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Shuffling through the ruins of poetry's wasteland

Quickly now: outside of class, what was the last poem you read?

Perhaps this question has left you slack-jawed and silent; if not that, it has most likely forced you to dig a little bit deeper into your memory than if I had asked, say, "What was the last trashy paperback you read?" or "Where was the nearest bathroom your freshman year?"

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My point, of course, is that the reading of poetry in America as a form of entertainment has fallen into disfavor in recent years, and it is currently so rare that I have given up my search for a soul with whom to spend the early morning hours discussing John Donne's quirky brilliance, T.S. Eliot's desolate savagery, or Nuala Ní Dhomhniall's sick little poems about naked men (translated from the original Gaelic, of course).

The somewhat coerced intellectual discourse found in English precepts simply does not suffice, because a) it often concerns poetry that I don't necessarily enjoy, and b) it makes me feel that poetry is supposed to have an answer, some transcendent line of analysis which, followed pedantically to its cruel terminus, will strip away all the layers of mystery and emotion, leaving a cold seed of "meaning" that I am supposed to swallow like a pill for migraines. I can't handle this, so I read poems on my own time and draw what conclusions I will from them: I find it a much more relaxing process. The question is, why doesn't everybody read poetry and reap the same benefits from it that I have?

An intellectual snob's answer to that question might go something like this: the average American citizen is an illiterate peasant, fully incapable of comprehending, much less appreciating, all of the glorious fulfillment that poetry has to offer. He has sampled the product and found it utterly incommensurate with his desires, and he is happy to continue his existence in this unenlightened fashion. Although it does contain an unsettling element of truth, this argument fails in that mainstream poetry is so rare that the American described above usually doesn't even get a chance to discover that he hates it. Most people never even see a poetry book on the shelf at their local Barnes & Noble: such "special interest" volumes are relegated to a forgotten third-floor wing next to the "teach yourself Czech" audio tape series. In addition, the argument fails to address why most educated, sophisticated Americans aren't reading poetry either. There must be some other reason for this.

One could argue, effectively, that insufficient information plays a huge role in the American public's general lack of interest in poetry. Specifically, poetic criticism seems to be a lost art, and without guidance for how to cull out the few volumes of quality poetry from the masses of wasted paper and ink, people might feel daunted by the hundreds of poetry books in America that are published every year. If you like legal-thriller novels or action movies, you can pick up any newspaper and find out which ones might be worth your time. This is not so for poetry.

But the readers and critics should not shoulder the entire planet of blame here: what about the poets themselves? As I implied two sentences ago, the lack of interest in poetry is certainly not for lack of available product. Now, more than ever, huge numbers of poets are publishing books willy-nilly, making it virtually impossible to keep up. And while much of that poetry is truly bad and can be quickly dismissed, many of the critically acclaimed contemporary poets I have read seem to exert an alienating effect on readers with their work.

In short, I feel that poetry has become too selfish, too often written without regard for a potential audience. Voice, emotion, perspective and yes, even meaning are blurred to the point of inscrutability, yielding work which the author can hawk as the triumph of his "artistic vision" while leaving all but the most sophisticated and practiced readers in a morass of unimpressed confusion. Some say that T.S. Eliot was confusing; however, his public appearances used to fill stadia, because despite all of his allusions to the Spanish Tragedy or the Upanishads or what-have-you, his work appealed to a wide audience of readers on the most basic, visceral plane.

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Poetry is perhaps the clearest distillation of human thought and emotion that our species has yet devised. And although much of contemporary poetry has run to murky waters in that respect, I urge you in this, the cruelest month of April, National Poetry Month, to pick up a volume of verse, even if it was written a few centuries ago. You may find yourself amazed at the dimension it adds to your life.

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