Last week I subverted the Monday Morning Memo into a platform for play by writing a whimsical little verse called Wrong Turn Taken On the Straight and Narrow.
This is an email I received in response from a friend:
My whole life, I never understood poetry.
I do not say this to criticize anyone other than myself. It is a writing style that is utterly foreign to me.
I remember being assigned poetry to read when I was in school. Everyone else seemed to “get it” but I never saw the symbolism and meaning that other people did.
I note that this is not limited to poetry, but it shows up most frequently there.
Oddly, I have no desire to conquer my failings with poetry. I read so much and take in so much, I am not sure adding poetry to the mix is feasible. I never have enjoyed it and am puzzled by others interest in it.
Again, I say none of this to be critical of anyone other than me. This is my shortcoming, and mine alone. But, I say this to preface my remarks since I did not read much of the poem. Not that it was bad or anything (as if I would know good poetry from bad to begin with), but like most any poetry, I cannot get my arms around it directly. It is a medium that I just cannot penetrate.
With so many movies, TV shows and internet content available, I feel like I am missing out on so much.
This flood of information has its roots in cheap reproduction and storage. 30 years ago, if you missed a movie on the big screen, your options to see it were very limited. Certainly the viewer would not control when they could watch the movie, if ever they were given the chance. But now, if you miss the movie, you can see it on HBO. And if you do not watch it there, you can rent or buy the DVD. And all those films you missed before? Now they are before you like a Vegas buffet. TV shows? The same.
# # # #
My friend is the typical American, adrift on a sea of badly written blogs, poorly worded websites, vapid TV shows and miserable movies, drunk on the cheap wine of adrenaline, drowning in an ocean of Lowbrow.
Will you throw a life preserver out to him and 200 million others like him?
The conspiracy in which you have entered is this:
1. You're going to write powerful things in few words.
2. You're going to put readers back in touch with the powers of their own imaginations.
3. You're going to seduce America into thinking again.
Your first assignment is to select at least one of the following 46 photos and tell the story behind it. To help you understand what I'm asking you to do, I'm going to send you a free, hardback book. The title is Accidental Magic. The book opens with 16 one-page chapters on the art of writing. These are followed by 116 examples of what I'm asking you to do.
To receive your free copy of Accidental Magic: the Wizard's Techniques for Writing Words Worth 1,000 Pictures, email your name and mailing address to Tamara@WizardAcademy.org. All copies will be shipped in December, 2007. You should have yours by January 1, 2008 at the latest.
In the meantime, I want you to read the article below, “Can Poetry Matter?” Dana Gioia wrote it 16 years ago. Today he's doing all he can to restore literacy to America as the head of the National Endowment for the Arts.
Can Poetry Matter?
Poetry has vanished as a cultural force in America. If poets venture outside their confined world, they can work to make it essential once more.
American poetry now belongs to a subculture. No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group. Little of the frenetic activity it generates ever reaches outside that closed group. As a class poets are not without cultural status. Like priests in a town of agnostics, they still command a certain residual prestige. But as individual artists they are almost invisible.
1. When poets give public readings, they should spend part of every program reciting other people's work—preferably poems they admire by writers they do not know personally. Readings should be celebrations of poetry in general, not merely of the featured author's work.
2. When arts administrators plan public readings, they should avoid the standard subculture format of poetry only. Mix poetry with the other arts, especially music. Plan evenings honoring dead or foreign writers. Combine short critical lectures with poetry performances. Such combinations would attract an audience from beyond the poetry world without compromising quality.
3. Poets need to write prose about poetry more often, more candidly, and more effectively. Poets must recapture the attention of the broader intellectual community by writing for nonspecialist publications. They must also avoid the jargon of contemporary academic criticism and write in a public idiom. Finally, poets must regain the reader's trust by candidly admitting what they don't like as well as promoting what they like. Professional courtesy has no place in literary journalism.
4. Poets who compile anthologies—or even reading lists—should be scrupulously honest in including only poems they genuinely admire. Anthologies are poetry's gateway to the general culture. They should not be used as pork barrels for the creative-writing trade. An art expands its audience by presenting masterpieces, not mediocrity. Anthologies should be compiled to move, delight, and instruct readers, not to flatter the writing teachers who assign books. Poet-anthologists must never trade the Muse's property for professional favors.
5. Poetry teachers especially at the high school and undergraduate levels, should spend less time on analysis and more on performance. Poetry needs to be liberated from literary criticism. Poems should be memorized, recited, and performed. The sheer joy of the art must be emphasized. The pleasure of performance is what first attracts children to poetry, the sensual excitement of speaking and hearing the words of the poem. Performance was also the teaching technique that kept poetry vital for centuries. Maybe it also holds the key to poetry's future.
6. Finally poets and arts administrators should use radio to expand the art's audience. Poetry is an aural medium, and thus ideally suited to radio. A little imaginative programming at the hundreds of college and public-supported radio stations could bring poetry to millions of listeners. Some programming exists, but it is stuck mostly in the standard subculture format of living poets' reading their own work. Mixing poetry with music on classical and jazz stations or creating innovative talk-radio formats could re-establish a direct relationship between poetry and the general audience. The history of art tells the same story over and over. As art forms develop, they establish conventions that guide creation, performance, instruction, even analysis. But eventually these conventions grow stale. They begin to stand between the art and its audience. Although much wonderful poetry is being written, the American poetry establishment is locked into a series of exhausted conventions—outmoded ways of presenting, discussing, editing, and teaching poetry. Educational institutions have codified them into a stifling bureaucratic etiquette that enervates the art. These conventions may once have made sense, but today they imprison poetry in an intellectual ghetto.
It is time to experiment, time to leave the well-ordered but stuffy classroom, time to restore a vulgar vitality to poetry and unleash the energy now trapped in the subculture. There is nothing to lose. Society has already told us that poetry is dead. Let's build a funeral pyre out of the desiccated conventions piled around us and watch the ancient, spangle-feathered, unkillable phoenix rise from the ashes.
– Dana Gioia, originally published in The Atlantic Monthly, May 1991
(Gioia has since been named chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. I went with a class from Wizard Academy – the Tribe of Seven – to hear him speak in March, 2007. Gioia is the figure in the foreground of the class photo below. – Roy H. Williams)
Would you care to read the entire, unedited article?