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Poetry’s Afterlife and the Aesthetic Hereafter

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Dr. Kevin Stein, Caterpillar Professor of English at Bradley, has published eight poetry collections and chapbooks, three scholarly books, and two poetry anthologies, and has had numerous poems and essays included in journals and anthologies. Visit bradley.edu/go/works-Stein2014 to hear him speak about his role as the fourth Poet Laureate of Illinois.

While I understood well how poetry animated students in my classroom, I wasn’t prepared for this.

If poetry is dead, the word had not yet reached Mendota, Ill., this prairie burg. On the night of my poetry reading in the village’s Carnegie Library, more than 200 folks arced around the room on chairs and carpet, spilling into the hallway. They’d come not so much for me but for the announcement of the town’s poetry contest winners, participants ranging from schoolkids to the blue-haired set.

Stillness settled ankle deep about the room. The audience harbored reverence for the notion of poetry, something they considered a private matter of public import. That scene, both Rockwellian and surreal, evoked poetry as cultural happening. Men in ill-fitting Sunday suits and guys in overalls puddled beside their wives, dutiful husbands hauled out on an April evening better suited for planting corn. 

Gushing parents photographed their award-winning kid beside me holding the certificate suitable for framing. Destined to sleep dust-bunnied under the bed, that photo marked the child’s achievement with a Kodak moment. Poetry still carried societal street cred in this community, where writing a winning poem merited accolade equal to jacking the game-winning home run.

As I trundled to my car, a fellow in overalls sidled up, ball cap in hand. He admitted the wife had dragged him first to Denny’s for Thursday’s fried chicken special, then for some poetry. He shook my hand, summoning, “Buddy, that wasn’t half bad.” A Midwesterner’s compliment. 

Decoded, what he’d said meant the experience wasn’t as painful as he’d expected, that he’d followed at least some of what I’d read, that for him poetry always had been foreign language from a distant land but now at least he knew enough of its strange tongue to order a suitable beer. This momentary society of self, art, and other — poetry’s afterlife — tendered scent of plowed dirt and green shoots’ sudden coming.

Poetry Is Dead?

Like most poets writing today, I grew up with the notion that poetry is knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door. My teachers, my peers, and many literary journals reminded me that I am merely bloodying my knuckles. 

While such notion has its allures, it is beguiling hooey. Poetry today enjoys a spirited afterlife. Its aesthetic hereafter has come despite, or perhaps because of, decades of commentary diagnosing American poetry as gravely moribund if not already deceased. For a fated art supposedly pushing up aesthetic daisies, poetry these days is up and about in the streets, schools, universities, clubs and online. 

A gaggle of factors has contributed to poetry’s visibly invisible renaissance. The first is the sociocultural phenomenon of the Internet. The era’s proliferation of online literary journals, poetry blogs, and digital publishing opportunities enacted a democratization of American poetry. So much poetry is available via the Web that readers regard it as the postmodern Norton Anthology. 

Another contributive factor is our era’s restive aesthetic anarchy. The age lacks a monolithic authorial figure, so poets as well as readers operate free of aesthetic handcuffs. That’s just the point. Remember, Plato himself warns that poetry is not welcome within an orderly republic. Often subversive, poetry benefits from this benevolent chaos fueling the ovens of artistic experimentation and risk. 

Such life-giving innovation bristles through current digital and new media poetries. Here, the poem as artifact is unchained from the printed page readers have come to know in the more than 500 years since Gutenberg. Poetry’s exodus from the page has also given fresh life to the oral pleasures of spoken word, performance, and Slam poetry whose origins indisputably extend beyond the historical range of written verse. Don’t forget, in ancient Rome one “published” one’s work by reading it aloud in public. 

What’s more, even the newspaper, that hoary mode of artistic distribution, has re-emerged to champion poetry. Now there’s former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser’s “American Life in Poetry” column. 

Our burgeoning culture of coffeehouses and homegrown poetry clubs proffers the humanistic benefits of artistic community. Writers find fellow writers, and readers find them, too. Most don’t make the proverbial dime from it, not enough to pay for Subway’s $5 Footlong let alone a month’s groceries. Poetry’s rewards, though, are best imagined as intellectual and emotional as opposed to pecuniary.

These dynamics — converging one evening in Mendota, Ill. — arrived like spring’s first greenery to redeem my faith in poetry and what she and I might make together.  

By Kevin Stein, Illinois Poet Laureate
Photography by Daryl Wilson