Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Poetry Under the Monocle

I'm a little tardy getting to this, but The New Yorker's Dana Goodyear has a nice piece in the February 19 & 26 double issue on Ruth Lilly's jackpot gift to Poetry magazine. In it she explores the recent dust-up over Poetry Foundation president John Barr's essay "American Poetry in the New Century," which I previously wrote about here. Goodyear is clearly skeptical about Barr's background (among other things, she repeatedly and colorfully references his personal wealth) but her article is more open to his ideas about poetry in America than the raised-eyebrow paragraphs that introduce it. She also provides an interesting account of the little-mentioned lawsuits that emerged with Lilly's gift.

Goodyear's description of the controversy following the publication of Barr's essay wryly captures the shocked-and-appalledness of many in the poetry community ("The poet Robert Wrigley... wrote a letter, which, in twenty rhetorical questions, performed back flips of outrage and stuck a landing on the single-word sentence 'Bullshit,'" she writes in one part). Many of these critics have valid points and concerns, but sadly the picture of the poetry world that emerges is an ugly one: sneering, defensive, elitist and entitled.

Which brings me back to what I first wrote about Barr's essay and the scorching response. What's everybody so afraid about? It occurs to me that much of the passion may stem from the fact that poets are, more often than not, the starved dogs of the cultural community, quick to snap at those who near their small territories or eye their picked-over bones. And with Lilly's gift, the Poetry Foundation is suddenly a big dog to contend with. Ergo, hackles.

What remains to be seen is how Barr and the Poetry Foundation handle their newfound strength and bulk. I, for one, don't see anything wrong with the initial steps they've taken to bolster the prominence of poetry in American culture. I wouldn't want to see every poem become a Billy Collins poem, but trying to encourage poetry that appeals to the widest possible spectrum of readers seems laudable enough. Poets and poetry critics often seem surprisingly dualistic and unambitious in their conception of what poetry can be; accessibility and innovation, they presume, are fundamentally incompatible. Yet in his time, Robert Frost wrote poems that not only commanded large audiences but also daringly advanced poetry as an art form. Why shouldn't we strive for the same?

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