Why no one reads poetry anymore

It seems right that during National Poetry Month I’d find myself at Sacramento Poetry Center’s annual conference, sitting in a circle of folding chairs listening to poets talk about the craft: the content and the coupling of words that sing. Those poets included Julia Connor, Melissa Morphew, Jim Powell and Dean Rader.

Julia Connor

During her session about how poetics (structure and style) get into our poems, Julia explained that poetics is a meld of what you want to say with how you can say it. The tools of language come from our community and poets need to be so in service to the art of expressing what’s inside that we’re willing to be a fool, willing to risk our ego, in an effort to honor our intention.

She took us through the history of American poetry—from the Romantics to Postmodernism using a one-page outline—a whirlwind tour requiring seat belts.

Punk artist Kathy Acker
from listal.com

Julia helped explain her thinking by offering this quote from postmodern, experimental writer/artist Kathy Acker: “I write with words which are given me ….I am given meaning and I give meaning back to the community….I am always taking part in the construction of the political, economic, and moral community in which my discourse is taking place. All aspects of language—denotation (explicit meaning vs connotation) sound, style, syntax (order in which words are put together), grammar, etc.—are politically, economically and morally coded.”

Jim Powell, Berkeley poet and translator of Greek and Latin lyric poets, talked about poetry as autopsy (root meaning “seeing for yourself”), as a way to tap into evidence from the culture around us and bring the solidity of the particular into the poem. He said the poets job is to tell the truth as found in the Ten Commandments—Number 9: You shall not bear false witness.

Jim Powell
by Ethel Mann

 When his latest book came out in 2009—“Substrate” (Pantheon Books, $26), his first collection of poetry in 20 years, he told the San Francisco Chronicle: “(It’s) not about depicting some simulacrum of my personal existence. I’m interested in the world, I’m interested in witness. Not in trying to create attractive appearances.”

Most contemporary American poetry is, he told the interviewer, “essentially adolescent. Its concerns never really get past that personal subjectivity. Aristotle would say it’s not even human. A lot of people would say if you don’t get past that level of your personal concerns, you’re not even a human being.”

Poet Melissa Morphew, 2010 winner of the Sacramento Poetry Center book prize for recently released “Bluster” and an English professor at Sam Houston State University in Texas, focused on practical techniques for beating writers block and getting words onto the page. Poet and critic Dean Rader, who teaches at the University of San Francisco, presented in workshop on four contemporary Native American poets that he said everyone needs to know–Heid Erdrich, Orlando White, James Thomas Stevens and Sherwin Bitsui –while poet Tim Kahl  offered a workshop on creating musical backgrounds for oral poetry readings that can be used online. Radio is still one of the greatest platforms for sharing poetry, he said.

David Orr
by Tom McGhee/Harper

The Sacramento Poetry Center’s April event took place while poetry is being presented and discussed across the United States. David Orr, poetry critic for The New York Times, said in a National Public Radio segment that he’s on a mission to bring readers back to this under-appreciated art form. His new book is called Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry.
Orr told “Weekend All Things Considered” host Linda Wertheimer that he wanted to take a broad approach, rather than recommending specific poems. The final chapter of Orr’s book asks what might be the most important question: Why bother? Why read poetry at all?

Orr had a rather surprising answer: “I don’t know that people ought to bother. I think that poetry is one of those choices you make in life that’s … it’s not really susceptible to reasoning or arguments.” Orr says he reads poetry because it helps him negotiate the world around him and understand his own feelings about that world.

Billy Collins, former U.S. poet laureate, thinks the problem of a shrinking audience for poetry is that too many poets show off — writing obscure verses that turn many readers off. In his latest collection, Horoscopes For The Dead, he said he strives to write poetry that all readers can appreciate. “The last thing I want to do/ Is risk losing your confidence/ By appearing to lay it on too thick,” he writes in the poem “Bread And Butter.”

Collins, who has sold more than a million of his poetry books, says he is often asked why “no one” reads poetry anymore. He thinks part of the problem is that the audience for poetry is comprised largely of other poets. “Everyone at a baseball game isn’t a baseball player,” he points out, so everyone at a poetry reading needn’t be a poet. Breaking that circle, he says, would help poets find larger followings.

From the Academy of American Poets – 30 ways to celebrate National Poetry Month — before it’s too late!

Published by Kate Campbell

Writer, editor, photographer, novelist, short story writer, poet.

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