Is poetry dead? Or, in the age of the Internet, does it offer us what nothing else can?

January 13, 2012

There are few opportunities in today’s world for a private audience with a personal hero, but the last appearance of the poet W.S. Merwin as the country’s poet laureate was, for an unusual number of people, one of them. The appearance itself was a rare one: At 82 and living on a former pineapple plantation on Maui, Merwin was well past the stage of his life when he might have regularly stumped for poetry, if he was ever that sort of poet — which he was not. And he was a bit of a recluse.

But Merwin was slated for a rare double bill: In addition to giving a reading for the “closing of the literary season,” as the Library of Congress was advertising it, he would also be holding a book-signing. In front of a packed house in Coolidge Auditorium, Merwin spoke for nearly an hour, reading a few poems, including one of his about words yet to be written, which ends,“it could be that there’s only one word / and it’s all we need / it’s here in this pencil / every pencil in the world is like this.”

After the reading, as he took his place behind a desk on the top floor of the building’s Great Hall, the line was already forming. What happened there, between the poet and his acolytes, was curious. Merwin may be reclusive on principle, but in person he is magnetic — warm, intimate, irresistibly charming. He gazed up at each new face with fresh interest, as though at a long-lost friend.

And each person approached the desk with unconcealed reverence, as though at the end of a pilgrimage. What they wanted to tell him was always, in some way, about themselves: “You speak in my voice,” a woman said. “Your first book was published the year I was born,” another said. One woman asked him to dedicate a book to her friend’s dog, who had recently died; she read what he had written, and her eyes filled with tears.

An hour or so into the line, a man with a soft drawl told Merwin he appreciated his passion for preserving nature; he had been working to replant a family farm whose forests had been cut down. Merwin perked up. “What kinds of trees?” he asked.

“Mostly oaks and ashes,” the man said.

“I’ve had some old trees that have been good friends of mine,” Merwin said. Before him, the line stretched interminably. Well into the evening, the director of the Library of Congress’s Poetry and Literature Center gave Merwin the opportunity to bow out, but he declined. He had been sitting at the desk for two and a half hours by the time the last person left.

***

The idea that poetry is the deadest of the dying arts, an airless attic where overwrought metaphors go to dry up and drop their wings, is perennial. A 2003 column in Newsweek — “Poetry Is Dead. Does Anybody Really Care?” — was bitterly and defensively refuted (mainly by poets), but it tapped a rich vein of suspicion nationwide that the last time poetry really mattered was long ago, perhaps sometime in the ’50s, when poets were literary celebrities and household names, and schoolchildren knew reams of verse by heart.

It’s true that the mid-20th century was a heyday of sorts for American poetry. Poets were published and reviewed in daily newspapers and general-interest magazines, and their book releases were significant events. The poetry scene that most people knew was made up of a few highly celebrated poets (with notable exceptions, usually white and male) writing a few kinds of poetry (“the raw and the cooked,” as Robert Lowell famously described it).

It’s also true that in the years since, that scene has all but disappeared. One significant change for poetry was that 50 years ago, universities were coming into their own, and they offered poetry a home. Poets who became professors found ready audiences and a decent living, and gradually, poetry’s center of gravity began to shift. The number of MFA programs, literary magazines and small presses exploded. It was, in its way, another heyday.

But it was also as Dana Gioia argued in his 1991 essay“Can Poetry Matter?”increasingly isolated and invisible. Over the years, poetry’s connections to life outside the university began to atrophy. Poets were professors instead of insurance executives and doctors and housewives (as were Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams and Anne Sexton, respectively). They read and published for each other. In the hands of scholars, poetry lost its birthright as an art of the people and became the recondite province of tertiary education. “Though supported by a loyal coterie,” wrote Gioia, “poetry has lost the confidence that it speaks to and for the general culture.”

The void left in the general culture began to be filled by other forms: spoken-word poetry; the competitive performances called poetry slams; rap and singer-songwriters; the new popularity of the traditional form called cowboy poetry; open mikes at coffeehouses. The emphasis was largely on the spoken and sung, as well as elements such as rhyme and rhythm that print poetry often eschewed; subject matter was often fiercely political or personal. Some of this, like the work of spoken-word poets Nikki Giovanni and Amiri Baraka, was accepted into the canon, but the rest never really was.

