Thursday, June 12, 2008

Poetry & Popular Culture

IS POETRY TOO COMPLICATED for the average reader?

This question begins a recent post from the engaging West End Journal on the relationship between poetry and popular culture. For years now, I have been puzzled by poetry's poor readership in the United States, especially given our cultural context at this particular moment in history. Strapped for time, obsessed with self-help texts, and hungry for authentic sentiment, you would think that Americans would find in poetry a great deal of what is missing in their regular lives.

More and more, people want short, quick, blasts of emotion and engagement. Nothing is more that than the lyric poem, whose compression is, in my mind, designed for contemporary audiences. Intense and introspective, the lyric poem can also function as a kind of mini-self help text. Poets like Sharon Olds, Theodore Roethke, Sylvia Plath, Sherman Alexie, and Charles Wright make the poem a site of emotional exploration, soul-searching, and lesson-learning that is actually readable. And, really, no genre does love and eroticism better than poetry. From Pablo Neruda to John Donne to Anne Sexton to Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Octavio Paz to that guy, Bill Shakespeare, it's pretty easy to find something in these poets if you're Jonsing for some action.

"For a very long time," write the folks at West End, "poetry has been seen as a literary playground directed toward other players. Publishers recognize that poetry doesn’t sell very well, and so, they are apprehensive about publishing a great many books of poetry. The problem, though, is that while there may or may not be a market for poetry, no one really knows for sure. In short, no one is making an effort to shove it into mainstream media."

To be sure, they are correct. Mainstream publishers don't advertise poetry, and, unlike novelists, poets aren't really featured on programs like Fresh Air, The Charlie Rose Show, or Oprah. Hollywood isn't making a summer movie of the new Li-Young Lee collection, and there is no "Poetry Bestseller" list.

But, even if there were, I'm not sure Americans would know where to start with poems, what writers they might be drawn to or even what the experience of reading a poem is supposed to be like. Some think the American public isn't really wired for poetry and that they have never really been trained to enjoy it. But, I'm not convinced. So, The Weekly Rader is going to tackle this problem head on. It may make no difference, but we're going to start a monthly feature on contemporary books of poems that a smart, average American--someone like, say, Katie Couric--would like. We'll call it "Poems Katie Couric Would Like."

If you have recommendations on such collections of poems, post them here or send them via email to TWR--making America a nation of poetry readers, one reluctant person at a time . . .


  1. Now that we have pop music, why do we still need poetry?

  2. Face it, poetry is far down the list of what "most" of us can get to in a day, that is unless we are in academia or have trust funds. For better or worse, the image of poetry has become synonymous with poseurs hanging out in coffee shops, poetry "slams" or maybe someone reading poetry in a field while holding one hand to chin. Poetry needs to work on its accessibility. If NASCAR did it, so can poetry.

  3. The Weekly RaderJune 17, 2008 at 6:11 PM

    Good questions!

    See today's post.

  4. IS POETRY TOO COMPLICATED for the average reader? Yes!

    I don't think it's the elitist image of poetry that's the problem. I think it's the poetry itself.

  5. If you want to read poetry about the working class that Couric would understand and probably like read Tom Sexton's A Clock with no Hands, Adastra Press. Here's one poem:

    Lowell's Irish Mickey Ward

    Round 2. Ward's left eye is already cut,
    but he keeps moving toward Arturo Gatti.
    My wife's gone to bed and turned out the light.
    Gatti's left hook sounds like a thunderclap.
    I haven't watched a fight in many years,
    not since I moved away from Lowell.
    A Celtic Cross glistens on Ward's shoulder.
    I wince as he shakes off blow after blow.
    He has my uncle Leo's fighter's face,
    with features almost as flat as a stone.
    Staggered by a right, he picks up the pace.
    I want to see a hurt Gatti go down.
    They fight to a draw. Closed eye for closed eye.
    I go to bed shamefaced as stubbornly tribal.

    The lines would fit, but it's an English sonnet.

  6. Hello

    I have to say I think my recent chapbook, closing invectives, engages the typical working class perspective, and tends towards a kind of lyricism. I have extracts on my blog, and details of the book - Example;

    black stars come drown me out
    you made us drunk
    on our dead notes

    bread from head
    loves blood red money on
    paper notes

    now prove the human has a face
    cutting through like headlines

    Well - I am working class : S