The (Tired) Question of Poetry’s Relevance

Listening to NPR the other morning, I caught Scott Simon interviewing 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gregory Pardlo and became incensed.

Pardlo availed himself admirably. No surprise there: he has been professional and warmly erudite in every clip of him I have seen to date. The interview, short as it was, was plugging along just fine. And then at the end of it, Simon hit a Pulitzer Prize winner who was just awarded $10,000 dollars for publishing an 80-page book of poems with a rote and asinine question about the validity of the entire art form in which the winner participates:

SIMON: What’s the value of poetry in the 21st century?

Well, it’s going for at least $10,000 today, Scott Simon.

Most interviews and articles on poetry share this wearisome vibe, where the poetry is interrogated for being boring or charged with having no pulse at all, for being a despised unit in high school through time immemorial, for wasting our cultural bandwidth by being having the nerve to be present. It is frequently reduced and trivialized at even the highest levels of interaction with references like “…the small poetry community” or “Is spoken word poetry?” or “What’s the value of teaching poetry in the classroom?”

To the question of its value, one could answer that one on their own by concluding that if a poet is sitting there being interviewed by a national media outlet about poetry for the umpteenth time, then it must have enough value that we can all move past questioning its merits as an art form. It’s the same tone regardless of the level of the inquiry, and it generally means the same thing at its core: why should anyone care about poetry? Isn’t poetry a silly pursuit? Why commit any effort to something that you can’t make a living at? The question is practically a genre of journalism: It’s April. Roll out the poetry template, and make sure to put some extra snark on the question.

It’s beyond wearisome, to have the relevancy of your art constantly questioned, to have your life’s work made the butt of exasperated jokes by people who know better. Almost everyone in a position to ask about the relevance of poetry has had some college, maybe even taken a class, and almost assuredly been made to engage poetry as homework if nothing else. They may not like it – I don’t like a lot of the poetry I encounter either – but it’s no reason to be dismissive on the world stage, especially since poetry has been around longer than every newspaper and radio show in existence, and by all accounts is more popular than it has ever been. And if that sounds too didactic, I’ll settle for pointing out that it was part of an Olympics opening ceremony, a Tony-winning Broadway show and the last two presidential inaugurations just in the last thirteen years.

So it’s not exactly an art form that has resigned itself to renting free meeting rooms out of the local library for readings or appearing in movies about inner city teachers fighting the good fight.

To make matters worse in this particular instance, we’re talking about NPR. NPR has been known to broadcast poetry and connect its audience with poets, even when it’s not National Poetry Month. It may be the second largest American media outlet to do so with any regularity after PBS. I’ve personally received a few nice checks from them over the years for the recording of poems. It was work not presented as part of a poetry program. It was just something the then-producer thought would be a nice touch to add to the regular flow. America is in no danger of my ever becoming a U.S. poet laureate or a Pulitzer Prize winner or even an instructor of poetry, and yet NPR still reached out to me when I was admittedly several levels lower on the poetry food chain than I am now.

To be clear, I have no real expectation of the media, generation after iteration after deadline after agenda, to fix this impression. You can’t make someone value what you value or know something they simply haven’t engaged in earnest. No, this one’s up to poets. Poets should start standing firm in their legacy when faced with these questions, change the answers that we give, stop instructing the mildly amused and start holding interviewers accountable for respecting poetry, not being glad they asked at all, no matter how dismissively.

In many ways poetry isn’t special, meaning it isn’t vastly different than other art forms in concept or goal. Poets are inspired by observation in the same way that musicians and painters are. Poets have to apply ass to chair with the same diligence as novelists. Poets are not intrinsically profound, nor is it a prerequisite for participation. While there may be a great deal of mystery in a poem, there is nothing particularly mysterious about the process of creating poetry. There is no secret path that poets alone traverse to generate a poem like Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago” that Chuck D does not also take to compose the lyrics for a song like “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” or Bill Watterson uses to draw four panels of Calvin and Hobbes. So questions about poetry that make it sound alien or like an unearthed relic are either poorly researched or asinine.

Poets could learn a lot from Frank Zappa in this regard.

Zappa_smoke

Rock legend Frank Zappa did not suffer fools, not in his band and not in interviews. He never pretended to like having to sit in front of people making small talk about the “weird” names given to his children. He did not make a habit of answering questions that he and a thousand other musicians had been asked a thousand times if the interviewer clearly had some insight into what the answer might be. He acted like an independent spirit because he was: he owned his business, his studio, and his art. It is part of the reason why he felt one hundred percent comfortable treating ridiculous interviewers like they were being ridiculous. It didn’t matter how many people were watching or who was doing the asking: if you asked him something rote, he made it clear that you were being a boring person and probably doing your job poorly. Zappa was, in short, anti-stupidity. It’s the main reason why his interviews still seem fresh in an increasingly cynical world: his disdain for stupidity challenges even the new and modern viewer to be a better person, or at least a better informed person. Poets could learn a lot from someone who thought it was rude and silly to ask the same questions over and over again, not because he was better than anyone, but because such exercises didn’t serve any useful purpose. If no one had heard of him or his music after 25 years in the business, they were unlikely to do so because David Letterman told them he had a new record out. No one learned anything by watching him answer the same questions over and over again about his hair or his children’s names. And as the insipid questions came – “Does humor belong in music, Frank?” “Is it true you don’t do drugs? Still?” – Frank looked down at the floor or off into space, tapped a cigarette into whatever ashtray was handy, and waited until the show ran out of segment time so he could get back to the real work of creating for people who actually wanted to engage his art.

