Can a public for poetry be revived by competition? What is competition, and why do so many feel that it violates the spirit of aesthetics, literature and art? Prizes for literature and art are numerous, and the top awards certainly help drive sales and popularity to a certain extent.

Let’s look at sports for a minute. Competition in professional sports exists solely as contest-–the selection process itself is what sport, by definition, is.

Book prizes, by contrast, downplay the selection effort itself—faceless judges quietly choose behind the scenes: the book is what matters, the contest, itself, a kind of embarrassing obligation.

Sport, which foregrounds competition itself, is immensely popular. What if the millions of sports viewers were not able to know who was winning or losing the games they were watching? What would happen to sports if games had no winners?

Sport, as a public event, would surely suffer a complete collapse in popularity. Who can deny this simple fact?

There is nothing intrinsically more interesting about a sports contest than a poem. But the popularity of sports hides this fact. For let us see how much interest a football game generates when no one keeps score.

Why shouldn’t poetry use what sports uses to be popular?

The intrinsic product (people running, words on a page) is an isolated entity in both sports and poetry; why should sports add a quality apart from its intrinsic nature which enhances interest, and poetry, not?

The event of a basketball going through a hoop is separate from counting baskets in order to keep score. What is a ball going through a hoop, or a man catching a football, without mathematics, without keeping score?

Now, fiction prizes do sell books. Poetry books win prizes—which helps sales, but poetry book sales are pitifully low.  One of the problems for poetry is that poetry’s true unit is the poem—a book of poetry loses its identity when placed beside the novel.  The true unit of fiction is the book.  The true unit of poetry is the poem.  This fact hurts poetry in the current publishing climate. Who buys a poem these days? What is there to buy?

No significant prize or contest of any kind exists for a poem, unless it happens to be a book-length poem, and long poems are not popular today. The poem, in terms of competition, even in the lesser terms of book-prize-competition, is invisible.

Let’s turn our attention to the origins of art and poetry.

According to Nietzsche’s “The Birth of Tragedy,” the two types of human expression, formal Apollo (history, rhetoric) and intoxicated Dionysus (dance, song), were in opposition until their union in Tragedy created the first real poetic art form in the West, the iconic Greek drama, and Greek drama first became popular in Athens during public festivals of drama competitions.

Even the early Dionysian performances of song, which led to the Drama, were competitions.

And think of the Top 40 of popular music in our era. What is this but competition?

Homer, roughly similar to Greek Drama in terms of chronology, was used to teach rhetoric: Homer, for the Greeks, was the equivalent of college.

Religion, or worship of the gods (Dionysus, etc) was in the mix—ancient poetry served many roles which it has since relinquished to popular recorded music, the cinema, philosophy, rhetoric, history, and religion; poetry will never be the center of society like that, again.

Yet the subject here: Competition and popularity is still relevant.

How, after all, does anything become known?

Through self-conscious selection—which is another word for the mechanism, in society, of competition.

Bird song, as Northrop Frye points out, is archetypal to the study of literature, and this ‘poetry’ of the birds establishes turf and furthers breeding in a competitive manner.

The whole notion we are arguing for, then, has roots in the utilitarian, the literary, the historical, and natural science.

Here are two recent commentators talking about popularity, poetry and sports:

Here’s an idea: Poetry should have the same kind of social acceptability and vernacular expertise as sports. After all, most American men, and many women, too, are not just sports fans but sports intellectuals, with personal experience playing the games, statistics and facts at the ready, deep historical knowledge—all without ever having taken a course in the subject. People adore sports not as therapy or middlebrow self-betterment but for sports’ own formalist sake: I hate to admit it, but l’art pour l’art is a jock construct.

–Chase Madar, Aljazeera America, “Poetry is Dead. Long Live Poetry”

 No, I am with Dana Gioia in that we should get back to poets being super important parts of American life but I do think we need someone who is willing to be the person who travels around showing poetry in America is very much alive.

And I am certainly not suggesting that poetry should be accessible for the sake of sales, etc. Poetry should be chaotic thought, but I do feel there should be a way into that chaotic thought. I do not think that the poetry community does anything for language/writing or any community by being more available to be popular to the general population, which is unlikely to happen, regardless. However, that does not mean that poetry should not have a way in and I believe [Richard] Blanco is a perfectly interesting way into the world of poetry.

Blanco feels he has a task in attempting to get poetry back out of the classroom and into the hands of ordinary citizens. I mentioned to him that Jackie Robinson took it upon himself, after his years in baseball, to become an ambassador of sorts for Civil Rights in his country. He felt he was in a unique position to help the movement by speaking his opinion.

—Amish Trivedi, The Trivedi Chronicles, “Some Thoughts On Richard Blanco”

We might have to ask ourselves at this point, how would we create a Poem Competition?

Why not a giant spectacle?  Words on a giant screen?  A giant venue?  All sorts of added attractions, common to any big arena event?

Make it happen, people.

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