Essays & articles

Online and Onstage, Poetry Finds New Homes

By Andrew Johnston
International Herald Tribune
October 5, 2000

Not so long ago it seemed that anyone reading poetry was also reading it the last rites. In his book ''Can Poetry Matter?'' the American poet Dana Gioia rued poetry's capture by universities and prescribed strict rhyme and meter as the only cure. The editor Joseph Epstein simply asked ''Who Killed Poetry?'' But while the Epsteins and the Gioias were spreading doom and gloom, poets on both sides of the Atlantic began to find ways to bring readers back to poetry's pleasures. And then for a while there was even talk of a ''poetry boom.''

''Poetry never dies,'' the Australian poet Les Murray says. ''It just keeps finding new homes for itself.'' Boom or no boom, six or seven years down the track the twin saviors of poetry - its new homes - may well be the public reading and the Internet.

Murray is one of the headline guests at Poetry International, a festival beginning in London on Friday, the day after Britain's National Poetry Day. Forty poets from around the world will gather for a week of readings and debates, several of which sold out weeks in advance. ''The public reading is the real hope of poetry at the moment,'' Murray says. ''Far more people will come to a reading than will buy a poetry book.''

Jo Shapcott, a British poet who will be at the London festival, says the public - and not just students or academics - is flocking to readings, ''whether it's something as big and prestigious as Poetry International or the poet who turns up at the local library.''

Andrew Motion, appointed Britain's poet laureate last year, calls the swing in poetry's fortunes ''profound,'' adding: ''It's impossible to separate the conversation about the increase in poetry's exposure from the idea that we live in a culture that takes pride in its diversity. And it's no longer possible to speak about a centered, Establishment language or a poetry to go with that. We talk about poetries.''

That Motion is talking like this is an indication of how much things have changed; in the '70s and '80s, as an influential editor, he was part of an Oxford-educated clique of chaps stationed at the gates of verse. In Britain the change has been fueled by National Lottery money and led by organizations like the Poetry Society and the Arts Council; in the United States the initiative has been taken principally by individuals.

The American poet John Ashbery points to the work of Robert Pinsky, who was U.S. poet laureate from 1997 until this year. ''During his laureateship he made poetry much more visible. He published an anthology of people's favorite poems, he appeared on television and traveled around bringing poetry to the public.''

Ashbery, perhaps the most acclaimed poet among this year's Poetry International guests, is wary of the hype surrounding poetry's resurgence. ''I don't think rock stars have anything to worry about. But my impression is that poetry is a more respectable cottage industry than it was a decade ago. '' He is cautious not to draw too many conclusions from the sheer amount of poetry available. ''It's a kind of parallel world, and the poets themselves don't too often break out of that world. Some of the more notable poets coming to Poetry International, like Sharon Olds and Billy Collins, have a more general readership than the coterie of poetry lovers.''

Olds says poetry's crossover is partly due to people's need to write it themselves; poetry is used as therapy in the programs that her creative-writing students have been conducting for 15 years in New York hospitals, prisons and high schools - ''poetry as a way of making something of and dwelling with what is real and poignant and important that is going on in people's lives.''

One of the crucial ways in which poetry has been breaking out of its bubble is via the Internet. ''Poetry and the Net are absolutely made for each other,'' Motion says, ''just like poetry and radio. Both radio and the Internet have that strange mixture of intimacy and public address which poetry itself has.''

The Internet ''has the potential to change poetry in a very marked and wonderful way,'' Les Murray says. ''On the Net people can have the text and the voice at the same time.''

Web sites like the Atlantic Monthly's Poetry Pages, which offer both text and audio versions of poems, are proliferating. ''One of the things I'm establishing as laureate,'' Motion says, ''is a poetry archive which - funding permitting - in about two years' time will be a sort of Net archive containing recordings of something like 500 poets from around the world.''

Shapcott says the Internet is also changing poetry through online communities. ''Poets have always got together to share poems and talk to each other. If you were Wordsworth you might have had to walk 30 miles to do it. Now my poetry group, through e-mail, is someone in Australia, someone in America, someone in India.''

It seems to be a given now that poetry has staked a new place for itself. But the poetry world is bitterly divided on whether all the noise means that good poetry is being written. Michael Schmidt, editor of the influential British magazine PN Review, regularly editorializes against talk of a poetry boom, pointing out that poetry reviewing has diminished. Motion cautions that poetry's exposure has done little for its sales. Everyone mentions Oxford University Press's ignominious dumping of its entire poetry list last year.

The spread in Britain of ''residencies'' for poets in such unlikely places as zoos, football clubs and tattoo parlors has triggered worries that poetry is turning into something of a circus. One school of thought says anything that raises poetry's public profile is good; another worries that poetry is being harmed by a focus on poets instead of poems. The two sides will slug it out at a Poetry International debate next week called ''Poets 'r' Us.''

Lavinia Greenlaw, a British poet who will take part in the debate, says it is a mistake to promote poetry as something ''instant and accessible and immediately applicable to one's own life.'' A better way to interest people in poetry, she says, is to accept that ''it really is unlike anything else - it's something that you really do have to look at, contemplate, stay in front of for a while.''

''The beginning of the 20th century was a much better time for poetry than the end of the century,'' Greenlaw says. ''I think the innovations being made by the Modernists were genuine and powerful and lasting. Reading that work, reading Ezra Pound or Wallace Stevens or Marianne Moore, it still seems fresher than a lot of what's being churned out now.''

Perhaps it's in the peculiar nature of poetry that however much spin you put on it, the task of judging whether it's any good will always fall to the next generation. A recent New York Times list of the 20th century's best American poems featured few from the last 40 years.

Poetry is far from dead, as all those public readings and Web sites testify. But not until long after those poetry posters have peeled from walls and Web links have expired will anyone really know whether we were living in a good time for poetry.

© International Herald Tribune