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008 John W. Barr, "Building a Home for Poetry: A Progress Report from the Poetry Foundation," September 2005.
This letter offers an annual summary, showing how Ruth Lilly's [$100 million] gift to the Poetry Foundation, the Chicago-based publisher of Poetry magazine, has been put to work. One year ago the Foundation embarked on a plan to "pursue a more vigorous presence for poetry in our culture." The premise is that there is today a lack of a general, interested audience for poetry in mainstream media--newspapers, magazines, radio, and television. A half dozen projects and programs seek to remedy this situation. One of these was the first-ever survey designed to find where poetry sits in our culture. The National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago will publish the results of the survey and update them annually to gauge the impact of the Foundation's programs and projects and provide valuable information to other organizations committed to poetry. Poetry magazine [now 93 years old] has been redesigned with a new type style and full-cover art, becoming a "must read" with new poetry and edgy criticism. Circulation has doubled to 21,000 subscribers in two years. A family of related websites will be launched on the Internet, the first of which is www.poetrymagazine.org. These sites will expand the universe of readers who use the Internet as a source for poetry. Getting more poetry into the nation's classrooms through the National Recitation Contest is another way we are building a national audience for poetry. In the spring of 2005 five thousand high school students in Chicago and Washington, DC public schools tried out this program, which is similar to spelling bees. In 2006 schools in the fifty state capitals will participate and advance to the finals in Washington, DC. Two new programs address the absence of poetry from mainstream media. Ted Kooser's weekly column placed in newspapers and e-zines [like Thirty-Seven Cents] has reached an audience of 3.85 million. The other program seeks general magazines which do not at present publish poetry. Through identifying poems that will appeal to a magazine's readership, the Foundation helps editors provide their audience with copy that will interest them. Two new literary awards were created last year: The Neglected Masters Award of $50,000, which went to Samuel Menashe in 2004, and the Mark Twain Poetry Award of $25,000 for humor in verse, which went to Billy Collins in 2004. Two new awards were added in 2005: the Emily Dickinson First Book Award of $10,000 and the Randall Jarrell Award in Criticism of $10,000. The Foundation also awarded for the twentieth year the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize of $100,000, which went to C. K. Williams in 2005. Plans are also in the making for a national home for poetry, a building that would contain offices for Poetry magazine, a library for our 30,000 volumes of poetry, and accommodations for a "think tank" for passionate and practical poets to come together to debate, write, and publish issues in contemporary poetry.
007 Camille Paglia, introduction, Break, Blow, Burn (New
York: Random House, 2005), vii-xvii.
"I believe that close reading, or what used to be called 'explication of text,' not only is the best technique for revealing beauty and meaning in literature but is a superb instrument for the analysis of all art and culture. Through it one learns how to focus the mind, sharpen perception, and refine emotion." The foundation of literary study in the 1960's was New Criticism, a "sophisticated system of interpretation that has never been surpassed." Its destruction in the 1970's by European post-structuralism was a disaster we have not yet recovered from. Poetry was at the height of prestige in the 1960's. Over the next decades "theory," which claimed to analyze language but actually abused language, coupled with crusading "identity politics" resulting in a loss of on-campus stature for English departments and their content such as poetry. Politics replaced language and literary study. "What fascinated me about English [language] was what I later recognized as its hybrid etymology: blunt Anglo-Saxon concreteness, sleek Norman French urbanity, and polysyllabic Graeco-Roman abstraction. . . . The dazzling multiplicity of sounds and word choices in English makes it brilliantly suited to be a language of poetry." Commercial popular culture is the authentic native voice of America, but in the current state of poetry, the most acclaimed poets are not writing to communicate with the general audience. Rather they write to impress their fellow poets. "Personal friendships have spawned cliques and coteries in book and magazine publishing, prize committees, and grants organizations." How weak individual poems have become over the past forty years! Elevating process over form, poets seem to be writing diary entries for effect in live readings. Popular songwriting, with the success of rock music, has show this same textual weakness. Poems (including lyrics to songs) should stand up to repeated readings. Artists are makers, "not just mouthers of slippery discourse." Good writing comes from good reading and is accessible to the general reader. Those of us who practice in the humanities like poetry and music should accept ourr mission of custodianship, preserving for readers and introducing readers to that which is worth keeping.
006 David Lehman, foreword, The Best American Poetry
2001 (New York: Scribner, 2001), 9-15.
