Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press




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Jonathan Mayhew

On this topic I recommend Charles Bernstein's "Against National Poetry Month As Such."

Jonathan David Jackson

Thank you for your comments on the Poetry Foundation.

Jeff VanderMeer

Thanks for this. Bizarre is right--

''More poems should rhyme," says Poetry editor Christian Wiman. "More poems should have meter. More poems should tell stories in accomplished ways. More poems should do the things that people like poems to do.")

So, what? Breed new poets and condition them while young to do such things? LOL!



An interesting article that deals with that very "golden age" when colliers and charwomen and weavers and coopers loved poetry is "The Classics in the Slums." Using England as example, it attacks "standard academic opinion" that "classic literature was always irrelevant to underprivileged people who were not classically educated" (Barbara Herrnstein Smith, President of the MLA, in 1988). It declares that such people were quite aware that great books freed them--this being quite in contrast to "received" opinion. Although often unable to afford works by new writers, they were well read in writers of prior generations.

Here's a bit that I loved:

While studying Greek philosophy at night, Joseph Keating performed one of the toughest and worst-paid jobs in the mine: shoveling out tons of refuse. One day, he was stunned to hear a co-worker sigh, “Heaven from all creatures hides the book of fate.” “You are quoting Pope,” Keating exclaimed. “Ayh,” replied his companion, “me and Pope do agree very well.” Keating had himself been reading Pope, Fielding, Smollett, Goldsmith, and Richardson in poorly printed paperbacks. Later he acquired a violin for 18 shillings, took lessons, and formed a chamber-music quarter, playing Mozart, Corelli, Beethoven, and Schubert—not an uncommon hobby in the coalfields. And he never forgot the electric thrill of pursuing books and music: “Reading of all sorts—philosophy, history, politics, poetry, and novels—was mixed up with my music and other amusements. I was tremendously alive at this period. Everything interested me. Every hour, every minute was crammed with my activities in one direction or another. New, mysterious emotions and passions seemed to be breaking out like little flames from all parts of my body. As soon as the morning sunlight touched my bedroom window, I woke. I did not rise. I leaped up. I flung the bedclothes away from me. They seemed to be burning my flesh. A glorious feeling within me, as I got out of bed, made me sing. My singing was never in tune, but my impulse of joy had to express itself.”

He's poor and blackened and dirty but passionate, a free singing bird.

In 1940, a survey at the non-academic schools where students who did not receive scholarships to go elsewhere and were finished with their school work at age 14 found this: "Even in this below-average group, 62 percent of boys and 84 percent of girls had read some poetry: their favorites included Kipling, Longfellow, Masefield, Blake, Browning, Tennyson, and Wordsworth. Sixty-seven percent of girls and 31 percent of boys had read plays, often something by Shakespeare. All told, these students averaged six or seven books per month. Compare that with the recent NEA study Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, which found that in 2002, 43.4 percent of American adults had not read any books at all, other than those required for work or school. Only 12.1 percent had read any poetry, and only 3.6 percent any plays."

from Jonathan Rose, “The Classics in the Slums,” in City Journal,

Isn't that your golden age?


Marly -- Good point, though it seems like comparing apples and oranges, right? If you survey 14-year-olds today, most of them will have read some poetry, because it's part of the curriculum (however small). Survey adults in the 1940s, and I'd guess far fewer than 84 percent had recently read poetry.

Anyway, on the issue of the specialist versus non-specialist reader: I really dislike this stance, articulated recently by Ted Kooser in a Financial Times interview: "I frankly don't believe readers should be expected to make an effort to learn something in order to understand a poem." He was talking about Eliot and Pound, of course, and what I don't understand is the imperative that a reader MUST understand a poem on their first reading, and if they don't then the poem is to blame (elitist, academic, specialist, ivory tower, etc & etc). Nobody is going to understand "The Waste Land" on their first crack, sure. But nobody is going to solve a calculus problem without training in math either, and nobody is going to understand all the rules of football while watching their first game. If the Poetry Foundation believes in a pluralism of poetry, then shouldn't there be a poetry that rewards deep, careful, and lengthy study?

And is that an "elitist" arguement?

The idea that you have to "get" a poem also reveals a certain method of reading where "understanding" is the ultimate goal. But the act of reading doesn't necessarily require you to break open each poem and show its glue. Sometimes it's better to simply ride the poem, to let it teach you how to read it. There's tremendous pleasure in that.

jonathan Mayhew

The football analogy is very good, because the knowledge needed to follow the game is really quite arcane. It's not something you could explain in 10 minutes to someone who had never seen a football game. That would probably take around two hours. ( I'm talking about just the basic rules, not the subtlety of football strategy.) And yet "ordinary readers" feel threatened by the fact that poetry is not transparently available to them.