Poetry began to cleave along the same lines as fine art does today: insiders and outsiders, academic and folk. Meanwhile, supporters of print poetry, fearful that it was being ignored — or worse, was no longer relevant — began prescribing it to the public like a tonic. In 1996, the Academy of American Poets designated April as National Poetry Month to provide booster-ish support; Poetry in Motion, an ongoing program by the Poetry Society of America and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, was begun in 1992 as a sort of an affirmative-action program for poems, foisting poems on the captive audiences riding mass transit.

And yet to say that poetry no longer matters is a gross misreading of the facts. The public has not been ignoring poetry. People are not standing in line for two and a half hours to shuffle their feet, speechless, in front of the nation’s elderly poet laureate because they believe that poetry is no longer relevant. They have simply been waiting for poetry to find its way.

***

On a recent weekday in Frances Harrington’s classroom at Hart Middle School in Anacostia, there was a steady volley of balled-up wads of paper into the corner trash cans and a constant mid-level clamor from the desks. The effect wasn’t disorder so much as uncontainable exuberance, which was shepherded by Alan King, one of Hart’s writers-in-residence, a big man with a gentle, shambling presence.

King teaches creative writing at Hart, in an after-school program called the D.C. Creative Writing Workshop as well as in some of the school’s English classes. He had asked the seventh- and eighth-graders of Harrington’s afternoon English class to read a poem called “Appetite,” by Tim Seibles, and use it as a model for a poem about their own cravings. “I have eaten the donuts, the plain-cake, / healthy, whole-wheat donuts,” the poem begins. “…I attacked without reason like a great / Afro-American shark finning the crowded / streets of America — my nappy dorsal / splitting the air, the pale victims / going down fast like Fig Newtons . . .”

“Okay, based on what we know about sharks, are they neat eaters or messy?” King asked the class, explaining the poet’s use of simile.

“Messy,” they chorused. The students hunched over sheets of notebook paper, frowning.

***

The program’s approach to creative writing is surprisingly traditional. It teaches poetry the way poetry has been taught for nearly a century, the way it is taught in MFA workshops across the country: by studying a poem and then writing one. The program’s teachers are published writers who either have or are working on degrees in creative writing. The best of the student work is published in the school’s literary journal, hArtworks.

If the work is sometimes challenging for the students, the program’s director Nancy Schwalb, who started the workshop in 2000, prefers that to the alternative. Schwalb originally created a competitive poetry slam league for middle-schoolers citywide, but she ended up dismantling it. Judging, she felt, was often a popularity contest that had the kids “relying on cuteness or humor” in their performances; more important, they weren’t learning to write.

“The focus on publishing their work, seeing their work in print, really encourages the kids to be more literary, to use more literary devices,” Schwalb says.

A blond-headed girl named Dajanik Brooks stood next to her desk and read her poem aloud. “I eat chips like a Pac-Man game. I crush on seeds like a trash truck.” There was a smattering of applause.

“Can I freestyle?” asked a boy named Myron Jones, hoping to riff aloud. He was rising restlessly up and down from his desk.

“If Mr. King says it’s okay,” Harrington said.

“I’m freestyling!” Myron said. “It’s going to be tight.”

“Okay, you’ve got some strong images there,” said King, as he looked over the shoulder of a boy in the back whose paper was almost entirely filled with writing.

“I get all strikes when I go bowling,” Myron offered, experimentally, from across the room.

Harrington walked over to King’s side. “How much more do you have to write?” she asked the boy.

“A little bit,” he said softly, without looking up. The eraser was chewed off his pencil.

“You can read what you have,” King said.

“I don’t want to read,” the boy said. He crooked his arm over the paper and began writing again, feverishly.

