The Death of Poetry, AD 2011

This essay is an introduction to the interview to follow with poet and author Tom Wayman, entitled Wayman Gets Real: The Emptiness of Abstractionism, to be published in two parts.

Poets have only themselves to blame for killing their audience.

It’s a bold statement but not entirely without basis. Keep in mind when I say the ‘death’ of poetry I am using that term somewhat metaphorically. Obviously there’s more poetry being written (if not necessarily published) than ever. But its death as a relevant cultural force is my point. Then again, it may be on the cusp of becoming more relevant than ever. Read on.

Is poetry dead? Or on the cusp of renewed cultural relevance? Photo ©2009 Sean Arthur Joyce

At a time when even an indie pop band without a recording contract can build a support base of thousands through social networking, all but the most famous poets are lucky to sell a thousand copies (that’s 1,000) of their latest book. While to some extent the latter has always been true, a significant change has occurred in late 20th century and early 21st century Western society. Where in the past both politicians and the populace itself often looked to leading writers or poets as sources of wisdom or inspiration, these days we are more likely to hear Bono or Dylan being quoted than say, Margaret Atwood or Mary Oliver.

And why not? The hyper-specialization that has developed in academically-driven poetry especially the past 30 years in Canada has if anything, only accentuated this divide. That and the current tendency to discount political poetry as somehow beneath the dignity of poets. As if the fine tradition of political poetry that included Pablo Neruda, Kenneth Rexroth and Canada’s own Milton Acorn, to name only three, were suddenly passé. In a way it isn’t surprising. As Patrick Lane admitted in an interview with author Paulo da Costa (www.paulodacosta.com), there is no tradition of dissent in Canadian letters, except in the exceptions—the Acorns, Atwoods and Laytons of CanLit.

Meanwhile, since the early 1960s popular folk music artists like Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez and many others unabashedly addressed the relevant political issues of the day. In fact they too were building on an existing tradition that began with American blues music and the unionist chants of the 1930s. With the advent of the Bush regime in the US, this tradition carried on in earnest, with even mainstream artists like Bruce Springsteen releasing overtly political albums.

You know something is up when even a well-established Canadian poet like Richard Harrison is virtually unable to get an excellent book like Worthy of His Fall (2005) reviewed in this country. While the reasons for such oversight are never simple, it’s striking that one of his previous books, Hero of the Play—a collection of hockey poems—won lavish praise. The difference? Well, aside from the Canadian obsession with hockey, Worthy of His Fall contained several political poems. In short, Harrison contravened the unwritten law of CanLit poetry.

Poetry in Canada as I see it has fallen into two distinct camps: what I call the Cult of the Banal and the Cult of the Abstruse. The former mode of current poetry seems hopelessly lost in navel-gazing or domestic drama. It reminds me of what Lane said to da Costa: “The search through the ‘interior self’ for valid expression of art today reminds me of Chinese poetry during a thousand years of totalitarian dictatorship by the elite. They too searched for the ‘interior self,’ at the expense of the concerns of the common people’s struggle.”

And then there’s the trend toward increasing abstractionism, the Cult of the Abstruse. Here we see far more interest in language itself than what language is intended to do—communicate, connect people. While I am far from anti-intellectual, this seems not only gratuitous but damaging to the cause of poetry—or at least, to maintaining an audience for poetry outside a narrow circle of academics. The emphasis shifts from connecting with as many readers as possible to drawing a line in the sand that implies: only the inducted shall pass.

Tom Wayman was one of those fortunate individuals in poetry who made his mark at exactly the right time in history. Coming out of the fervour for social change that energized the late ’60s and early ’70s, it occurred to him that the day-to-day working lives of people were utterly missing in contemporary poetry. By addressing this need directly he pioneered a whole ‘new’ genre of poetry since known as ‘work poetry’ and carried on by poets such as Dionne Brand. Wayman’s poetic voice was quite simply the voice of the folks on the job and therefore spoke broadly to ordinary Canadians. The slang turns of phrase and the long, almost rambling lines of his verse threw traditional poetic structures overboard in favour of personal connection. It may not have been particularly profound in the Romantic sense, but like Neruda’s poetry, it embraced the heart of a people. In contrast to overly-intellectualized poetry that screens most people out, Wayman’s verse had the capacity to draw disparate groups of people together, united by the commonality of being workers.

We are living on the cusp of revolutionary changes in human society. The recent wave of insurgencies in the Middle East—driven by a decades-long exhaustion with despotism—is already spreading to the West. As the ultra-rich continue to squeeze the last drop of lifeblood from the populace, they face the disastrous consequences of their unmitigated greed. And as I always say, greed makes people stupid. The labour demonstrations in Wisconsin and other states are clear evidence that greed has taken them too far.

But where are our poets in all this? Far more than our political, social, and economic systems no longer serve us (or more than a tiny fraction of us). In a time of deep recession, when the Big Six New York publishers are unwilling to publish anything less than a guaranteed million-seller, the same is true of our literary systems. Whether at that mega-market extreme, or the microcosm of literati publishers cultivating tiny inner circles, our literary systems no longer serve us either. The sale of e-books is skyrocketing even as sales are down in all other categories of publishing. So we may already be seeing the turn of the tide that shifts the balance of power from literary gatekeepers to the writers themselves.

As Walt Whitman said, “To have great poets there must also be great audiences.”

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About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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