Volume 100, Number 3/4
|The poem is the cry of its occasion.
—Wallace Stevens…I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
Ask Americans if they read poetry and most will answer no. Some will say it sheepishly, others emphatically, but either way they’ll let you know they prefer fiction and non-fiction. This is true despite the fact that more American poetry is being published today (in print and on the Web) than ever before—true despite the fact that poetry readings, poetry slams, poetry classes and conferences are growing in popularity nationwide. While interest appears to flourish, the audience for poetry remains relatively small.
How to explain it? Cultural critics theorize that we live in an “anti-poetic” age—a time when technology and globalization are driving such radical change in the way we live our lives that we’ve become desensitized, and our attention is over-taxed and fractured. Is it true? Are we so dizzied or beguiled by the 24-hour news-and-entertainment cycle with its sound-bites and jump-shots, so vulnerable to the intrusions of cell phones and e-mail, so confounded by all that is expected of us in the workplace and at home that we can’t or won’t give poetry our time? Does it demand a kind of readiness or clarity of mind, a willing attentiveness we feel we can’t provide?
So it seems. How astonishing, then, that most Americans—however boldly they may confess their indifference—turn to poetry at the most important moments in their lives. What other language will do at a wedding or a funeral, a christening, a bar mitzvah? How else to speak of love and change and loss?
In times of national crisis, too, we look to poetry for comfort: after 9/11, W.H. Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts” with its famous opening (“About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters”) was flashing through cyberspace along with Suheir Hammad’s “First Writing Since” and Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.” What essay or story could compete at such a time with the collapsed, incantatory language of these poems?
The audience for poetry in America may be relatively small, day to day—the sales of books and journals, small—the monetary stakes, small—but poems matter to us in ways that all such calculations ignore. Perhaps, as Wallace Stevens wrote with such forceful simplicity, poetry does for us what nobody can measure: it “helps us live our lives.”
Poems by Tom Absher, Deborah Bogen, Juan J. Morales, Carl Phillips, Matthew Spireng, and others.
The Insistence of Beauty by Stephen Dunn
Reliquaries by Eric Pankey
American Ghost Roses by Kevin Stein
Huge Haiku by David McAleavey
The Habits of Fire by Judith McCombs
Slender Grace by Rod Jellema
Selected Dreams from the Animal Kingdom by Judith Taylor