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Thursday, January 24, 2013

That Again!

It's the age old question that keeps resurfacing like a bad cliche. Alexandra Petri writing in the Washington Post Journal asks, "Is Poetry Dead?"

Ms. Petri writes, "I think the medium might not be loud enough any longer. There are about six people who buy new poetry, but they are not feeling very well."  She says the last time she stumbled upon a poetry reading it was mostly students of the poet who were there hoping to earn extra credit. 

Over the years we've been down this road on this topic more times then there are MFA Writing Programs. The fact that we keep coming back to this same tired old question (can't you think of a more original title?  ... you're a Journalist for Christ's sake!) says to me that the noun in the question is obviously still kicking along. 

It's easy to write these kinds of essays because a good deal of the population gets the joke, just like they laugh about fruit cake jokes. Because it's easy to do because, well everyone else seems to be laughing. And more people the joke then no. But you know what? Companies are still making fruit cakes, selling them, and laughing all the way to the bank. 

The truth is, we are a fractured society. And we are becoming more and more fractured  by the increase in numbers of choices we are offered on a daily basis. What is successful in today's media grabs a smaller share of the market then when people came home from work and could basically turn on the three network TV stations and maybe one or two local independent stations. 

Poetry competes with everything else for it's place in the world. Linda Holmes who maintains the Monkey See blog of pop culture site explained the 2% rule as axiom used in television comedy on a recent NPR program in a discussion centered on the whole impact of our fractured interests on pop culture.  Things that most everyone understood 15 years ago that became the subject of jokes on TV are replaced today by things that maybe 2% of the audience gets.  

Ms. Petri might be surprised to learn that this fall a university level Modern and Contemporary Poetry class was offered on Coursera - that was non-credit,  attracted over 21,000 enrolled.  There are poets such as Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, Sharon Oliver (to name a few) whose books  are selling to broader numbers of people. Poetry continues to get a share of a universal market that is saturated with too many choices and too little time. It's like everything else. 

Is she being too harsh? She asks, hopeful she adds that she is wrong. I think her problem is that she is asking the wrong question. Wrong, because it keeps coming up. The fact that it does, year after year should tell her that  poetry is a survivor.  For poetry to die, language must die, That isn't happening. People are still buying fruit cakes too. I had one over the holiday season. 


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