In the last decade the audience for poetry has grown. Readings, festivals, posters on buses, Poetry Month emphasis in April, poet laureates' projects, and PBS documentaries are but a few of the indicators of a poetry boom. Creative writing programs and workshops have certainly contributed to this interest. Lehman says, "I am convinced that the study of poetry, fiction, and other serious literature depends more and more on creative writing programs on all levels." Even though few poets--workshop-trained or not--will actually write great poems, workshops do nurture talent and are responsible in many cases for the development of avid readers, which is important, for poets need all the readers we can get. Many poets do not read the poetry of others. "Everyone wants to write the stuff and no one wants to read it," Lehman states. Even fewer is the number of poets who buy poetry books and journals. To the rescue comes the Internet with its revolutionary means of publication and distribution of poems. Hundreds of e-zines are available to poets--to publish their works, of course, but also to show poets what their peers are writing. These e-zines become a library for poets, a library that occupies little space, a library with an almost limitless collection of poems.
005 Thom Geier, "Verse for Wear," Entertainment Weekly, 23 Nov. 2005: 105.
In his review of Billy Collins's new book, The Trouble
with Poetry, Thom Geier calls Collins the Oprah of poetry because in a day
when poetry doesn't sell well, Collins has sold more than 250,000 copies of his
books. Geier also calls Collins the Jerry Seinfeld of poetry because his
poems are often "hilariously funny." For example, in "The Revenant" his
pet dog, now in heaven, chides his former master: "I hated the car , the rubber
toys, / disliked your friends and, worse, your relatives. /The jingling of my
tags drove me mad. / You always scratched me in the wrong places."
Geier calls Collins the Rodney Dangerfield of poetry
because although large crowds pay to hear him read, he doesn't get much respect
in some serious literary circles. Geier closes by calling Collins the
Robert Frost of modern poetry: "In plain language free from pretension, he takes
ordinary subjects (summer-camp crafts, time zones), and plunders their insides
until the inner mystery pops out." In "You, Reader" Collins riffs on
salt and pepper shakers: "I wondered if they had become friends / after all
these years / or if they were still strangers to one another / like you and I /
who manage to be known and unknown / to each other at the same time . . . ."
004 David Orr, "Hit Parade," The New York Times Book Review, 13 Nov. 2005: 16.
In late 2002, Garrison Keillor published Good Poems, a poetry anthology for "average readers" that sold well. The anthology was doubly reviewed in Poetry magazine. The first review (by Dana Gioia, the poet who is chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts) was a reasonable appraisal saying the anthology was "surprisingly OK." The second review (by August Kleinzahler, also a poet) accused Keillor of "appalling taste." Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry, said response to the reviews was "enormous," most directed toward Kleinzahler's "polemic." Keillor's response was a second anthology: Good Poems for Hard Times, like the first collection, poems previously read on Keillor's public radio show. In his introduction to this second book, Keillor says, "All that matters about poetry to me now is directness and clarity and truthfulness. All that is twittery and lit'ry, no thanks, pal." Fair enough, but the most obvious problem with such a definition for poetry is to suggest that the meaning of poetry is to give courage. Of course some poetry is or was written to give courage, but not all. A more subtle difficulty in Keillor's personal definition applies to other limitations. He likes plainspoken language, long on sentiment, short on "surface complication." The poets he chooses are very much alike, too "white" [according to Orr], and he frequently elevates these good poems' poets to the ranks of Frost and Dickinson. It would be better to compare the good poem with a Frost or Dickinson poem and not set up his chosen poets for failure when they do not always perform at such a high level. Which way do we turn? Is Kleinzahler right to hold out for poetry by the select few to entertain the select few? Or do we go with Keillor, embracing poetry as a means to create a common life for all of us, even a few highbrow writers? There are points to be made for both sides of this question, but one result is certain. We come away from such differing views with a realization that great poets often produce mediocre results, that bad poets can be surprisingly good, and that very good poets are frequently no better than average. It is far more difficult to isolate good poetry than critics like to believe. This truth makes everyone uncomfortable, but it is, nevertheless, a truth.
