling With Words," page 13)
But if the poetry doesn't have an honest, immediate voice behind it, people just won't bite. "The big publishers," she says, "often publish writers who are well-connected, but they can't fool the public."
Robert Morgan, a professor of English at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., agrees that poetry is in a downswing these days, but he's confident that the pendulum will eventually swing back.
Mr. Morgan, who has published 10 books of poetry and two novels, says part of the problem is that poets aren't making the most of the genre's strengths. Too many poets are writing poems that look too much like prose. "We've put ourselves in competition with fiction writers and essayists," says Morgan. "But free-verse poetry doesn't have the same kind of tension and structure. Fiction writers have done a much better job of mastering voice in the last 40 years."
That's why, he says, "most literate people don't read poetry anymore. Most of the poets I know are reading fiction or essays." Another problem, he explains, is that in the last 40 years, poets have taught schoolchildren to write their own poems but not to read or memorize poems. "This approach," he says, "hasn't produced the poetry renaissance that everyone expected."
What may help, he believes, is the Internet, and already that is becoming the case. The Poetry Daily site, for example, attracts 15,000 to 20,000 viewers a day. That's twice the circulation of Poetry magazine, one of the most prestigious and influential literary journals in the US. The Atlantic Monthly's online poetry pages receive 100,000 hits monthly. "Whenever I've had a poem on either site," says Morgan, I've gotten responses from all kinds of readers from all across the country."
So is the poetry glass half-full or half-empty? No one really knows, and no one knows the long-term effect the Internet will have. But whether the words come via computers, TV, radio, or poetry videos, some basics will remain the same. As Morgan says, what makes poetry memorable is the way the words rub together: "It's the tune that grabs us ... the vernacular eloquence."
What makes poems meaningful is how the metrical patterns combine with complex ideas that tell us something about who we are. If poems can help to fill some of the emptiness in today's world, then perhaps poetry's glass will truly be filled.