the toxic residue of puritanism

The answer [to why page poetry has been in decline since the 1970s] is that the work of poets entangled in academia and its publish-or-perish credo has become so insular and cryptic, so divorced from broader society, that they have alienated a generation from their brand of poetry.

Thank goodness for the poetry slam! Poetry slams let writers know that droning a series of oblique literary allusions in a monotone voice does not make you a refined poet - it makes you an insufferable bore. Art does not have to be painful and difficult. That impulse is just the toxic residue of puritanism at work again. Poetry should be enjoyable. Once poets embrace this, they will earn back the privileged placement in the bookstores and in the wider public sphere.

- Chris Gilpin, from "The Living Language of Spoken Word" in the first issue of Poetry is Dead.

And speaking of slam poetry in the wider public sphere, it's quite something to see hundreds of people debate and interpret a poem, as they are currently doing over at CBC.ca.


daniela elza said...

I have to agree. The reading of a poem and the performing of a poem to the listening of a poem could be very different experiences. I have heard too many (even good poets) who make me regret I went to listen.

and we need to stop making ourselves look so smart with the whole theory/academia bit.
I mean, let that be the lining of your coat, let that be there, and who gets it gets it. If the poetry does not work for people who have not studied the theory then it has failed. No?

... said...

Hi there -- on the other hand, I don't think any kind of poetry will 'save' poetry, such as the proponents of various camps claim (and I've heard similar thoughts from poets on opposite ends of the spectrum), and instead suggest that the question is wrong-headed from the start. If poets want to be rockstars or movie stars, then they will need a back-up band or a producer (or both). This is, of course, not to deny there is a preformance element to reading poetry, but the crusade to make poetry accessable/a priority/the greatest thing to the majority of people is more about wanting the poet to be popular.


daniela elza said...

hi Al,

popularity was not on my mind. partly because i do not see "popularity" to be in the hands of the one who creates anyway.

the point i am making: is if the ordinary person can enjoy a good poem along side with the one who can grasp it's numerous levels, plays, and intricacies, is that not a win win situation?

... said...

Yes, I agree that it's a win-win situation. But I don't think slam poetry or any other kind of poetry will result in a huge turn-around for poetry's place in popular culture or on bookstore shelves, nor do I think that should be the motivation for writing (or selling) one particular type of poetry over and against all other types. I don't buy it. But of course I'm not opposed to any sudden changes (for the better) in poetry's acceptance by people. Personally, I like to see all types of poetry being thrown to the world; the more the merrier, I say.


Rob Taylor said...

Hey Al and Daniela,

Thanks for getting the conversation going while I was AWOL for a bit there.

Daniela, I agree with what you are saying about a poem being “win-win” if it can be understood “simply” and also in more multi-faceted, nuanced ways. I think, though, that a good poem needs to connect those two parts – not just provide an “entry level” and an “advanced” reading, but also a staircase between the two (which ideally reaches sky-high, far out of the view of the poet). The steps can be big or small, so long as they are there...

I sometimes wonder about writers placing a premium on being popular. I think we’d all agree that writing solely to be popular will probably lead to you producing inferior poems. Still, isn’t it important to all of us that we make a connection with readers, if only a few? And if you write with a more populist bent (I’m thinking slam poets and “accessible” page poets ala Billy Collins here), then isn’t your popularity a key metric of the success of your writing?