Poetry’s “tired engine”

John Barr, president of the Poetry Foundation, writes in the September 2006 issue of Poetry magazine that “American poetry is ready for something new because our poets have been writing in the same way for a long time now. There is fatigue, something stagnant about the poetry being written today. . . . For all its schools and experiments, contemporary poetry is still written in the rain shadow thrown by Modernism. It is the engine that drives what is written today. And it is a tired engine.”

He continues, “A new poetry becomes necessary not because we want one, but because the way poets have learned to write no longer captures the way things are, how things have changed. Reality outgrows the art form: the art form is no longer equal to the reality around it. . . .

“The need for *something* new is evident. Contemporary poetry’s striking absence from the public dialogues of our day, from the high school classroom, from bookstores, and from mainstream media, is evidence of a people in whose mind poetry is missing and unmissed. You can count on the fingers of one hand the bookstores in this country that are known for their poetry collections. . . .

“Because the book-buying public does not buy their work, at least not in commercial quantities, [poets] cannot support themselves as writers. So they teach. But an academic life removes them yet further from a general audience. Each year, MFA programs graduate thousands of students who have been trained to think of poetry as a career, and to think that writing poetry has something to do with credentials. The effect of these programs on the art form is to increase the abundance of poetry, but to limit its variety. The result is a poetry that is neither robust, resonant, nor—and I stress this quality—entertaining; a poetry that both starves and flourishes on academic subsidies. . . .

Barr believes “the responsibilities of the public to poetry are nil. No one should read poetry because they are supposed to. That’s like listening to tony music that puts you to sleep when no one is looking. How often do you go to the movies out of a sense of duty? Rather, I think the responsibilities are all on the part of poetry to its public. . . . .

“No one knows if poetry has a golden age ahead of it any time soon, but it’s hard to imagine one without an audience,” Barr says. “If you look at drama in Shakespeare’s day, or the novel in the last century, or the movie today, it suggests that an art enters its golden age when it is addressed to and energized by the general audiences of its time. In a golden age of poetry the audience will not be just the workshop, where poets write for other poets, or the classroom—both of which have provided crucial sanctuary to poetry during the past half century. Its audiences will lie also in that world of non-poetry readers who come to discover its deep sustenance.”


4 thoughts on “Poetry’s “tired engine”

  1. I like this and agree very much with it. I also think Paul’s paraphrasing of James Navé is accurate. However, I don’t think that poetry slams and academia can alone sustain poetry. Poetry is secretly embedded in music, but that doesn’t exactly help it to evolve either. Something new is needed – but what?

    Any ideas?

  2. I can’t argue with Barr, Poetry is having an identity crisis. There is a huge disconnect between those who write songs and those who write poetry. The poets are anti-rhyme with the onset of rap and have gone into the opposite direction with lines impossible to have any musical component. What if poets write with their amazing eye and musicians put it to music and the two again become fun for the reader and listener. I am thinking more along the lines of what some musical artists have attempted on their own, such as Sting or Bono. There are poets who can speak for the public even better, if they choose to be in the world and not a small private group, relishing their outlaw spirit. It will take poets who are willing to jump outside the box and wave their arms high, back and forth.

  3. Maybe poetry is “tired engine” .. but still people that write put their souls out…poetry it doesn’t have to be something you learn in school …it has to be something you feel, covered in your own words … it has to come naturally …

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