Current Affairs

Professional Poetry?

The June 18th issue of Time magazine has an article on the attempts to popularize poetry. As Lev Grossman remarks, "In the hierarchy of cultural pursuits [poetry] sits somewhere just below classical music and just above clogging. Grossman points a finger at Modernism, when "poems become less like high-end pop songs and more like math problems to be solved. They turned into the property of snobs and professors." The article focuses on the Poetry Foundation, created by a $200M donation from Ruth Lilly (of Eli LIlly) and their efforts to popularize poetry.

OK, here’s the thing. There’s a multi-million dollar poetry business; it’s called the gift card industry. What? You don’t like gift card poems? Maybe you belong with the snobs and professors. If you want popular poetry though, you don’t have to go any farther than your local Wal-Mart. Hard to swallow, I know.

Then, of course, there are "high-end pop songs" (and low-end pop songs). If, as Grossman suggest, the cultural popularity of poetry wanes during the Modernist period, then it coincides with the availability of recorded music. I won’t go so far as to say that poetry was killed by rock ‘n roll. Instead, I would suggest that if poetry wanes in the mid-twentieth century, its waning coincides with the rise of mass media.

Perhaps we can spend $200M to teach us to rethink what the poetic may be rather than trying to recapture a 19th century cultural practice, when, as Grossman opines, "Writers like Byron and Tennyson were practically rock stars."

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