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Poetry Is Dead, Or So They Tell Me

Please pop on over to today’s tour stop for National Poetry Month by clicking the image.

As with any opinion piece I read these days, I always ask myself who the writer is and what’s the agenda. In the case of Joseph Epstein, I find that many of his previous essays are meant to stir discussion and anger from certain groups, enough for them to take action (i.e. his homosexual essay, for one).

His recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) about the death of contemporary poetry, he essentially says that it only matters to those who write it and continue to publish it, no matter how bad it is. What I find comical is his statement, “We still have people playing the role of major poets, but only because the world seems to require a few people to play the role.” Why, if poetry is dead and no longer wanted, would society need people to “play” the role of poet?

I also question his argument that poetry is not relevant or wanted by society because it cannot be quoted; “But if I ask a literary gent or lady to quote me a single line or phrase from any of our putative major poets, they cannot do it.” If reiterating lines, simply for the sake of rote performance is the key to love of literature, then I want no part of it. I prefer to be impacted by poetry and literature; I want the words, the images, the situations, and anything else in the piece to speak to me, to change my mind, to make me think and feel something outside of my daily routine … in a way to transcend beyond myself into a more universal space of understanding.  (see other rebuttals, if you subscribe to Wall Street Journal).

He goes on to discuss contemporary poetry failing to do what poetry did long ago — resonate and elevate. Clearly, he has not been reading Yusef Komunyakkaa, Mary Oliver, Ted Kooser, Natasha Trethewey, Jehanne Dubrow, Sweta Vikram, and many others. He admits as much when he says he cannot remember the last time he bought a contemporary poetry collection. I can! Bernadette Geyer’s The Scabbard of Her Throat in March.  I can remember when I received my last collection, Jehanne Dubrow’s Red Army Red, from friends who know my love of poetry and choose well. If you don’t read it, how will you find those poets and poems that sing to you?

You’ll likely not be surprised that this is Epstein’s second essay on the death of poetry (“Who Killed Poetry?” was the first). Why does he write so many essays on this topic if the genre has been long deceased? Probably because he wishes it were, and yet, it thrives.

  • I read the article and his arguments seem weak and meant only to be controversial. So what if some people only like classic poetry? I don’t think contemporary poetry would still be published if the genre is dead. Maybe he’s just trying to get attention to sell his own book.

  • Well said! I do believe that poetry doesn’t have the impact on the general population that it did 150 years ago but that has more to do with the abundance of other options we have now than that poetry is “dead.” If it is dead, why do teachers continue to teach it to grade schoolers?

  • Well said! Poetry is very much alive and Epstein declaring it dead is not going to make it come true. What it might do is keep his readers from discovering some really good poetry and that is the saddest thing.

    • I think that Epstein underestimates the power of poetry readers who spread their favorites around even to those who are reluctant to read poetry! 🙂

  • I really don’t read poetry but I know it’s not dead. It sounds like he’s just trying to stir things up.

    • It seems to be his MO to stir things up. But I found many faults in his argument, so I think if he were going to make the case, he would have done better research. And of all the poets he mentions as well known contemporary poets, he doesn’t mention Billy Collins, who I think is more well known than Derek Walcott.