So the next time you’re in a position to be asked what’s the relevancy of poetry, consider Frank Zappa and his glare or his one-word responses or the way he toys with weak interviewers. We don’t have to keep starting every conversation about poetry with a faux apology or like no one is encountering poems regularly. Online media outlets are making them go viral every day. People are engaging with poetry more than ever before and the media keeps talking to poets as if no one’s ever heard of a poem before. I would pay good money to hear a poet Kanye-snap on a reporter after being asked “Do people still care about poetry? Is poetry still relevant?” I imagine the soundtrack to my particular psychotic break would sound something like this:

“Well, you started this interview off by suggesting, offensively, that poetry is pretty much just a unit in class that high schoolers hate. Got to be honest: I don’t remember seeing journalism or radio broadcasting as part of the syllabus. Still had to read ten poets to graduate though. Guess it was more relevant than AV Club.”

Or how about this reply:

“Do you like songs? Because songs have lyrics and lyrics generally fall under poetry. Pretty sure this show started with a song, or that your station has at least twelve hours a day dedicated to playing them.”

Or let’s say you’re on Fox News:

“Do you like the Bible? LOT of poets worked on that one, and I’d say it’s pretty relevant. I mean, you’re basically reading verse when you follow along in church, so maybe you’re attending a poetry reading every Sunday and you don’t know it. And think about all of the laws created and people killed in the name of the Bible. That’s a heck of a mixtape, my man.”

Or ESPN:

“Do you think it’s a coincidence that when Steph Curry does something particularly amazing that we call it ‘poetic?’ Am I not dunking the right baseball into the end zone right there?”

Or if you just want to go for broke and focus on, you know, art:

“Do you ask musicians why people don’t care about music? No? Sounds kind of silly, right? And who doesn’t like a good painting now and then? Even a fake painting, like a print. People love prints. Are prints art? Because this book I wrote is pretty real and it costs at least as much as an art print. My book of poems is as valuable as the art print I saw in your front office, so I guess that makes it pretty relevant. You know, as art. I noticed you didn’t have any poetry books on the coffee table out front. I don’t think that’s poetry’s problem, though, right? Just who is in charge of your coffee table library around here? Do they know that Poetry magazine is over a hundred years old? How old is this radio station? Think it’ll be here a hundred years from now? Does that mean terrestrial radio is fast becoming irrelevant, or just this station?”

You get the idea. I trust you can come up with your own When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong moment. Stop letting people walk all over poetry to appease some made-up ignorance on the part of an audience that’s probably more hip than they get credit for. Treat the ridiculous question and the world weary tone with the scorn it deserves for questioning the tenacity, relevance and value of poetry.

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4 thoughts on “The (Tired) Question of Poetry’s Relevance

  1. Hi Scott,
    The responses you wrote were exactly what he was trying to get. As a former journalist, I can tell you we ask a very simple question to elicit exactly the kind of answers you gave in your examples. To have the poet or musician or writer or whatever tell the audience, in his or her own words, why their art is as relevant now as it ever was. Or is more relevant now. Believe me, there were people at home listening and groaning and remembering the poetry they hated as a child, so this is a chance to open their minds, to help them see how it may be relevant to their lives. Perhaps make them appreciate it more. If Scott Simon hated poets/poetry, he wouldn’t have bothered having him on the show at all.

    • Then he should have asked THAT question. “Why is poetry relevant to inner city children/bored adolescents/millennials/people who hated poetry in high school today?” “What do you see in online forums that makes you glad you’re a poet?” “Which of your more recent poems do you think would be a good place for icc/a/m/pwhpihs to start?” “How can people overcome their hatred for poetry that bad teachers instilled in them?”

      For the love of god, journalists can certainly come up with questions that leave lots of room for riffing on the part of artists (that’s kind of what they do, right?) without asking the exact same lame questions over and over, which more or less indicate that they’re mailing it in. And a good interviewer will elect responses that even the interviewee didn’t think about. But it comes down to preparation, and after a lot of years watching and listening to interviews, most aren’t prepared. I cannot tell you the number of author interviews I’ve heard that clearly indicate the interviewer hadn’t read the book beyond the back cover.

      Ask the right question to get the answer, don’t expect the subject to do your work for you.

  2. Great post. It brings up a huge point. I feel that we have fallen away from knowledge of our selves. In poetry we may express our emotions. Yes we can in prose too however, there is something in poetry. I wish schools would focus on the written word more. I feel instead they focus on test scores. Being able to express yourself in the written word is a good skill to have. I could never do rhyming poetry but that didn’t stop me from trying. And now as an adult I have a handful of poems I have memorized to use as a calming, focusing technique.

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