Now in its 12th year, the program is a fixture at Hart; Schwalb has had to open it to students at Ballou High School, just up the road, so that kids could continue to attend after leaving middle school. At any given time, the club has at least as many members as Hart’s football team. That the students have latched onto poetry so devotedly remains, for Schwalb, a mystery. In part, she thinks, poetry provides intellectual challenges that the kids crave — she recalls a class that once became obsessed with the word “languid” and deployed it unsparingly: “Everything was languid that year.” And in part, she thinks, poetry makes a place for an inward focus. To read poetry is to access a vast archive of research on the human condition. To write it is to join the conversation, to find ways of speaking to oneself and to others, and the kids at Hart need it as much as anyone.

About a third of the club’s members are referred there by the school’s social worker “after being thrown out of everything else,” Schwalb says. As it turns out, they are the ones most likely to stay. James Tindle, now 18, was first referred by the social worker at age 11, when he was “one of the bad kids,” he says. “I was always out on the street.” When he joined the writing club, “Everything that I thought I wanted to do with my life changed. I found poetry, I found singing, I found acting, I found dancing.

“This one room changed everything,” he says. “The streets were nothing.”

And then there is the work itself. It is not spoken-word, though it might share some of the same roots. Nor is it a rote imitation of contemporary poetry. Instead, it is something new in the canon: the intersection of poetry’s two disparate worlds.

The richest of the student writing at Hart takes the voices and stories of the writers and the conventions of their teachers and makes something that is bigger than either. It seizes age-old literary devices and shouts through them. It tells harrowing stories with language that is glitteringly surreal (“My real name is midnight”) and bluntly of this world (“We know things, being young / you not gonna understand.”). A poem like “Get Your Elbow Off the Table,” by middle-schooler Davon Ford, has the immediacy and clout of raw speech but a deft command of that speech as poetry. (It begins, “I was raised by get your elbow / off the table, don’t never say you’re / not able, get dat money real faithful / type of family.”) Writing club students routinely sweep citywide print-poetry competitions: This year, 10 of the 40 winners of the Parkmont Poetry Contest were from Hart or Ballou. As much as the kids need poetry, it seems, so does poetry need the kids at Hart.

There was a knot of students waiting by the locked door of the writing club room by the time Schwalb and King arrived at 3 p.m. When everyone was settled, King assigned readers for the day’s poem, an ode to urban summers called “The Block Hydrant,” by Bryan C. Murray. “From this shopping cart, I sell icicles: / to overheated jungle-gymers / who don’t know “please” / just Gimme a ice

The readers delivered the stanzas at a clip. A boy named Rashad Rosenboro made a show of ignoring them, putting on a pair of headphones and fiddling with an electronic device. By the time King assigned the afternoon’s work, a poem on “dealing with the heat,” Rashad had entered into a silent, almost invisible battle with another boy, Joshua Dunsmore, who was sitting next to him.

Schwalb read a poem by one of the students, Aaron Williams, about going for a swim, titled “The Burning.” “The heat has mugged my joy,” it concluded. “I feel lightheaded, navigate / to the promised land. / Now I am set adrift.” Aaron covered his face with his backpack while she read.

Schwalb exclaimed when she had finished. “Aaron, it’s like coming in first in the thousand meter!”

“I run the sixteen-hundred,” Aaron said.

Suddenly, there was a scuffle in the corner: Rashad had thrown a punch at Joshua. In the electric slow motion that followed, King removed Rashad from his desk and began to march him across the room to the door. Joshua, a grim smile on his face, accompanied the pair in lockstep, his hands balled into fists, until they reached the door and Joshua let them pass.

When the room was calm again, Schwalb went from student to student, collecting poems and encouraging people to read. Somehow, without ever having appeared to lift a pencil, Rashad had written a poem, which he had left on his desk.

***

Dang it’s hot!

It’s so hot outside

I don’t know what to do

I wanna go to Alaska

What’s the point I need to die any way

How many people feel like me

I wish I can see these people

How many times have you heard people say what I say—

Can you find my soul?

No you can’t, under all this heat

***

When Rashad was allowed to return, King walked over to his desk. “That was a good line in your poem, Rashad, that last line was really good,” he said, leaning over him.

Rashad flicked his hand as though swatting a fly. “Shush,” he said, staring past King. “Shush.”

