Rest on Your Laureates

A poet laureate can be understood as an official poet of a government. The US has had a national laureate for many years. I was reading an article in the New York Times that there are actually 45 state poet laureates in the US. This number doesn’t count those lower than the state level; there are tons of them on the county and city level as well. Hell, even my city has one.

The funny thing about this article, in particular, is that it wasn’t an article about how poetry is a dying art.. The writer even mentions this multiple times in the article, as if surprised herself. There was another article the Times published more in line with this narrative. The author calls on the nation’s schools to begin teaching poetry again. What is funny here is that the article is based on three false assumptions.

The first assumption is that poetry is a dead art form here in America. It most certainly isn’t.

For proof, I turn to Fancy by Iggy Azalea.

Stay with me now.

This song, along with another hit single and performances and the like earned the singer a great deal of money, to the tune of three to five million dollars for the summer of 2014. The video for this song has 500 million views.

The first verse’s lyrics are as follows:

First thing’s first, I’m the realest (realest)

Drop this and let the whole world feel it (let them feel it)

And I’m still in the Murda Bizness

I could hold you down, like I’m givin’ lessons in physics (right, right)

Now, we can debate that Iggy is good or bad. We can debate whether or not her lyrics are trashy, exploitative, and stupid. What we cannot debate, and should not debate, is whether or not this is a poem. Clearly it is. It has a rhyme scheme. There is a rhythm to the words. This is clearly poetry by any rational definition.

If you want fine poetry in songs, you can go to a Saul Williams or Jay-Z or Gangstarr. Hell, you can even swing the other way completely, and find excellent poetry in country like Hank Williams or Townes Van Zandt or Blaze Foley, stuff that is still bought and listened to and loved all over.

But the author here cannot because he’s dealing with a definition of poetry that is stubbornly narrow. The author cites three poets that the odd lover of poetry, the ‘disturbed, unsocial, torturers of cats’ love: Robert Browning, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop. Specifically, he’s talking about a canon of old poets, the ones in chapbooks. That is not to say these poets aren’t worth looking at, but these are the saints of his religion.

Herein lies the second assumption about poetry: poetry is a sacred thing.

That’s an assumption that the author shares with the rest of society, that ‘real’ poetry is beyond criticism and awe-inspiring. When someone wants to tell you that something was profound, really amazing, they’ll tell you that it is poetry. It puts the work on a pedestal, which is an awful way to think of art if you want people to engage it. People don’t live on pedestals; they live in muck, with dirt and sweat and grime.

We imagine poetry as an obelisk rather than an automobile, because when poetry is taught these days, that’s how it’s taught to us. But an obelisk won’t get you anywhere; a car will take you places.

By far, though, the saddest assumption in this article is that people don’t really need poetry, that person can live a fulfilled life without it.

That is unforgivable, especially so because this writer is an English professor.

The idea that a human being can be denied one of the basic pillars of human discourse since we could talk is absolutely mind-boggling to me. People need to understand poetry because they need to understand how communication works. They need to understand how we reach each other. We need to understand that there are people out there like us, and that other people have been on the paths we walk on. If we don’t we pay an awful price. As author even says:

A child taught to parse a sentence by Dickinson would have no trouble understanding Donald H. Rumsfeld’s known knowns and unknown unknowns.

So you’re telling me that teaching poetry would prevent a war that has caused the death of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, but in the end we really don’t need it?

The thing is, though, you don’t need to just ‘parse Dickenson’ to get that kind of benefit. You can parse all sorts of other poets, ones that aren’t on pedestals. And if you were to teach poetry that kind of poetry, you have a much better shot against the ‘known unknowns.’ You have a much better shot at making poets out of people, and helping people to understand the poetry that is already in our lives.

I’m not saying we should throw out the poet laureates and have our kids read Iggy. I mean, Jesus I am not saying that. I am saying that poetry is just words together. That’s it. And in that there is a great deal of power, because poetry can do anything if you understand how it works.

If our English professors don’t understand that, we’re in deep-shit trouble.


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