I’m a Poetry Populist
Before I started doing my weekly column for The Rumpus, my contact with the poetic blogosphere was very limited. I linked to Mark Scroggins’s Culture Industry and read his posts more because he’s a colleague of mine than anything else. And even though I’m now the Poetry Editor for The Rumpus, I still don’t really consider myself part of the online poetic conversation. I don’t have time for it, for one, and frankly, I don’t have the stomach for it either.
The big thing I’ve learned from having to discover this world of poetry online is just how testy it can be. There’s nastiness in poetry that rivals the ugliness in the political blogosphere, and over what seems to me to be considerably less important stuff.
I’m convinced that at least part of the reason for this is due to some pretty hardcore genre policing. Lots of people seem determined to carve out a claim as the “new direction of poetry” or “the only serious poetics,” as though there isn’t room enough in the genre for multiple serious directions for poetry.
Obviously, I think there’s a problem with this attitude, mostly because what other people seem to see as uncrossable divides I see as differences in taste. And differences in taste, it seems to me, aren’t worth fighting over. There’s room in the genre for all sorts–even for stuff I don’t get, and more importantly, stuff I don’t like. I’d like to think that I’m not arrogant enough to determine what is and isn’t a poem. Some people don’t have that problem.
I’m taking a chance here, going after something Marjorie Perloff says–after all, she’s a respected scholar and theorist, and could probably destroy me in a debate on pretty much any subject, with the hip-hop lyrics of the 80s perhaps being the exception. But I am going to take issue here with what she says about Elizabeth Alexander’s Inaugural poem, even though I was no great fan of it either. Perloff asks “What does it mean that we have a society that would consider that a poem?” Well, I’d say it means we have a society that doesn’t get an awful lot of exposure to what you consider poetry. Professor Perloff argues that “Praise Song for the Day” wasn’t a poem–indeed, she says “there’s nothing about it that meets anybody’s criteria for poetry.” Okay, so I’m nobody.
Look, I think one can reasonably argue that Alexander’s poem wasn’t very challenging, and can certainly argue that her performance of it left a lot to be desired, but I think it’s a little ridiculous to claim that it wasn’t a poem. It certainly had formal structure and meter–those elements might not have been as pronounced as Professor Perloff would have liked, but they were there nonetheless, and when the interviewer, at about three and a half minutes in told her of Alexander’s appearance on the Colbert Report, where she explained the form of the poem and the intent of it (and he did so in an equally sneery, insider way), Perloff dismisses Alexander’s statement as pretentious. How’s that work?
But I’m a populist on these matters. I think there’s room for Elizabeth Alexander’s poetry–which speaks to a particular audience–and there’s room for what Professor Perloff considers poetry and lots more besides. I want to widen the scope of what can be considered poetry, not narrow it. Perloff argues that poetry has been harmed by this, that it has been denigrated, removed from its place atop the world of the written arts. I think that poetry is already speaking to such a small audience that to further narrow its appeal is to make it even less relevant. But more importantly (at least to me), I don’t think anyone or any group ought to assume the power to determine what is or isn’t poetry.
Say you don’t like something–sure. Say it lacks vigor or intellectual depth–fine. Say you just don’t like it–awesome. There’s way more poetry out there that I don’t like than I do. Just because I accept that something is a poem doesn’t mean I’ve put my personal stamp of approval on it. But what Perloff and people who agree with her are saying is that there is some objective standard by which poetry can and must be measured, and that they are the arbiters of that standard, and I can’t accept that.
Fortunately, I don’t have to. Poems are still being written, books are still being read, poets are still taking part in the vibrant world of poetic expression, whether or not everyone approves of the kind of work they’re doing. And I hope they (and I) keep it up.