Well, fact is, though we throw the word poet around with flippant abandon, there is little widespread agreement on the meaning of this noun. It all depends on where you’re coming from and how you define poetry.
Since the earlier 20th century and the rise of literary modernism, poetry in a sense has been usurped by academia (and literary snobs and exclusive arts organizations whose members are all MFAs) and its definition in those circles has increasingly narrowed over the years.
Lacking any other distinction, such as being gainfully employed or crusading for an important charitable cause, some of these metaphorical folks comfort themselves with their memberships in exclusive artsy societies and occasional publication in highbrow mags, considering them badges of honor and proof positive of superiority.
Hey, I’ve been called out as highbrow fairly often, but usually derisively. I admit I have certain credentials and a bit of a bibliography, but I don’t think these are things to brag about or stake your life on. My family certainly isn’t impressed. Few people would be, actually. For me, it’s sort of an embarrassing private vice, something indicative of a potentially dangerous lack of practicality. Not one of my siblings has ever taken the time to (haha) read a word I’ve published anywhere in spite of my efforts to bowl them over by ranting about the New York Times, Baltimore Sun etcetera yadda yadda. It’s a big So What in their book. But at least they’ve stopped asking when I’m going to get a real job.
I learned from this a long time ago that in all things, whatever your station, a little humility goes a long way. We all, whoever we are, put our pants on one leg at a time (without the benefit of imagery, meter and rhyme). And have you noticed that the really great lions of literature have always been ignored, misunderstood, if not reviled, in their lifetime? They’re “strange, odd, peculiar …” Not that those qualities are necessarily symptoms of literary genius ….
But I thank God Poetry is bigger than all that blab and blah-blah and has always survived the depredations and abuse carried on in its name.
[Below: Original manuscript of a “strange, odd, peculiar” poet. Emily Dickinson’s poem “The way Hope builds his House” on back of envelope, c. 1863]
Anyway … the point! What sent me off on this frenzied tangent and reckless reverie was a quotation I stumbled on at the Poetry Magazine website. It was folded into the body of a longer piece purportedly devoted to the celebration of April as “National Poetry Month.” It stood out from the other quotes in the smorgasbord of academic smugness because of its honesty and implicit democratic view of poetry and its unbounded, often surprising origins and sources. [I took the liberty of adding bold type and breaks in the quote for the sake of readability.] Here you go:
This past fall, for the culminating reading of a poetry class at a Miami elementary school, we tried to order pizza from a major commercial chain. They told us that they didn’t deliver to that particular neighborhood, despite it being technically inside their delivery zone. Their refusal was blatantly discriminatory (the neighborhood has “a bad reputation”), and we were frustrated. We wanted pizza and were willing to pay for it; why wouldn’t they just bring it to us?
I relate this story because sometimes I think the poetry world, for all of its good intentions, behaves like that pizza shop. We make decisions about who does and doesn’t receive poetry, about where poetry should exist, and about who should be writing it. Much of poetry advocacy would be better defined as poet advocacy and comes packaged with unspoken rules about who is and who isn’t a poet. It says: if and when poetry receives more attention (insert: money, fame, etc.), here is who should benefit. This advocacy becomes a frail mouthpiece for a fringe sector of society. If we want poetry to have a more central place in our culture, we have to let go of our personal investment in its growth. We have to admit that we don’t fully understand how poetry exists in the lives of people who don’t have MFAs, who don’t take workshops, who have no idea what AWP stands for, and we have to admit that those people have far more to teach to us than we have to teach to them.
Poetry isn’t pizza. It doesn’t need to be delivered. It’s already in our communities, and by listening to those communities, we might learn that poetry’s power is far greater than we had ever envisioned.
— P. Scott Cunningham, Director, O, Miami Poetry Festival
This guy was onto something (as the great novelist Walker Percy liked to say). I want to remember that and maybe so should you: “Poetry isn’t pizza.”