The State of Poetry in America?
The day after President Obama's second inauguration, I read an article from The Washington Post titled Is Poetry Dead?. The author of this post, Alexandra Petri, based her argument on the allegedly dismal state of American poetry on the inaugural poem "One Today" written and read by Richard Blanco. Ms. Petri took great offense to some of Blanco's language, stating that his poem, and American poetry in general, weren't "loud enough."
Petri criticized the poem in question for not being radical - "yowling" was the word she used. Just what did she think Blanco should say -- that we are a nation of gunslingers who kill little children? That the rich keep getting rich while the majority of us suffer for it? That there are still people in this country who make racist remarks about our elected President? Did she really think that the inauguration was the time and place for such poetry?
Personally, I feel sympathetic about Blanco's assignment since I have a little experience in writing a poem for a special occasion. Ten years ago, when my sister got married, she asked me to write a poem to read as part of her wedding ceremony. I was quite touched - until I started trying to figure out what to write. Now I am not putting myself forward as a poet of the same caliber as Blanco, nor was my sister's wedding broadcast on national television. But I do imagine that Blanco faced similar issues: the topic of such a poem has to be related to the ceremony and can'tbe controversial. At a wedding, like an inauguration, everyone wants to come away moved by the poet's words, but still feeling good.
In her blog, Petri went on to criticize poetry readings, MFA programs and just about everything else to do with poetry today. I'm not sure what her beef with MFA programs are unless she is saying they are responsible for killing poetry. However, I need to ask, are there no master's programs in journalism that pump out bad writers? She rather quickly pointed out the connection between the supposed death of poetry and the death of newspapers, but just as quickly posits that journalists don't have to worry as much as poets since people will always want news. I see a bit of a problem with her argument. Just as there are good poems and bad poems, there is good journalism and bad journalism. I doubt she would like poets to say journalism is dead because People Magazine exists.
I read this article just as I was preparing for a poetry reading shared with my friend Casey FitzSimons at Florey's Books in Pacifica, CA. Florey's is a tiny independent bookstore probably kept afloat by loyal local fans. (I know whenever I go there for a poetry reading, I always make sure to buy at least one book.) I wondered, if poetry is dead, should I even bother going?
Well, I'm happy to report that, unlike Petri's idea of poetry readings, there were about 30 people at the event - and not all of them were my friends and family. During the evening, poems on several topics were read - and surprise, surprise, some of them were even controversial. I heard poets' words on growing up gay, schizophrenia, the school massacre in Sandy Hook. I heard enough anger - and a few tears - to make even Petri happy.
Obviously Petri thinks she is amusing, since she uses the subtitle "Alexandra Petri puts the "pun" in pundrity." Like all writers, she wants people to read her words and respond - and at least with this post she succeeded. At last count she has garnered 377 comments. Of course, some are from those who agree with her, but even more from those who protest her words; those who, according to her, should despair for poetry today.
I don't know if Blanco's poem will be considered great enough to be read through the ages. Certainly Petri doesn't think so. However, unlike her, I enjoyed this poem because, while not an angry rant, it did touch on sensitive topics: poverty and racism, the death of children and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" that has still not come to full fruition. I enjoyed Blanco's poem because it spoke of the aspiration that our countrysomeday will be a safe place for us all. While the words he ended with were quiet, I found them powerfulbecause he spoke of the hope for change, the kind of hope that can be the most radical idea of all. Sometimes a quiet poem can make a loud noise.