April is National Poetry Month, and for the next few weeks the art of poetry will be celebrated across the nation in ways that may help Americans to better appreciate it. But the one place Americans are not likely to come across a complete poem this April or any other month is in an American newspaper or other popular media outlet. Parts of poems will appear in the rare newspaper reviews of poetry books, but generally speaking our various media do not publish individual poems, despite how little space most poems require. It’s a pity, for “something there is that doesn’t love a wall” as Robert Frost famously put it.
Why this fear of poetry among American media editors, many of whom took literature classes in college? I think it is a reflection of the general idea that contemporary poetry is indecipherable and intentionally elitist or the insipidly sentimental stuff of greeting cards—that is, beyond or beneath the role of journalism. Why publish a poem when the same space could be occupied by a money-making ad, especially in a time when print newspapers are shrinking? But we don’t find poems on most digital media websites either.
The great disconnect between poems and media is pretty much a late 20th century development. Throughout most of American history, poetry was perceived as a crucial, communal way of expressing strong feeling—personal or public—and had a home in the daily press. But Modernism in the 20th century took much of the obvious sound and sense out of poetic practice, splintering and specializing poetry as it did most fields of knowledge and art. Once American poets (with some exceptions) adopted the more cryptic, ambiguous, emotionally- muted free verse of the more experimental Europeans, poetry lost a lot of its mainstream appeal in the United States.
The last truly popular American poet who was also truly great is arguably Robert Frost, a poet of rural plain-speaking who wrote in traditional forms of meter and rhyme. Wallace Stevens, a more abstract, cerebral poet, reportedly said to Frost: “The trouble with you, Robert, is that you write about subjects.” And Frost, speaking no doubt for most Americans, is said to have responded, “The trouble with you, Wallace, is that you write about bric-a-brac.”
But the great schism between poems and the mainstream media shows some signs of weakening, most notably in the newspaper columns of Ted Kooser of Nebraska, former U.S. poet laureate (like Frost) and one-time insurance executive (like Stevens). Kooser writes a weekly column that consists of a brief introduction to a brief poem by a contemporary American poet. The “American Life in Poetry” columns are offered free to newspapers and websites. Here’s Kooser’s explanation, taken from the project’s website, on why he does it:
“Poetry has remained a perennial expression of our emotional, spiritual and intellectual lives, as witnessed by the tens of thousands of poems written about the tragedy of September 11 that circulated on the Internet. Now I’m hoping to convince editors that there could be a small place in their papers for poetry, that it could add a spot of value in the eyes of readers. Best of all, it won’t cost a penny.”
In the spirit of National Poetry Month, I encourage newspapers and media websites in Wisconsin and elsewhere to carry Kooser’s poetry column. And how about publishing submitted poems (political or not) from readers? There is no reason good poetry can’t become a more public and relevant art again. Good fences may make good neighbors, but there need be no separation of poetry and the people.