***

What is happening at Hart Middle School is also what is happening, on a larger scale, around town. The District is particularly well-placed for such a movement. It has always had its luminaries: Whitman, of course, who worked for a time in the Attorney General’s Office; Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell and Maxine Kumin, who each spent time in town as poet laureate, when that post required a year in Washington. But to an unusual extent, poetry here has lived in the community at large, where small gatherings — of writers, readers, listeners — have tended their own flames. The scene flared up in the 1920s (the Harlem Renaissance had a branch here) and exploded in the 1970s (with a wave of new publications and groups such as Dupont Circle’s Mass Transit poets) and again in the 1990s, as spoken-word poetry and open mikes proliferated.

Today, the varieties are legion. If mid-20th-century poetry was a kind of poetic oligopoly, with a few dominant voices, then poetry today is an open market, where people come to test the value of their wares. There are reading series and workshops for the avant garde, for traditionalists, for social activism and marginalized voices. There is Sulu DC for performance arts of the Asian American Pacific Islanders, Subcontinental Drift for the South Asian American community, Crescent Moon Nights for Muslim poets, and the weekly open mikes at Busboys and Poets.

The drawback to this pluralism is that it can be hard to hear any one voice above the rest. Quantity does not equal quality, of course. And the scene is so fractured, with so many small journals and venues, that the best voices may go unheard by a wider audience. “Poetry today has many different constituencies,” says poet Michael Collier, who teaches at the University of Maryland. “This makes it incredibly vibrant, but it also makes it difficult to describe, and to cohere.” With fewer gates come fewer gatekeepers — the reliable publishers and reviewers who select the best for the rest to read. To the reading public, this can make the scene impenetrable, or simply invisible.

But this “ferment,” as District poet Kim Roberts calls what is happening in the scene today, also encourages a cross-pollination of forms — the traditional with the radical, the formal with the ordinary — is new for contemporary poetry. Whatever this new poetry’s politics or its background or its concerns, that crossbreeding is its strength.

One of the hardest-working redoubts of this movement is the Federal Poets, founded in 1944 for workers for the federal government and has been meeting ever since (members no longer have to work for the government). The group, whose original participants wrote mostly purply, rhyming verse on such subjects as the weather, or dessert, is now an unclassifiable mix of subjects and styles. Some of its members have backgrounds in writing, but others don’t. Most members have been attending meetings for years and some for decades.

On a Saturday afternoon, a dozen members convened for their monthly workshop at the West End Public Library. On this day, the first poem to be workshopped was “Tangerine,” by Michelle Seaman, a prospective member who wore her grayish-brown hair in pigtails. A tango class was practicing in the room next door, and at intervals the tinny strains of the bandoneon came wavering through the wall. Seaman read the poem, a wistful rumination on childhood’s losses, in a sighing singsong that seemed to temporarily hypnotize the room. “Loraxes, each of us, speaking / for the trees. Our little fists raised / in defense of thin-branched chokecherry…”

There was a short pause when she finished, and then the group descended on the poem like a swarm of locusts.

“Loraxes, define,” said Dean Blehert, a lean, bearded man who had joined the workshop in 1983, and who for 30 years wrote and distributed Deanotations, a broadsheet of his poetry, to subscribers worldwide.

“He’s the little character that speaks for the trees,” said Seaman, referring to the Dr. Seuss book “The Lorax.”

“Maybe it needs another stanza to kind of feel out the brother,” said Don Illich, in glasses and a T-shirt with the Chevrolet logo on it, who at 38 was one of the youngest in the room. “Where is he, what is he doing?”

“I see it as a fairly simple poem,” said Blehert after a moment, “and that’s its strength and weakness. The weakness is its fairly obvious message. I don’t know that filling it up with biography is going to do it.”

“Thank you, everybody,” Seaman said. It was her second visit to the workshop. At three visits, she would become a member, and there were muttered allusions to the hazing she would likely undergo the next time.