003 Frank Kermode, "Avon Calling," The New York Times Book Review, 11 Jan. 2004: 9-10.
It is hard to imagine anyone feeling the need for more biographies of Shakespeare, but several full-length biographies have appeared in the last five years. The same basic body of facts is available to every biographer, and even though this is a larger body of facts than one might expect for a sixteenth or seventeenth writer (Shakespeare bridged these centuries), it is the manner of presenting these facts that distinguishes one biography from the next. Stanley Wells, author of 27 books on Shakespeare including his recent book, Shakespeare for all Time, is the man newspapers and television studios call if they need something authoritative on Shakespeare. On the other hand, Michael Wood, whose new book, Shakespeare, received Wells's blessing, came to Shakespearean studies from making documentary films and television programs. His book is more exciting than Wells's book since his study was geared toward prime-time television. However, Wells spent less than half his book on Shakespeare's life, reserving more than half for Shakespeare since his death: the growth of Shakespeare legends, the poet's reputation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, his thriving career in the twentieth century--all done with magnificent illustrations. The main point of difference between these two books is their answer to "Was Shakespeare Catholic?" Wells says no, pointing out Shakespeare's baptism and burial as Anglican rites. His father's refusal to attend Anglican services was for the reason he gave: he was afraid to expose himself to arrest for debts. Wood, whose answer is yes, emphasizes the "lost years" in Shakespeare's life, suggesting that he accompanied a Catholic missionary to Lancashire, a county known for its Catholic sympathies, where he became a tutor in a great Catholic household under the name William Shakeshafte. In the end Wood has too many guesses and suppositions, because Shakespeare's earliest plays were strongly Protestant history plays, but Wood's book, too, has excellent illustrations and photographs. A third book, Stephen Orgel's Imagining Shakespeare, originated as a series of lectures for a scholarly audience. These "elegant and witty chapters" deal with a variety of topics, including one which is a valuable study of Shakespeare portrait. Another deals with the name Shylock, which Orgel shows was a common English, not Jewish, name for a money-lender in Shakespeare's London.
002 David Orr, “Who Needs Mace? Whip Out That Sonnet?” The New York Times Book Review, 26 June 2005: 15.
In two recent novels, Saturday by Ian McEwan and And Now You Can Go by Vendela Vida, violence is prevented by poetry, specifically the recitation of a poem. In the clamax of McEwan’s book the main character’s daughter is not raped by a gang of thugs because she recites Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” In Vida’s work, the protagonist is accosted in a park by a man planning to make her one-half of a murder-suicide. She gives him two reasons to live, the second of which is poetry. She recites several poems to her confused captor, the last being Philip Larkin’s “Love.”
Poets will recognize the unusualness of these situations, but they will nevertheless rejoice and feel flattered that these poems come across as useful and powerful. Why, we ask, do these novelists employ poetry in this manner? The answer, according to David Orr, “has less to do with what poetry is than with what we think poetry ought to be doing—which is to say something useful.” We may agree that W. H. Auden might have been on to something when he said poetry makes nothing happen. We may agree privately, but we prefer to believe that poems work magic, and therefore in a culture in which utility is praised we find poetry to be of worth even in other disciplines—“practical” disciplines such as politics.
Here is where these two novels differ from works that use poetry for such reasons as political reasons. These books show poetry “being heard as poetry, on its own merits.” They show that poetry—whether tight, easy-to-read poems or sprawling, deliberately obscure ones—provides a “private space in which time slows down and possibilities expand.” A poem may not change the world or save our lives, but it can mark a pause wherein we learn life is a little more worth living.
001 David Orr, “I and You,” The New York Times Book Review, 28 Aug. 1005: 14.
In a review of A Wild Perfection: The Selected Letters of James Wright, David Orr asserts that many poets (including Pope, Keats, and Rilke) have done some of their most important work in personal letters because these poets have used letters to guide their thinking about poetry. A letter just as a lyric poem presupposes an I (a speaker) and a You (an audience). We expect the I in the letters of a lyric poet to match the I of his poems. When the two do not match, we often judge the poet unfairly, as was the case with Philip Larkin. The facts revealed in 1993 by the I of his shocking letters “diverged sharply” from the I of his lyrics, to the detriment of his poetry.
Advances in technology have made letters “smaller, faster, flatter, more ephemeral,” so we may be dealing with one of the last significant poet correspondences when we read these letters by Wright. The letters trace his development as a poet who began by writing traditional forms with “earnestness, tenderness, and technical polish” and kept these qualities even after he abandoned pentameter. His correspondents included Galway Kinnell, Donald Hall, James Dickey, Theodore Roethke, and Robert Bly.
His letters show Wright, an Ohio poet who died in 1980 at 52, to be genuinely nice, humble, generous, and a man who enjoyed writing letters. The I of these letters matches the I of his poems as in both he reaches for an audience. Orr states that Wright’s best poems are not so much lyric reflections as they are “rescue operations,” “evocations of lost souls.” In one of his letters he wrote, “I can’t tell you how much better I feel if I can only write a long letter to someone who, I feel convinced, will read it–even though writing takes all the guts out of me.”
Padgett’s Comment: Although Orr limits his remarks to lyric poetry, most poets would admit that even in lyrics they invent an I that differs to a degree from the poet himself and from the I in another of his poems. Teachers frequently instruct students to call the I a poet-lover or a poet-philosopher or a poet-joker, etc. depending upon the specific poem [rather than the specific poet] being analyzed. Think of the poem as a drama with the I and the You as characters in the play. The I is not limited to the truth. Think of all the unreliable narrators that Edgar Allan Poe created.
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