Is poetry today—not the old poetry of Keats or Tennyson or Frost—but the poetry of the present moment, the MFA/Writing Program/Pulitzer/ Bollingen/Nobel Prize/Poetry Foundation/Academy of American Poets/MLA Conference/museum-curated/university-driven/MacArthur Genius Fellowship/National Endowment for the Arts/Naropa Institute/Poetry Society of America/Poets House/Chicago Poetry Project/Bowery Poetry Club/poetry, has this poetry become a church, a religion, one more vast and august and sacred and interconnected than anything dreamed of before?
Defending this vast religious network is natural to those it subsidizes and supports, but what happens to critical thought when all its energy is put into defending a nebulous subsidizing entity that defines itself against all sorts of normative constructs making up what we might call ‘real life?’
Is a member of a church or religion capable of real critical thought, capable of laughing at his or her organization and their own identity created and nurtured by that organization?
Is poetry today a prisoner of ill-humored religious demagoguery, cut off from public life in a luxury motel of perpetuating self-interest, in which poets read and educate each other in a superficial, pyramid-scheme environment of self-bred banality?
What is poetry that exists only for itself? What use is poetry for a select few who define themselves against those who are not subsidized by it?
The MFA poet would, of course, reply, in a defensive rage, that it is not his fault that the rest of the world cares not for poetry and that his MFA existence is not for itself alone. The MFA poet would reply that he fully intends to reach out to the non-poetic world when his apprenticeship and professional training is at an end. For after all, the whole MFA apparatus is part of the culture and receives its funding from the education sector of the nation’s economy, and the whole point of education is to educate and serve the non-educated, and not become an end in itself. The MFA poet and the support system implicitly operate on this pedagogical assumption, but if the rest of society never finally benefits from poetry that it never reads, and if the poetry consumed by its own MFA producers never rises above a self-stroking function, then this whole pedagogical assumption should be questioned, at the very least, and steps should be taken to break down the wall that separates the initiated and the non-initiated, since both have a stake in the game.
The MFA poet naturally does not wish to entertain the possibility that his apprenticeship might become an end in itself, that his training may become a trip down a black hole of self-delusion, with a membership in a prickly, defensive cult.
Because here’s the thing: one can defend the mentorship of the young poet and all the benefits of MFA education, but the fact remains that two separate worlds exist: the MFA world and the real world. Poetry has no public today.
The defensive, humorless posture of po-biz is perhaps a symptom of 1) the vast subsidized, insular nature of po-biz itself and 2) the great divide between po-biz and the real world.
Is it too late to save poetry? Is it too late to de-professionalize poetry and give it back to the people? Will poetry remain a humorless, over-examined, mad-hatter, reactionary cult forever?
This is not a critique of the poetry itself, but of the delivery system. Slam is stand-up comedy/political rant and has about as much to do with poetry as American Idol. Outside of the academy, poetry has no real existence in the grown-up world. Inside of the academy…well, that’s the problem: it remains inside the academy. It never leaves. The non-educated go in to get their MFA— and never come out. Poetry never gets a chance to be tested in the real world, to learn from the real world, to be written in the real world. An MFA-trained poet can go into the prisons and the schools, but this is not the same thing as poety written in the real world; this is merely a good-will gesture, a mere band-aid, self-congratulatory gesture. It is the same gesture made by the avant poet who produces something incomprehensible in the name of ‘progress.’ It is insincere. It is a trick.
This is not to say that well-meaning and good elements do not exist in po-biz today. This is not to say that the faithful do not have good intentions. Of course there is good already in place. But for the good of society at large, sometimes systems must be able to question the very essence of their existence in a good-natured way, in new ways, in ways that playfully expand horizons and question assumptions. Poetry should keep people out of prison in the first place. We must face the idea that professionalizing poetry could be killing it.
This is not a new complaint. It is basically the same complaint Dana Gioia made, and many before him, including Plato and Sidney and Shelley and Keats and Arnold and Edmund Wilson. It is a plea that poetry be truly used for a good end, not a bad one.