As far as I was concerned, poetry was a magical hermit living in a cave at 14,000 feet. What a pain to figure out how to find him, I thought. But people have quested after him for centuries, so I figured the journey must be worth it.
And a crazy thing happened once I got to about 13,800 feet. I could hear the party. The banging drums! It turns out that hermit is actually a rock star. He’s got thousands of friends, an outrageous sprawling mansion, and the fighting and loving goes on nonstop around the clock.
“No alarms/no birds — salsa six a.m./beneath your window/wakes you. More bounce/to the ounce. Words fly/from windows, spreading summer — /Thinking of a master plan/while your insides echo.”
There have never been more poets writing and publishing at any other time in history than there are right now. That’s due, in part, to the master of fine arts programs in creative writing that have grown up around the nation, but also to the ease with which people can publish their work online, and an abundance of small presses at schools with those MFA classes.
I was thinking about all this the other day and, as an experiment, I spoke with 16 people at my sons’ Shawnee Mission elementary school during dismissal time. I asked, “Can you tell me the names of any poets?”
Robert Frost and Shel Silverstein were the clear front-runners, and sure, most people can quoth the raven. The people I spoke with ranged from 12 (one child was listening to me and wanted to participate) to about 70 years old. I spoke with men and women, and three or four ethnicities were represented.
Only about half of those asked could list even a few poets. Statistics bear out my informal questioning.
The National Endowment for the Arts surveyed adults’ voluntary reading habits (2008-2012) and found that since 2002, the share of poetry readers has contracted by 45 percent, “resulting in the steepest decline in participation in any literary genre.” About 7 percent of adults had read any poetry during the period surveyed.
“Can you think of any living poets?” I went on to ask. Most people just laughed and shook their heads. A few said Maya Angelou. And that was it.
In an essay in the book, “The Monkey the Wrench: Essays into Contemporary Poetics,” poet and literary critic Robert Archambeau examines what he thinks is happening with poetry today.
“The poet, instead of responding to the audience-driven world of the book market, responds only to his peers,with the effect that the audience simply melts away
Recently in Seattle at the Associated Writers and Writing Programs Conference, I ran into one of poetry’s biggest stars right now, Kevin Young. He said he’s “not concerned about poetry’s unpopularity” and cites readings that he’s attended or given that draw audiences in the thousands.
I know it’s a gross exaggeration, but maybe asking Young about the state of poetry is like asking Christopher Elbow if he’s concerned about the state of his collaboration with Boulevard Brewing Co.: That chocolate ale keeps selling out year after year.
Young has published eight poetry collections, one book of nonfiction, has edited eight anthologies and won awards, including the American Book Award. He was a finalist for the National Book Award. He grew up in Topeka and is now a professor of creative writing and English at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga.
Young regularly explores the relationship between music and poetry in his work. In his collection “Jelly Roll,” poem titles include “Rhythm Blues,” “Boogie-Woogie,” “Jitterbug” and “Doo Wop.”
But his new book, “Book of Hours,” only has ghosts of that exploration and is much more focused on what he calls the “skyward quality of poetry,” doing what he says poetry does best: putting the reader in touch with “basic human questions about life, birth and rebirth.”
In times of grieving, Young says, we turn to the basic arts, such as poetry, “because they give us a deep connection.”
“Book of Hours” sorts through the aftermath of losing his father, Topeka ophthalmologist Paul E. Young, who died in a 2004 hunting accident.
In “Rue,” Young grapples with writing about the sudden loss. “How terrible/to have to pick up/the pen, helpless/to it, your death/not yet/a habit try to say/something other than/never, or hereafter,/to praise among the tile — /not your dying — /but having/been alive.”
Poetry renders down feelings and events into a concentrated form. Anyone who reads this book will recognize the emotions and thoughts Young focuses on.
He said that poetry is about people forming communities — and it’s that sense of communing that is evident in this collection. His poems are reassurance that we’re not alone.
In “Flag Day,” Young draws a connection between sifting through his father’s belongings and having donated his father’s organs: “See them spread/like the innards of your house/up for auction across/your browning yard — /To waste/this heart once more/ have you/ here, not silent, only/quiet, as before.”
The second half of “Book of Hours” concerns the birth of Young’s first child, whom he names after his father.
Again, Young gives voice to the raw emotions familiar to anyone who has become a parent. He describes an early doctor’s visit and anxious waiting when there is some difficulty locating the baby’s heartbeat. He tightly holds the foot of his wife, Lawrence native Kate Tuttle, “to keep her here — /and me — trying not to dive starboard/to seek you in the dark water.”
Once the heartbeat is located, the tone of the poem lifts, and Young delivers the music that his poetry is famous for:
“And there/it is: faint, an echo, faster and farther/away than mother’s, all beat box/and fuzzy feedback. You are like hearing/hip-hop for the first time — power/hijacked from a lamppost — all promise./You couldn’t sound better, break-/dancer, my favorite song bumping/from a passing car. You’ve snuck/into the club underage and stayed!”
Writing about babies and dying parents is an ancient art form, but Young updates it with his attention to musicality as well as his modern-father involvement in everything from ultrasounds, to lying awake waiting for a kick, to cutting the umbilical cord.
I spoke with Mary Biddinger, co-editor of “The Monkey the Wrench: Essays into Contemporary Poetics.” I asked her about Archambeau’s essay and if she agreed that the public and poetry are no longer on speaking terms.
“The potential audience for poetry is unpredictable,” Biddinger responded. “It simply can’t be pinned down to a particular demographic.”
Maybe those who enjoy poetry know that it salves wounds and makes the heart soar in ways that other writing cannot, so, as Young said, they seek it in times of grief or joy.
Biddinger says that she’s seen “literary enthusiasts” turn their noses up at poetry — the exact people she would expect to embrace it. At the opposite end, she’s worked with urban kids who find writing particularly challenging and won’t engage in typical schoolwork, but somehow they are willing to be involved with poetry games and exercises.
“Poetry audiences seem to resist definition, and I think that’s a good thing,” she says. And there are audiences — you just have to know where to look.
You can find information about the literary arts scene in Kansas City atwritersplace.org and newletters.org. You’ll be glad when you find the poetry.