R.I.P. Poetry?

Advice and insight from a professional poet.

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Why don’t people read poems anymore?

— PH
I ask myself that question almost every day. I like to tell myself the reason is because it’s so difficult to get your hands on poetry books. Many poets publish with small presses that have a limited distribution, so if someone happens upon a poet that they think is wonderful and would like to read more of, they might have difficulty locating their book. For example, let’s say a girl reads a poem by Jeffrey Yang and really likes it. She tries to find his book, Currency, in the library and local bookstore to no avail. She orders it online and it takes weeks to arrive, and then she has to read all the way through it once it does — not exactly instantaneous gratification, and you know how important that is these days.

But honestly, a lot of people think poetry is too difficult to understand and I think that’s why they don’t bother to read poems. Poet Randall Jarrell argues in his essay “The Obscurity of the Poet” that “most people decide that poets are obscure very much as legislators decide that books are pornographic: by glancing at a few fragments someone has strung together to disgust them.” The sad truth is that many people who say they don’t like poetry have never read a poetry book from end to end (those required anthologies for a lit course don’t count). I’m not saying that reading a book of poems is easy. Nothing worthwhile is ever easy. Sometimes a poem rips my heart out, or spins my head in a mind warp, or cracks me up, and then I’m expected to abandon it and read another poem on the next page? Give me a break!  I’ve got to revel a bit in a poem, and get myself emotionally prepared for the next one, and that takes time. Reading poetry is an investment, and all investments carry some risk, and true, many people don’t have the resources to invest in poetry, but many people are misinformed and think poetry’s too confusing, too obscure, too high-brow, etc. Sure, you can find that kind of poetry — there’s something for everybody. You can also find poems that move you, poems that make you hoot with delight, that comfort you in your darkest hour.

People didn’t read poems in the ’50s, when Jarrell was writing, and nowadays poems have even more media to compete with. On my morning commute, I often check people out, their heads buried in newspapers or portable Web browsers or beauty magazines. On the whole bus, I’m always the only person with a poetry book in my hands, and I often wonder how different this world would be if more people read poetry. I don’t know — maybe that’s just something that I tell myself to make myself feel better, a kind of self-validation. Maybe it’s just a dream I have, that this world could change, and poetry is the only way I know how to do it:

Kelp

How easy it is to lose oneself

in a kelp forest. Between

canopy leaves, sunlight filters thru

the water surface; nutrients

bring life where there’d other-

wise be barren sea; a vast eco-

system breathes. Each

being being

being’s link.

(Jeffrey Yang)

12 October 2009

Kristen Hoggatt lives, works, and writes in Boston, where she received her MFA from Emerson College. She volunteers at 826 Boston.
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