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Poetry Is Not Yet Dead

Updated: Nov 8, 2022

What is good poetry? Even more importantly, what is bad poetry? Because if there is good there is most certainly bad. And while I did not attend an MFA program for poetry, I’m sure professors spend a considerable amount of time helping students know the difference, or at least to become well versed in the academic contemporary consensus of the difference.

At one time, for instance, skill in rhyming and rhythm was highly regarded. While still important, few modern poets count out beats in a poem’s lines, unless they are trying to create one of the old forms based in rhyme and rhythm. In Rhyme’s Rooms: The architecture of poetry, Brad Leithauser encourages poets not to abandon the old devices that make a string of words a poem rather than prose, despite the movement away from those hallmarks. Many journals looking for poems today say they are not interested in reading rhyming poetry, which might disappoint Leithauser who says “A poem is a compact sonic parade, marching clamorously through the tunnel of the ear canal, an ever-shifting zone of commotion in which the most recent sounds serially dominate.”

So, out of all the millions of reams of poetry in existence, how do we decide what to read? Joy Harjo was awarded the prestige of being the current U.S. poet laureate. This means that academics and notable poets and literary masters across the country have decided that her poems represent the best of the best in American poetry. I would not argue this honoring. Her work touches me, but not because she has attempted to mimic any of the old rhythm and rhyming, but because she speaks her truth. She walks her talk. Upon her election as Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2019, Academy Chancellor Marilyn Chin said of her:

“[Joy] is an iconic and beloved multi-genre artist. Her poetry, prose, and music have delighted, informed, and tantalized an international audience for over four decades. Her poetry displays a strong commitment to her social and political ideals as she fights tirelessly for Native American justice, ending violence against women, and a variety of important issues. Her masterful spiritual grace always shines through with compassion and forgiveness. Her poetry is a timeless gift to the world.”

Poetry lives on when it honors the flow of time and history as Harjo’s does. Personally, I attempt to mimic and borrow from the old styles as a way of learning and growth, and a reminder that upon hearing or reading them poems should engage people. But you have to challenge yourself to go off the rails if you want any recognition among your peers. The death of poetry is possible, and most evident in the stodgy approaches many young journal editors are taking. Going "off the rails" at this time in the poetry world might mean writing a sonnet in rhyming iambic pentameter.

I once submitted some poetry to a new journal, whose editors were fresh out of their MFA programs. I remember emerging from my own MFA program in playwriting wrongly thinking it was part of my new role to try and limit the number of “bad plays” being released into the world. It’s a common form of zealotry that new graduates, supposed “masters,” bring with them.

This particular journal prided itself on giving feedback to every poet that submitted to them, whether it was asked for or not. The scathing, harsh, and weak criticism I received from this editor shocked me. I thought if I were a young poet reading this I would never attempt to write another poem. I shared as much with the managing editor, explaining how I’d had hundreds of poems rejected over the years, so I was not negatively effected by the rejection itself, but by the poor, irresponsible, and unasked for criticism I’d received.

Some poems I cringe upon hearing others find sublime. And vice versa. Coleridge defined poetry as “the best words in their best order.” When rhyme was paramount to a worthwhile poem, decisions around the best words and the best order were restricted to whether or not they fit the rhyming, as well as the rhythm. In short, the assessment of poetry, is subjective. If you think you have something, follow your intuition. Turn off the self criticism. Find people who can encourage your growth as a poet by nurturing the elements of your writing you know are “good” and worthwhile.

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