This past week, Donald Hall was named the Library of Congress' Poet Laureate Consultant, to give him his full title, and he arrives at a time when poetry in the States is at some sort of crossroads: there are more distribution channels for poetry than ever before, but not one of them is wide enough to reach anything like a mass audience. Today, the poem, like so many other art forms, is marginalized, a handful of True Believers carrying the torch while the rest of the world shrugs and goes on. And where True Believers are involved, there are inevitably turf wars: "jackals snarling over a dried-up well," Cyril Connolly once said.
But is the well truly dry? A thousand books of verse appear each year, and even if most of them wind up remaindered, clearly somebody is buying this stuff, and it can't be just the True Believers: there aren't enough of them. (As a test for myself, I ran down the list of Laureates, starting with Joseph Auslander in 1937, and I was disturbed to find that I recognized, at best, two-thirds of the names and further, that I could connect actual poems I've read and/or heard with only half the names I recognized. I think it's a safe bet that I don't qualify for True Believer status.)
It doesn't help, perhaps, that some things identified as poetry don't actually look like poetry: the trend toward blanker and blanker verse has made all the stuff you learned about scansion and rhyme schemes more or less irrelevant. Of course, not all music is 4/4, not all paintings are realistic, and not all sculptures look like things you recognize, but for some reason, poetry that doesn't at least have some sort of meter seems like prose without word wrap.
Or does it?
Snow fell in the night.
This is quite obviously a poem, if only because if you said "stuporous thanks in the aquamarine morning" in a prose passage people would accuse you of trying to be excessively poetic. But this particular poem ("An old life" by Donald Hall, as it turns out) compresses a tremendous amount of imagery into its twenty lines, and the lines break where they do for a reason. It was, I believe, clearly intended by Hall to be read out loud, and the breaks fall about where your voice would when you speak them; and I didn't realize this until I read it out loud. Poetry, after all, is an aural medium, far closer to radio than to print, as any child who's learned a nursery rhyme understands and you can bet he didn't learn it by reading it.
Which brings up the inevitable question of the poetry slam, the seemingly-weird coffeehouse genre that sprang up in the middle 1980s and which tends to be scorned by the literati, probably due to Not Invented Here syndrome: how dare these amateurs pre-empt our art form? While my limited exposure to the slam so far hasn't persuaded me that it's the ultimate expression of contemporary poetry, I'd argue that slam poetry is a legitimate oral history, with the not-inconsiderable benefit, due to time limits, of having to get to the point. And since it's outside the purview of the Experts, it doesn't suffer the curse of overanalysis.
Did I say "curse"? I did:
I ask them to take a poem
Which usually means they're wrong.
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Copyright © 2006 by Charles G. Hill
"An old life" copyright © 1995 by Donald Hall. All rights reserved.
"Introduction to Poetry" copyright © 1988 by Billy Collins. All rights reserved.