Poetry's Afterlife

Kevin Stein 
Illinois Poet Laureate

“Poetry’s Afterlife and the Aesthetic Hereafter”

“Poetry is dead. Long live poetry!” That’s my rejoinder to National Poetry Month’s seasonal hue and cry – febrile lament of poetry’s demise coupled with celebration of its monarchal  reign as highest of arts.

For poetry lovers this renders April “the cruelest month,” as T.S. Eliot observed. 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. Practicing a dead art, thus the purest of forms, is regarded as a literary badge of honorable dishonor.

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. Nearly thirty years after Joseph Epstein’s provocative “Who Killed Poetry?” ignited torch-waving debate, poetic art has not given up its literary ghost. 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. Arguably, poetry’s hierarchical structure has been leveled. Nowadays, You-Tube offers as much poetry as the venerable Norton Anthology.

That horizontal restructuring shoulders with it a slew of ancillary consequences. So much poetry is available via the web that readers must wade through little Tommy’s sonnets to his pet mouse before finding their way to, say, Billy Collins’ blowsy “I Chop Some Parsley while Listening to Art Blakey’s Version of ‘Three Blind Mice.’” The surge of digital publications has wreaked havoc as well on traditional literary journals, resulting in the paper-extinction of magazines such as Northwestern’s once-gorgeous TriQuarterly.

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. Marjorie Perloff characterizes the “map” of American poetry as an “odd sort of scramble” where no one’s in charge. 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 500-years since Gutenberg. New media poems such as Loss Pequeno Glazier’s “White-face Bromelaids on 20 Hectares” merge word and image upon the computer screen via the blended artistry of poet and computer programmer. These expressions stretch beyond the boundaries of what many would regard as verse. No matter. Readers who engage these pieces encounter the possibilities as well as the instructive limits of poetic art.

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 reemerged to champion poetry. For centuries newspapers served as primary organ for distributing American poetry. The New York Times, for instance, printed a poem or two per day until the 1950s. Now there’s former US Poet Laureate Ted Kooser’s “American Life in Poetry” column. Aiming to present “poems that . . . will be enjoyable to newspaper readers,” the column avers to reach roughly 2.5 million citizens via some 200 newspapers nationwide. Even the Inquirer once opened its year-end op ed pages to news-related verse.

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. The proliferation of MFA writing programs also evidences the draw of poetic art. Most who study there drop thousands of tuition dollars to perfect an art form unlikely ever to pay for Monday’s Subway sandwich let alone a month’s groceries.

These dynamics converge in locales like Mendota, Illinois. If poetry is dead, the word has not yet reached this prairie burg. On the night of my poetry reading in the village’s Carnegie Library, over two hundred folks arced around the room on chairs and carpet, spilling into the hallway. They’d come not 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.

This op ed appeared in the April 8, 2012, Philadelphia Inquirer's Sunday Currents section, Section C, pp. 1, 6.

To view the piece as it appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, click here.