If you asked me to name the best poet in the world, or the most popular, or even just to name one working poet, the best I could come up with (assuming Ludacris doesn’t count) might be “that guy with the weird beard from the 2010 Olympics.”
I’m not alone in owning that blind spot. In terms of the broader cultural landscape, poetry has gone underground. And while it’s tempting to blame some blanket “dumbing down” of culture for the fall in poetry’s stock, it’s really a problem with perspective.
Along with a lot of fine art, poetry is a pre-video, pre-internet medium that trades on authenticity. What trips us up is the assumption that being “real” means being sober and earnest. And what could be more earnest than writing a poem about something?
The prospect of mistaking something lame for something cool, something bad for something so-bad-it’s-good, ridiculous for meaningful or, worst of all, sardonic for sincere, is the principal risk of modern cynicism. Those of us who have really engaged with pop culture have grown accustomed to navigating this minefield.
But poets have been doing this for centuries. Beat godfather Allen Ginsberg used his radical, drug-taking, gay poet persona to freak out mainstream culture and Shakespeare made a sport out of messing with accepted values in his sonnets (hello, potential bisexual love triangle). And e.e. cummings’ avant-garde poems make textspeak look like essay writing.
The problem is that poetry has lost its spot on the board of “cool.” It needs to do a better job of selling its subversive, disruptive, dark side—make us feel literate, but not bookish. Smug, but not snobby. Make it sexy, but not too much love stuff, okay?
UPDATE, March 27, 4 p.m.: Michael Lista, poetry editor at The Walrus, has written a response to this piece here.