Live Discussion Excerpt: Dirda on Poetry

Sunday, April 20, 2008

An excerpt from Michael Dirda's online chat, conducted every Wednesday at 2 p.m.

Question: "April is the cruellest month" -- perhaps that's why it is National Poetry Month. If people are really reading less today, has poetry become an art form for an elite audience? In the 19th century, narrative poetry was a popular art form. There is some argument now that poetry is not a narrative form anymore but more looking "through a glass, darkly." It certainly seems as if it has a less prominent place in our culture now. Has it become too narrow in its readership? And, are there poets writing today that you think might last?

Michael Dirda: I suppose that once literacy was extended to all classes, poetry started to become an elite activity. Before that, people would listen to bards and rhapsodes or village reciters for entertainment and diversion. But when stories in magazines took over that function, and then other media, what was poetry left with? It could still comment on the state of the universe ("The Waste Land," "Recessional"), but more and more it started to comment on the state of the poet. . . .

I think most people tend to reread the poetry they learned when young, and somehow they forget or fear to look at much contemporary verse. That said, now and then a poet breaks through: the late Jane Kenyon, for instance, or Billy Collins. Sometimes a poet's personality makes him or her popular with readers: Joseph Brodsky or Sylvia Plath. In our time, though, we have had some wonderful American poets -- Bishop, Lowell, Jarrell, Berryman, Justice, Hecht, Ashbery, Koch, O'Hara, Wilbur. Among younger figures, well, everyone will have his favorites. Reading magazines like the Kenyon Review (whose poetry section is edited by the fine poet David Baker) and The Best American Poetry series (edited by David Lehman) and following small presses like Copper Canyon and Graywolf will keep you abreast of what's happening (try the work of Ann Townsend or Dana Gioia). Oh, and of course there's Poetry magazine, now revitalized under Christian Wiman. There are also poetry blogs. Certainly their popularity, like that of slams, attests to the ongoing appeal of poetry to all kinds of readers. ยท

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