Sunday, September 03, 2006

More on John Barr's Essay

While I agreed with Barr in a previous post that the impulse to provide pleasure through the poem, as well as 'instruction' (interpretations of human behavior? a moral? a bit of absorbed wisdom or understanding?), I disagree with some of his other points.

First, that MFA programs are somehow to blame for the problem of the modern audience. If anything, MFA programs have expanded an audience for poetry. Not all people complete an MFA and then continue on the track of being a writer--for some, financial constraints become issues, for others interest is eventually lost, for others it's a sense that they're not succeeding. Yet, many of those people probably remain readers of poetry. And MFA programs sponsor reading series that bring poets to various communities. Many of these series are open to the general public.

Oddly enough, large chain bookstores, such as Barnes and Noble and Borders, have been able to stock many, many more volumes of poetry than one might have found in a typical independent bookstore in the heyday of that institution. The Barnes and Noble in Georgetown has the best and most extensive seletion of poetry I've ever seen in a bookstore anywhere. When I was growing up in Vermont, even books of poetry by relatively high profile authors had to be special ordered from independent bookstores. Amazon, of course, also expands the reach of the availability of titles. The book business has expanded tremendously over the last 20 years. The proliferation of writers' conferences also allows people who consider themselves to be amateur writers to go to readings, meet their favorite authors, and buy books. Poetry books have got to be selling better than they were 20 years ago.

Second, don't be so down on the lyric. Barr says, "the ubiquity of the lyric poem today, to the exclusion of other modes of poetry, is another sign of poverty in the art form." Let's think for a minute about the history of literature. Poetry, with its mnemonics of rhyme and meter/rhythm, predates all other forms of narrative expression. What is the necessary value of the epic, the romance, or the long narrative? These poetic art forms have been eclipsed, partly through development of the printing press, partly through the elasticity of prose to deliver richer, more detail-oriented versions of these genres. The height of epic poetry is really the period from Beowulf to the late 17th century. By the 18th century, the epic is being mocked, by no lesser figure than Pope.

The lyric has proved to be the form most elastic and most lasting. Lyric poems are no longer little trots through formalism: sonnets, villanelles and the like. It may be that the term 'lyric' is being overused to describe the poetries of the last 150 years. We're relying too much upon older methods of poetic classification that extend from Aristotle through Northrup Frye. Isn't it time some scholars invested in some kind of effort to analyze, explain, and classify the directions in which poetry has gone, rather than relying on outdated generic templates?

Third, serious study of an art form with a lengthy continuing practice and a dedicated seriousness has been readily dismissed in English and literature departments since Modernism first entered the canon. MFA programs offer the only real, intensive study venues for the poetries of the last 70 years. Yes, people come to poetry on their own, but many people develop a love for various texts through their high school and college classrooms. A literature curriculum that sees the serious study of literature ending in the 1920s and 1930s is sending the message to generations of students and readers that poetry in its current forms doesn't matter.

In addition, the analytical methods of the New Critics (devotees of Eliot) are still the primary method used when teaching any student how to analyze poetry. Much of the poetry written since Eliot (including WC Williams, really) does not pose questions to its readers in those terms. Why should an outdated method of reading and analysis be applied to an art form that no longer plays by those rules? You don't see the same thing happening in art history. Attempts are made to understand aesthetics and the parameters by which those paintings/artworks should be 'read'. There is no parallel attempt to identify and explicate the terms of reception for postmodern and contemporary poetry.

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