For the Life of Poetry: Creating a Continuum

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Photo by Pai-Shih Lee, Creative Commons, via Flickr.

Is poetry dead? Though we are tempted, let's not tire of the question. Because, sometimes a question that keeps arising is simply another question in disguise. If I could reframe the question as the one that pulses just beneath the surface, I would ask not "Is poetry dead?" but rather "What is dead about our mainline approach to poetry?" And, beyond that, "What is dead about the poetry continuum we offer to the uninitiated and the experienced?"

For a business to survive, or a movement--and I would argue a curriculum subject and an art as well--there must exist multiple entry points, at various levels, for the curious (or those who could be curious, if only they felt invited). Likewise, those who have been at it for a while must experience renewal.

Sure, a business, a movement, a curriculum subject, or an art can survive for some time by catering only to the committed "customer," but in the end there comes an end. In the words of Adam Grant, author of Originals, "...movements need to refresh and update their agenda continuously in order to be seen as cutting edge, authentic, and relevant" and those who "fail to innovate their movement agenda and engage with new ideas...become obsolete and lose touch...." The problem, as Grant sees it, is radicalism--and a view that there is one right way for people to go about becoming a part of things. He uses the example of the failed Occupy movement and asserts that a "99 Percent" approach would have "temper[ed] the brand of the movement and broaden[ed] its methods" which would have made it possible to "gain the support of more mainstream citizens" (p. 126).

Regarding poetry, I am quite familiar with the problems of radicalism in either direction: all-amateur versus all-expert, and I am dissatisfied with both. When those who declare poetry dead declare it dead, they often mean the all-expert side of things. When people who declare it alive-and-well point to the energy of amateur audiences, they are (to my mind) simply pointing to a new movement that is not yet dead. (Yes, I suggest that people will tire of the banal sameness of their own and each other's verse over time--much the way blogging has been falling out of favor partly because people tired of the lack of expression they found, as they traveled from blog to blog to blog and began to have a hard time distinguishing one from another.)

If I did not believe in the power of poetry for life, I would let the question itself die without bothering to offer an answer. But I do believe in the power of poetry. I have seen it change lives, first-hand. I cherish its long history and its possible future. I believe that its reading and writing practices should not settle in either camp--amateur or expert--because to settle in one place or the other is to diminish its power and possibility.

To this, I propose an approach that is a continuum--one that can be re-entered from the beginning, in new iterations, for the experienced. Let each person declare his or her place on the continuum (yes, even in the classroom!), and then let's foster movement across it and then back and across it again. We educators sometimes mistrust that the uninitiated will choose to grow, and we fear they'll choose the path of least resistance. But, in my experience, both students and adults will--when they believe they have a true choice and they feel inspired and are given useful tools (rather than continual tests, either formal or informal)--choose to move along a continuum rather than remain stuck. (The popularity of video games attests to this dynamic.) On the flip side, our youth-oriented culture sometimes misses or discounts the wisdom of the mature and the growth that remains possible until, quite frankly, we are actually dead and gone.

So, what might a poetry continuum look like? Let's use the analogy of plant growth. Though not hotly original, it is useful:

Seed > Soil > Nutrients-Water-Sun > Maturity > Seed

Whether we are a student, a classroom teacher, a librarian, a poetry foundation, a poet, or a literate adult, we can place ourselves on this continuum. The point of such a continuum is in the spirit of the thing, and the key is to think about the quality of what can happen and not just tactics (although they are interesting in their own right).

Seeds

Poetry seeds are small invitations. They are simple and non-demanding. The silly? The banal? The fragment? The movie clip? The humorous? The passionate? The visual? All are allowed. All are scattered abroad without focusing on judgment or analysis. It should take no expert knowledge to participate.

Soil

Poetry soil is a social experience, a community that begins searching for what feels more powerful word-wise, still without a push towards analysis. It involves a level of curation and elevation. We share what we love, we collect it or read it aloud to one another, we "oh and ah" over it. We don't need to understand who the poet is or what he or she did with alliteration or similes. We simply need to feel free to share what we love--even if we don't understand what contributes to the power of our chosen verse.

Nutrients, Water, Sun

These are larger invitations, still without judgment--but not without inquiry. We say to ourselves or to those we lead, "So you love what Whitman did there? How do you think it happened? Was it an accident, or is there some craft behind it?" On the one hand, the amateur will often claim it was all accident, all heart. On the other hand, the expert will assert that it was all craft, all purpose. The truth is it could be either (or more likely both), for any given poem. This is the moment to think things through and question, "If I wanted to accomplish something similar, either through accident or craft, what would it take for me to do so?" Then, choose a path--or ten--and try. Here is the chance to introduce solid ideas about how to write good free verse or form poetry like the ghazal, the sonnet, and so forth. But here is also the chance to introduce ideas on how to become more creative and open, in order to promote more happy accidents in our writing. If there is no interest in writing poems, then a person can go on collecting but add the effort of pairing like with like, based on either theme or form or general feel. Part of this collection can involve copying the poems out, which will allow the hand to seamlessly teach the brain on matters of craft.

Pruning

At last, we admit that some poems (many poems!) could be made better (or that, with certain changes, some poems would be made worse). This part of the continuum is characterized not just by smart revision strategies but also by fun substitutions of words or playful shifts in line breaks, to prove to ourselves that the poem really is (or is not) a work of art--or a work of art that has achieved something specific. In a recent essay by James Longenbach in Poetry magazine, he does just this, pulling apart famous poems and re-ordering their lines. The result is fascinating and enlightening; the practice would make for a nice higher-level conversation in the classroom or in a poets' and writers' group.

Maturity

In the final stage, a person is facile with poems. But the truly mature don't settle for sitting on this side of the continuum (and they certainly don't disdain others who are yet to enter). Instead, they become active in promoting the continuum from its beginning. They also understand that they can find ways to personally move through it again--perhaps branching out to another culture's, or societal segment's, or medium's way of engaging with poetry. Through this re-entry, the mature can cultivate both humility and new delight--something which great poetry itself both asks of us and promises.

Questions for Reflection

1. Where am I, personally, on the poetry continuum?

2. Where is my program, teaching approach, organization, other, on the continuum?

3. If I have constituents, where are they on the continuum? (Not sure? Try a survey.)

4. Have I (or my program, etc.) gotten stuck or felt compelled to settle at one place on the continuum? What are the risks of staying stuck there? If my (or my program, etc's) place on the continuum is a deliberate choice, do I support outside efforts that offer other continuum points?

5. If my program, classroom approach, etc., offers multiple points on the continuum, is this clear to constituents? And, do they have both the freedom to engage at the point that feels best to them and feel inspired (and have adequate tools) to keep moving along the continuum?

6. What accidental blocks between continuum points may there be, for me personally, or for my program, classroom approach, etc.? How can I begin to address these blocks?