Poetry: A Laughing Matter

The current issue of The New Yorker has a scathing article on the Poetry Foundation by Dana Goodyear. In it, Goodyear sheds some light on the controversial creation of the Poetry Foundation, which was created after Indianapolis heiress, Ruth Lilly, gave a whopping two hundred million dollars to Poetry magazine in 2002.

John Barr, a former Wall Street executive and the current president of the Poetry Foundation, is portrayed by Goodyear as a profit-hungry executive. Portraits of several other Poetry employees are equally unflattering.

For myself, Mr. Barr's true intentions for the Poetry Foundation and for poetry in general are unknown. He could - for all I know - honestly be interested in bringing poetry to a wider audience. He could also be the "businessman poet" Goodyear makes him out to be, solely interested in poetry from a profit and marketing standpoint. I don't know. I also certainly don't condone the foundations apparent sneaky maneuvering in acquiring Mrs. Lilly's philanthropic "gift".

I am, however, bothered by Goodyear's and a number of critics' disdain for so-called "accessible poetry" which seemingly becomes synonymous with commercial poetry. It reeks of elitism. Poetry apparently shouldn't be available to the masses but only limited to a select few. Not only that but the implication is that poetry has to be "serious" and certainly not entertaining.

J.D. McClatchy, poet and editor of The Yale Review says:

"The aura of mediocrity has settled like a fog over the business of the foundation [...] Children’s poetry? Funny poetry? If those are a way for the foundation to carve a niche for itself, it’s a shallow one and too low down on the wall. It signals a lack of ambition and seriousness that may ultimately be fatal."

What's wrong with children's poetry and humorous poetry? Apparently a good poet has to be serious. Sounds a lot like the Academy Awards - countless awards have been given to less-deserving films because the actors overact, frown, cry, scream, and so on, only for amazing comedies and satires to get shunned completely. It's a travesty in Hollywood and it's a travesty in Poetry-land too.

Since it is W. H. Auden's centenary and I recently read a lot of his verse, I'd like to point out some interesting tidbits of information on our friend, Wystan. He wrote poems of great profundity, and this includes light verse, which incorporated rhythms of traditional ballads, popular songs, dirty limericks, and children's rhymes. He was aware that readers change their minds and one day they enjoy tragedy and in another comedy. In "Letter to Lord Byron", he writes, "Only on varied diet can we live./ The pious fable and the dirty story/ share in the total literary glory."

Auden is, of course, not the only poet or writer to experiment with straight-forward, accessible language, forms, and themes. What about Chaucer, Dryden, and Alexander Pope (who was the first English poet to make a living off his poetry). What of poets like William Carlos Williams, Frank O' Hara, Kenneth Koch, and Elizabeth Bishop? Read Bishop's poem "Sestina" and while it isn't necessarily humorous - I refer more to its deceptive simpleness - she can also be very funny. Aren't Charles Simic and Mark Strand sometimes funny? In terms of contemporary poetry that thrives on high/low culture and comedy, we are graced with poets like Paul Violi, David Lehman, David McGimpsey, and the surreal, McSweeney's-esque verse of James Tate. Last, but certainly not least, is the controversial and popular Billy Collins. His critics accuse his verse of being "poetry-light" and too accessible (Collins doesn't like the word accessible but rather considers his poetry hospitable) but I would be upset too if I was struggling with my works only to find out that Collins had sold, according to Goodyear's article, more than five hundred thousand books, which in terms of poetry sales is mind-boggling. Why is it that we celebrate an artist when they're struggling or relative unknowns and more often than not, bemoan them when they become popular or start making money?

I disagree wholeheartedly with the notion that accessibility equals mediocrity. Humorous or entertaining verse shouldn't be looked at like the red-headed stepchild of poetry. Pushing general readers away will only further the notion that poetry is difficult, boring, too academic, and all the rest of the negative stereotypes that all too often plague poetry. Poetry shouldn't have to hide in the fringes but should take a chance, step out into the sun - pasty skin and all - and go forth into the world and not take itself so seriously.


Anonymous said...

Enjoyed your letter in the New Yorker; wonderful Auden quote.

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed your letter in the New Yorker; wonderful Auden quote.