My neighbors are all above average; of this I’m almost certain. They go to work on time and pay more than their fair share of taxes. On the other hand, I highly suspect that none is heir to a fortune of any kind. I also feel in my bones that the vast majority of them ponder poetry less often than Arbor Day, which makes them like average Americans. Residents of Main Street U.S.A. don’t consider poetry mainstream. In fact, if they consider poetry at all, they consider it exotic, radical, and even bizarre.
It wasn’t always this way. The stoic bard of Carmel, Robinson Jeffers, was just one among several poets to appear on the cover of Time back in mid-century America. Apparently 1950 represents poetry’s high-water mark, for Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot each commanded a cover that year—as did Winston Churchill, Mao Tse-tung, and Joseph Stalin. Ah, the 50s. No American poet has made the cover since. Today, it’s hard to imagine John Ashbery, Jorie Graham, or even Billy Collins, our current national poet laureate, on the cover of anything but their own books. (Why is there a poet laureate but not a painter laureate or musician laureate?) Vigorous art forms and genres have a mainstream that frequently overlaps the mainstream. Music, film, fiction, painting, sculpture, and even dance have a public face. Finicky aficionados may shun the populists for being too accessible, for what they consider to be pandering to the masses, but their presence guarantees a place in the national consciousness and is a sign of a dialogue between the art and the people.
And the people are writing fiendishly. Our collective hangover of grief and guilt has driven many people to writing poesy like never before, and they have generated innumerable elegiac murmurings since the towers collapsed. That isn’t necessarily surprising, especially considering the prominent role that grief and guilt play in American Poetry. American Poetry is sad. Melancholy and mourning rule the day, but neither poetry nor poet can afford to exclude ways of thinking or ways of feeling or economics or science or computers or comedy or pigs’ feet or prairies, irreverence, hip-hop, tube tops, vibrators, escalators, the profane, the mundane, insults, invective, detective, middle classes, or even our asses from their vocabularies.
Gabriel Gudding, poet, critic, and onetime Minneapolitan, has pointed out that many of today’s poetry anthologies demonstrate what he calls a “narrow bandwidth of emotion, topic, and tone” and feature an “unremitting High Seriousness” that usually takes the form of a poem mimicking suffering. Confessional poetry, self-help psychology, journaling, and an endemic victimology are all partly to blame for this knucklehead obsession with a single emotion—and grief, of all the ones to pick! But beyond the spike in grief poems, the fact remains that more Americans write poetry than read poetry. No other art form can make such a claim, and none would want to. It seems everyone in America is a poet. Why is that? Not everyone considers himself a sculptor or a painter or a musician or even a conceptual artist, which all of us could call ourselves if we don’t already. The low barrier into the field of poetry—the meagerest facility with language—gives license to most anyone to think she can write a poem. And she can. It just might stink. Denis Johnson, author of Jesus’ Son, may have exaggerated when he wrote, “At any one time only a handful of genuine poets reside on the planet,” but the underlining point rings true: Not everyone is a poet.
The preference to write rather than to read poetry might also indicate a rejection of what is regarded as excellence in professional circles. Poetry considered “good” inside those circles is often considered difficult and impenetrable outside those same circles. Of course, many poems are difficult, and some are excellent, and some even manage to be both difficult and excellent. But many read like the periodic chart of a navel-gazing doofus, which occasionally passes for genius. In some ways, a successful poem is no different than a great pop song. It stands up to repeated listenings, shifting a little to reveal a bit more upon each subsequent reading—it’s not about making sense but capturing essence. A college freshman once asked where he might find the book that gives the literal translation of poems. As absurd as that is, many people spin their wheels trying to decipher poems as if they were riddles. When their efforts fail, they give up. Sometimes they give up poetry altogether. Even the most accessible poem, one that uses simple language and conventional syntax, must pass the play-it-again test. A good poem refuses to cower in the box of reason; it chooses to roam the gray area between this world and the next.