Does Poetry Matter?

Again, Gabriel Gudding points out two good reasons why comedic poetry is so outré now: “The first-person condition is usually associated with the poet’s condition, and the I of comic poetry is often clueless, gauche, or stupid. We don’t, after all, want stupid or goofy poets in America.” And “Comedy is rather dangerous, because it tends to innovate. Hilarity, after all, happens at the edges of taste, whether that taste be social convention or genre aesthetics.” T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock and the rest of the Modernist oeuvre might be to blame for the course of American poetry that has led to our current situation. Eliot and Pound were the flagbearers of a progressive-conservative movement that added vigor and vitality with erudition, intelligence, and innovation to what had become a lazy singsongy American poetry. Their work was serious, high-minded, referential, difficult, and bereft of humor—and it appealed, more and more, to highly educated and affluent readers.

Despite the messy state of affairs today, the poetry world is primed for (and maybe on the verge of) a roaring comeback. And, although many poets seem content to write poems that only connoisseurs and mothers could love, a growing populist movement seems bent on dragging poetry back into the mainstream. (This raises the ancient, sacred question as to whether a poet should be concerned at all with audience. Poets aren’t, after all, writing ad copy to sell whoopee cushions.) Spoken-word and slam poetry have developed a whole new audience for poetry. Their practitioners may produce an uneven brand of verse, but they do, as Lawrence Ferlinghetti recently said, “bring people to poetry” by the barful, and that’s surely worth applauding. Small presses continue to champion poetry and to publish first books by young and diverse poets—a thankless task. During the past 10 years, there has been a baby boom in literary journals. Volt, Open City, Crowd, LIT, Fence, Verse, Insurance, Spinning Jenny, jubilat, Luna, and Forklift, Ohio were all conceived during the 90s. (And my own journal—no pressure!—called Conduit, proudly grant-free since 1993.) Many pursue eccentric visions that are redefining the field of play. Then there are the poets, poets defying the odds—not that they’re making a living as poets, but they’re opening up the whole can of worms. There are some truly wonderful new pioneers at work, such as Gabriel Gudding, whose book A Defense of Poetry and its titular poem deliver the goods—intelligence, music, fun, hilarity, brilliance. See for yourself:

For you are a buttock.

Indeed you are the balls of the
bullock and the calls of the
peacock; you are the pony in
the paddock near the bullock and the peacock; you are the
futtock on the keel and the
fetlock (or the heel) of the
pony in the paddock:

Indeed you are the burdock on
the fetlock and the beetle on
the burdock and the mite on
the beetle on the burdock on
the fetlock of the pony in the
paddock and the padlock of
the gate of the paddock of the
bullock and the peacock.

Thus with you I am fed-up.
For you are Prufrock and I am
Wild Bill Hickok at a
roadblock with the wind in my
forelock and a bullet in my
flintlock. You are Watson I am

A Defense of Poetry is a delightful attempt to save poetry from itself. There are dozens of good poets, young and old, trying their best to change the laws of poetry, the supply and demand of poetry, trying to open it up to uncustomary ways of being. But few challenge the given paradigm so forcefully, so articulately, so hilariously, and while having so much fun as Gudding. Slovenian poet Tomaz Salamun recently wrote in the preface of Peter Richards’s first book, Oubliette, “It is better to be a new young god in American Poetry than to be president of the United States. It is the only divine and democratic position available. There are not many such places in human history.” That’s saying something, and it’s not about economics.

William Waltz is editor in chief of Conduit, “the only magazine that risks annihilation.”


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