Tag Archives: Allen Ginsberg

Why Do We Still Teach Poetry?

In Creative Writing departments across the country, students are still being taught poetry at the same rate as fiction or other creative genres, and yet, the readership (at least in my perception) is not comparable. Why is that?

So, is poetry dead yet? This gets talked about a lot, and no, poetry is not dead yet. It still has a lot of life left in it, but I’m afraid that if we continue down the path we are, poetry will die out sooner than it should. Thing about it is, in my estimation, poetry has been dominated and defined by those inside the walls of academia for some time. Sure, there are some bad teenage poets, lyricists, and so forth, but “real” poetry is the sort of avant garde stuff that is vomited forth by academic institutions and pushed in front of the blind (or uninterested) eyes of the public.

I’m making some broad statements here, but by and large, it seems that poetry, to the average American, is quite dead. Walk into a Barnes & Nobles or some other mainstream bookstore. Now find the poetry section. I’ll wager it’s as small as any other section of the store. Why? Does Barnes & Nobles hate making money? Is it that they’re trying to hold poetry down with their evil corporate lusts? No. It’s that people aren’t buying poetry anymore, it would seem.

Why is that? Well, I’d imagine if you looked at household bookshelves across the country, you’d see a lot of novels, some biographies, some short fiction, and a couple books of poetry. Not much though. My bookshelf only has collections of Donne and Rukeyser, sorry to admit. We want to blame the public, that they’re too ignorant or interested in easy, fast fixes to appreciate poetry, but I think that’s just an excuse. My guess is that we left the public out of the conversation. I mean, the internet is perfect for the poetic form, and yet, I don’t see a good use of it (maybe because it’s still considered a virtue among English types to be luddites).

Not only that, in my reading of academic poetry, so often it comes off as stilted, pretentious, and nonsensical. Again, this is not always true. There are some wonderful modern poets, but I think in the mind of the average American reader, we’ve got that elitist taste in our mouths about modern poets. It may be unfair, but if poets care about their form, they’ll consider this idea. You know, it’s not a shame to sell poems or books. It’s OK. It’s a pretty good indication, in our system at least, that you’ve connected with people. Embrace it.

Are you going to get to teaching? Yes, yes, I’m getting to it. So, as I research Creative Writing programs across the country, it has become apparent to me that poetry is taught with just as much weight in our higher institutions as fiction, and yet the readership does not come close to matching. I mean, at my alma mater, there was a three-person full-time faculty … all of them were poets. Should institutions consider reflecting the readership of the world outside of their very thick and soundproof walls? I’m cruel at times to academia, but it’s because I care. I care about poetry as well. I do not hate it. In fact, I started as a poet. “GASP!” I know.

I’m not here to tell schools what they should do. I just feel like there’s this desperate attempt to be ahead of the population, avant garde, shocking and new, but maybe it would be a good idea to meet common people where they are. It reminds me of when I am walking my dogs … they’re ahead of me, but I’m leading them. They pull and pull, and they guess at where I will turn next, but really, all that happens is they turn back and forth back and forth, and I have to gently pull them in the right direction.

Sum it up. I’m a very busy man. Are we teaching a dying form? Maybe. Just seems like we need to either rethink how we teach poetry, or perhaps we need to consider having programs reflect the desires of the book-buying world. Because that’s what we’re interested in, right? Making an impact? I mean, who are we trying to reach? Other academicians? Well done. We’ve captured that market. Why not the average Joe? Give him a chance … he’s not as dumb as he looks.

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