The group worked through several relatively straightforward descriptive poems, poems conceived around a single notion and its ostensible poeticness — a cave full of prehistoric paintings, for example, or an old bluesman in his shack — fussing with the mechanics of hyperbole and the effects of imagery. The day’s last poem was by Doug Wilkinson, who has a lanky guy in navy corduroys, with a boyish face and graying hair. Wilkinson’s route to poetry had been, even by Federal Poets standards, circuitous. He had grown up in the San Fernando Valley, in a household that was, he said, “against education.” His father, who ran a furniture refinishing business with Wilkinson’s uncle, felt that “men should work; that was what was appropriate.”

Wilkinson’s parents declined to send him to college, so after graduating from high school in 1974, he began working his way through with a series of odd jobs that included transporting diseased body parts for doctors in Hollywood and making artificial trees. (At one point, he needed his mother’s signature on a financial aid form; she refused. “I want to write a poem about that,” he told me, “but I haven’t figured out how to do it without sounding like I’m crying.”) Then, when Wilkinson was 27, his father died, leaving him and his brothers each $60,000, which Wilkinson promptly used to enroll in school full time.

Wilkinson’s studies were a search for what he calls, slightly self-deprecatingly, “the big answer.” “I took everything I could find with ‘religion’ in the title,” he says. “The anthropology of religion, religion and society, the history of religion.” He discovered philosophy when, in a course called “World’s Great Religions,” a student asked which religion was true, and the professor told him that that was a question for philosophers. For 20 years, Wilkinson steered a course through various higher-learning institutions, studying philosophy and religion. He began, and then left, a Ph.D. program in spirituality at Catholic University and a master’s program in Hinduism at American University. For a time, he thought he would become a monk.

But no matter what he studied, “I never found the big answers,” he says. Working as a bookseller, he began to read poetry. He assembled a collection of poems that had an element of spirituality or that grappled with the questions that dogged him. He wrote a poem after breaking up with his girlfriend. He began to think that poetry was the sort of methodology, applicable to life’s unknowables, that he had been trying to find; “a way of thinking.” He joined the Federal Poets and began writing regularly.

Wilkinson’s relationship to poetry has a devotional aspect to it. He keeps with him a folder of his 25 favorite religious poems, arranged in order of importance; the order occasionally changes. No. 5 is “Tasting Heaven” by Robert Bly; No. 3 is “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver, which ends, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”

To support himself these days, Wilkinson is a driving instructor and sells books on the Internet. The demand is mostly for textbooks. In the 10 years he has been selling, no one has ever bought a book of poetry.

The poem that Wilkinson brought to the workshop was called “An Explanation.”

***

When I was fourteen, my brother

sprayed Windex into my eyes

and then laughed. Time froze

and a supernatural being

who looked just like a human being

pulled me aside and told me

that I had a choice

between being blinded but loved by my father

and retaining my vision.

I chose, and time began again,

and I didn’t remember the supernatural being

or the choice, and I ran

and told my father what my brother

did, and my father got mad at me

and told me that I needed

to get along better with my brother.

***

The group seemed underwhelmed by the poem. “Doug comes up with really interesting scenarios, but it just feels flat,” Don Illich said. “The father saying you just need to get along better ...” He trailed off.

“Maybe the brother could shoot a water pistol in your eyes,” someone suggested.

“Well, Windex is pretty good,” said Blehert, and there was a brief discussion about whether that would actually blind you. Blehert stared at his copy of the poem. “The indication is, if you retain your vision, you won’t be loved,” he said thoughtfully.

“Maybe look for a twist that matches the quality of your other twists,” someone suggested.

Wilkinson was sitting very still in his chair at the end of the table. “None of what you have said — is what was meant — by the title,” he said slowly. There was an expectant pause. “The choice that the supernatural being gave him is the explanation — for why his father — did not love him.” The room considered this for a moment, and then someone realized it was nearly 5 o’clock, and people began to collect their papers and push back their chairs.

Outside it was warm, and the sun was slanting across the sidewalks. Wilkinson and Illich and other members of the group retired, as they often do, to the Greek restaurant around the corner, where they crowded into adjacent tables to wind down the afternoon. They talked about writing, but they talked about other things, too.

Lauren Wilcox is a writer living in New Jersey. She can be reached at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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