Post Your Opinion
Aversion To Verse
by Cary Fagan

... could a poem pick you up in Chicago and land you in New York two hours later? Or could it compute a space shot? It had no such powers. And interest was where power was. In ancient times poetry was a force, the poet had real strength in the material world... Saul Bellow Humboldt`s Gift In my country, where poems are seldom found in bookstores or on the lips of small children... Gary Geddes "The Uses of Poetry" A FEW WEEKS AGO I was sitting in the passenger seat of a Chevy van, on the way back from Niagara Falls, when from the driver`s seat my brother asked me a question. "I was wondering," lie said. "Who reads poetry any more?" The question was fair, yet it caught me off guard. He knew that I read and review poetry -- that I like it and that it matters to me. He assumed that I was a rare bird. And in trying to answer him I simply accepted the assumption that not many people do read poetry any more. I gave a patchwork lecture on possible reasons why: the rise of modernism, the instillation of poetry as an academic subject, the loss of poetrys narrative role. My brother seemed satisfied, but he had raised a question that, I suspect, most of us who do care about poetry prefer to Push aside. Has it become irrelevant, its audience shrunk to a minuscule number of initiates? From the back of the van came the soothing sounds of my brother`s two young boys, fast asleep. They were, in a way, the 11 small children" of Gary Geddess poem, for they knew a lot about insects and were familiar with many stories, but they didn`t know poetry. In Geddes`s poem, the poet is considering this lack of readership while on a trip to China. He is observing a craftsman carve a T`ang poem onto an ivory toothpick, a symbol of how in some Countries poetry is part of everyday life. At least this is what we think -- that, for example, in certain Eastern European Countries a new book of poetry will sell out its edition of 50,000 copies in a single day. No doubt we`ve misunderstood and romanticized the reasons for this adulation; in any case, even in some of these countries times are changing. A recent issue of Poetry East, published by DePaul University in Chicago, is devoted to Eastern European poetry at this "historical moment." Stanislaw Esden- Tempski, a Polish poet, has written that under the new economic and political system poetry is in a rapid tailspin. The best literary monthlies are going bankrupt: who can publish poetry in this market economy? Poets don`t yet want to face this reality, but a spade is striking at the heart of literature. In other words, now that Rambo is showing in Warsaw, who wants to read poetry? So this is just another Western illness that has belatedly made it to the East. Meanwhile, in English-speaking countries, a note of despondency can he heard in the voices of some contemporary poets. In Britain, the journal Agenda has published a special issue on "The State of Poetry," and the poet Edward Lowbury has contributed a statement of genuine bitterness: Contemporary poetry plays a very small part in the lives of most people who are not themselves poets ... few read their works and many don`t care for poetry, old or new. In Poets and Writers, a New York magazine, an argument recently broke out over whether the loss of poetry readers is the fault of the readers themselves (lazy) or poets who insist on writing impenetrable poems, thereby showing "contempt" for their audience. Here in Canada, Kristjana Gunnars, the poet and novelist, has contributed a calmer and more confident message on the future of poetry in the Globe and Mail. Like many poets before her, she has reasserted a most significant place for poetry in the needs not only of individuals but of the nation. "The craving for poetry, and the deep level of communication poetry provides, is as strong as hunger, thirst, and relief from pain." She prophesied that in this time of constitutional crisis poetry was needed more than ever and would not fail to heal the wounds and make the country whole again. The article was poetic and compelling, yet she herself pointed Out that 11 the greatest enemy of poetry is an uninterested community." It is hard to imagine any poet being able to speak to the whole country, and the country bothering to listen. We are too distracted by trivialities, too far separated by our grievances. With these anxieties swarming inside me, I telephoned Bob Hilderley, the publisher of Quarry Press in Kingston, Ont. I had heard that one of the press`s anthologies was selling briskly and would soon require a second printing. The anthology is not a collection of "best loved" Canadian poets. It is The Naked Physician: Poems about the Lives of Patients and Doctors, edited by Ron Charach. "I think there is an audience for poetry, but you have to get around the capital `P,`" Hilderley said. "Poetry is not something that interests people, unless you can move the book into another area. Say, "new age." Then it doesn`t have that highart feel to it. High culture is suspect, and maybe rightfully so. Poetry is elite and there aren`t that many elite around any more. After all, there`s no reason why poetry has to continue to exist." Quarry publishes young writers in its New Canadian Poets series and Hilderley gets to read a lot of new work. "There are few T. S. Eliots or Ezra Pounds with the weight of tradition and art behind them," he said. "The poetry being written now is more pedestrian. That can be handled well by Lorna Crozier or Al Purdy, but it can become pathetic very quickly. Poetry is becoming easier to read as the tradition of learning gets thinner, the range of allusion you can make shallower. It must be extremely difficult to be a poet now." I understood what Hilderley meant by the limited range of allusion, and I feel for poets whose technique can be appreciated by an ever-decreasing few. But it does not seem true that because most people couldn`t care less about the difference between an anapaest and a trochee, they are not willing to read some poetry. The day after speaking to Hilderley I happened to meet Ron Charach, who turned out to be a neighbour of mine. He said that the reason his anthology was getting attention was that doctors, nurses, and patients were hungry to read about their own experiences, to see them articulated. And here, perhaps, is where Hilderley is right: people will read poetry when it breaks the strict confines of its discipline. Czeslaw Milosz has written, "I have always aspired to a more spacious form / that would be free from the claims of poetry or prose" What we need, then, is poetry not as poetry, but as something else. Like Christopher Dewdney`s poetry of science, Erin Moure`s poetry of feminism, or Marlene Nourbese Philip`s poetry of anticolonialism. None of these poets will capture the imagination of the whole country, as Kristjana Gunnars expects. Despite having something to say to us all, to the non-committed they seem too specialized, like political interest groups. But at least they have found discerning if small audiences, and for the moment that seems to be poetry`s best and only hope. Perhaps in the future poetry can become spacious enough to embrace us all, but that seems a long way off.

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