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December 1, 2010

The Wasteland of Poetry Criticism

“No one reads poetry anymore” is perhaps the most often voiced complaint from contemporary poets, and despite the fact that what they really mean is “No one reads my poetry,” it is difficult to argue this point when one casts an eye on the barren landscape of poetry criticism in the mainstream media.

Some optimistic readers might say that poetry is in fact wildly popular in contemporary mainstream culture, and that poets continuously sell out stadiums at poetry readings, just like in the days of yore – just look at Eminem! Perhaps it is true that rappers have taken over the role of the traditional bard, a fact touched upon in a recent New Yorker piece, in which Jay Z is compared to Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot.

As tempting and possibly insightful as that theory may be, thousands of “traditional” poets continue to publish collections each year, a fact which the mainstream media seems to be completely oblivious to. Case in point: in the New York Times’ “100 Notable Books of 2010,” fiction and poetry are lumped together in one category, and of the 48 books in that category only three are collections of poetry. Three!

Any reasonable reader will refuse to jump to conclusions. There must be  a logical explanation for this. Perhaps there were only three decent books of poetry published this year? No. The last few months alone saw new books published by Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, lauded Iraq war poet Brian Turner, and William Carlos Williams award winner Matthew Zapruder, to name just a few.

There are two possible explanations and they are inextricably linked: 1) The editorial staff at the New York Times does not believe that the public is actually interested in poetry and therefore there is no point in listing a great number – or even equal number – of poetry books on this list, which is intended in part as a gift guide.  2) The number of competent readers of poetry has dwindled to such an extent that critics willing and able to set the taste in contemporary poetry are virtually non-existent in the mainstream media.

Critics are not, of course, the only factor in whether a book sells or not, but so long as poetry collections continue to be ignored by mainstream critics, there is little hope for regaining a viable audience for poetry.

The critic I.A. Richards’ words, written in 1924, ring truer today: “What is needed is a defensible position for those who believe that the arts are of value….With the increase of population the problem presented by the gulf between what is preferred by the majority and what is accepted as excellent by the most qualified opinion has become infinitely more serious and appears likely to become threatening in the near future….To bridge the gulf, to bring the level of popular appreciation nearer to the consensus of best qualified opinion, and to defend tis opinion against damaging attacks….a much clearer account than has yet been produced, of why this opinion is right, is essential.” ~Principles of Literary Criticism

It is the critic’s job to provide this “best qualified opinion,” and regarding poetry, that opinion is decidedly lacking. It is time for reviewers, readers and publications to end the poetry reviewing embargo.

In Sunday’s blog: 100 notable poetry books of 2010.

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