Dan Green

I find it hard to consider an era when there were quite so many "underprivileged people" to be a "golden age" of any kind. Would the Poetry Foundation propose to recreate these conditions in order to bring poetry back to the people?

"Nobody is going to understand "The Waste Land" on their first crack"

In my opinion, nobody is going to understand "After Apple Picking" on the first crack, either.


One of things that puzzles me about this topic is how often people seem opposed to the idea that we should encourage people to read poetry and even educate them about what poetry is. Argue with the how we define poetry, or define "good" poetry, yes. Argue with the methods for accomplishing this, ok. But so often, as with opponents of the "One Book" initiatives that some cities have adopted, we have the curious phenomenon of seemingly intelligent, well-read people arguing against reading. They strike me as the literary equivalent of the "self-made man" who, having forgotten who helped and taught him along the way, insists on depriving others of the same assistance.


As an aside, Dan, your use of "social work" as a term of derogation seems more suited to, for instance, the Wall Street Journal editorial page than to your thoughtful blog.

R A Rubin

Hey man, send me some of that money. Now where's my IPOD?

Dan Green

Sam: I have no problem with "the idea that we should encourage people to read poetry and even educate them about what poetry is." But "educating" nonspecialists is not what the Poetry Foundation is proposing. They're not proposing that interested readers be instructed in how to engage with modern poetry. They're proposing that modern poetry be abolished and replaced with something these nonspecialists can already understand.

Jonathan Mayhew

That's exactly right. They want to turn back the clock on modernism and return to a Tennysonian idea of poetry. Nothing wrong with Tennyson, but you just can't go back in time like this.

There have been instances when people who are not "privileged' have had some access to the best literature available. The working-class auto-didact cuture in Britain is one of them. Another would be the Cuban tradition of having a reader in the cigar factory: a guy whose job it was to read aloud to the workers all day as they did their work. These stories are great, but they don't really make up for the fact that cultural capital really was (and is) distributed unequally.


Is anybody really saying that modern sensibilities should be abolished? That's not what I'm getting. Correct me if I'm wrong, but the way I read the story, the ultimate goal here is to have it all: to have both the modern, experimental, academic, whatever you want to call it poetry, and to have poetry of a more traditional sort. Or in other words: to have both poetry for poets and poetry for people.

Jonathan Mayhew

Sure, it sounds nice, "poetry for the people," but there is a reactionary agenda behind it. Do "the people" want to be condescended to, to have poetry dumbed down for their sake?


No doubt, there is an agenda here to "push" a particular kind of poetry, and to oppose another kind. Which means, weirdly, this is in equal parts a campaign for poetry and against poetry. I'm surprised they don't see the contradiction in that.

Also, I'm not a marketing genuius (as the editor of the Journal of Marketing recently informed me), but I fail to see how exposing the public to more envy and backbiting helps promote poetry. See, this is the stuff you hide when you're selling a product. Sheesh.

Finally, just to nitpick, Kooser's poetry column is just plain boring. I'd much rather see the weekly poetry column in the Washington Post more widely distributed.

Still and all: the goal of doing more to promote poetry to a general audience is something I agree with. If we could just leave the politics and the parochialism behind ...


Dan, I didn't think the "golden age" you cited was meant to cover all the world's ills--isn't that expanding the point a mile or two?--but was to refer to a "golden age" of readers. Poor they may have been, but it seems fairly clear that they took joy in poetry and felt more "alive" because of it. Do you say that their joy was less because the world's social ills weren't cured in their time? Should we give up on poetry because they are not cured in ours? Of course you don't think those things...

I'm not arguing with you about what poetry should be or do; I'm just pointing out that it seems that there really was a time not so terribly long ago when poetry did, indeed, have a decent-sized audience that extended from the top to the bottom of social class. The piece I cited talks about, among other things, the reading habits of the "bottom" layer of schoolchildren, and I think that's one of the surprising things: that the bottom layer (of least academically successful children) read 6 or 7 books outside school each month and was, in general, rather fond of poetry. That's the very thing that's so interesting--that they weren't privileged but knew how to lose and find themselves in art, and did so.

Dan Green

Marly: My comment was an admittedly overly compressed way of saying that the circumstances you describe are not repeatable. Working-class readers latched on to poetry, among other "elevated" forms of writing, because it promised to help them overcome those circumstances. Such readers valued reading poetry as a species of self-betterment, not necessarily because it allowed them an appreciation of "art" per se. (Although some of these readers surely did appreciate art.) Unless we can create social conditions in the U.S. by which poetry seems something to aspire to among what was once called the masses (can you imagine that happening?), I can't see that the Poetry Foundation's efforts are going to accomplish anything. And if the PF wanted to try and instruct students how to approach more difficult modern poetry, I'd applaud them (while suspecting that such an endeavor was nevertheless doomed to failure). But they don't. They want poets to condescend to the masses and produce "accessible" poetry, as if addressing this working-class culture that no longer exists.

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