Dear Newsweek Editor,
Regarding: "Poetry Is Dead. Does Anybody Really Care?" by Bruce Wexler
When I was younger, I ate ice cream, and I liked it. A few times, I even bought Haagen-Dazs to impress dates. Then I grew older; I married; my tastes changed; soon I found myself too slothful to go to the store to buy ice cream, so I stopped eating it. Now, because I no longer eat ice cream, itís obvious to me that no one else ever eats ice cream or has any interest in it whatsoever. Therefore, ta-da!, the ice cream industry is dead. Does anybody really care? Mail me my Newsweek check please.
Is what I wrote above something youíd consider printing in Newsweek? Surely you see how carefully Iíve "researched" it. Please ignore that fact that I admit Iím lazy, even though that might imply that I didnít put any real effort into my "work."
Probably the goofiest thing Wexler says is this: "I really do believe that poetry is the highest form of writing." What a sad commentary on his own apathy! If I boil his article down to two sentences, I get this: "I truly believe poetry is the highest form of writing, but Iím too apathetic and/or too lazy to read it. But I need to make a quick buck, so Iíll write an article about the death of poetry for Newsweek, the extent of my research being to find the name of our current poet laureate and to read (drum roll please!) one of his poems."
Actually, the goofiest thing about Wexlerís article is that you printed it.
Michael R. Burch
P.S. -- I realize that space in Newsweek is at a premium. But if youíre interested in publishing facts rather than inaccuracies, perhaps you can read what follows and print a few corrections, or, better yet, consider a follow-up article from a different perspective. Hell, Iíll write the piece for free.
Wexlerís article is an amazingly bad collection of fallacies and absurdities.
He says itís difficult to imagine a world without plays, but that a world without poems already exists. This is blatantly untrue, as thousands of poems are published daily by presses and web sites throughout the world. There are far more poems being published than there are plays being put out, and most plays donít bring in blockbuster revenues, putting them in the same eclectic category as poetry when it comes to money. Far more people read poems than go to plays, although most people donít crack open Norton all that often. But there are web sites that attract hundreds of thousands of visitors per month, and "poetry" was the number eight search term on Lycos for an entire year, ahead of "football," "golf" and most of the sex kittens. These are verifiable facts, not Wexlerís lackadaisically-arrived-at assumptions.
He canít name a living poet, which means he hasnít heard of Maya Angelou, Margaret Atwood, Charles Bukowski, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, John Updike or Richard Wilbur. Not to mention Nobel Prize winners Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott. Would you hire me to write an article about the auto industry if I admitted I couldnít name a single car manufacturer? To me, that seems unlikely, but then Iím probably not Newsweek editor material.
Heís more interested in interest rates than poetry. Perhaps he should follow the generally accepted rule of thumb of most writers, including poets: write what you know. Writing out of abject ignorance is like walking through a minefield on snowshoes, blindfolded. Let him write an article about what interests him: interest rates and such. Of what possible use is it for a writer to tackle something he cares nothing about, knows nothing about, and that has no possibility of interesting him? And why is his apathy toward poetry an indictment of others who do care about it, who do have knowledge of it, and who do find it infinitely fascinating?
He says that poetry is the only art with far more practitioners than appreciators. But how many people sing lines from "Ave Maria" or "Memory" in the shower, compared to those who pay to attend the opera and "Cats?" Surely the fact that so many people attempt to write poetry is a sign of real interest in poetry, and itís asinine to assume that someone who writes bad poetry cannot appreciate good poetry. I have no musical ability whatsoever, but I do appreciate great music, and know it instantly when I hear it. Iím no Bruce Springsteen, but I love "Born To Run" and "Jungleland." You donít have to be Robert Frost, as Wexler surely isnít, to appreciate "Acquainted With The Night" or "Directive." Wexler makes the mistake of using one yardstick for himself and another for the six billion unfortunates who share his planet but not his enlightenment. He occupies the same rarefied air as the pale, tedious, energy-less academic poets who drove readers away from the so-called "major" poetry journals. But those readers have rediscovered poetry as a popular art form on the Internet and in hundreds of small presses that donít contribute to the inflation and conflation of windbags.
Wexler disliked poetry in high school, came to like it, then regressed. He seems happy enough, even smugly self-congratulatory, about this. But many of us who also didnít particularly like to study poetry in high school have come to appreciate it with maturity. Iím 46 and I daily read, study, and (most importantly) delight in poetry. Iím quite certain that I know much more about poetry than Wexler, including the names of hundreds of living poets, and I not only know their names, but Iíve read their poems.
He thinks poetry is dead because itís not trendy. He wants to read books with "buzz." But if every book were J. K. Rowlingís or Stephen King's latest, what kind of civilization would we have? King admits to writing ten pages a day, rain or shine. James Joyce, working on his masterpiece, "Ulysses," produced six or seven words one day, then complained to a friend who commented that this was close to his normal daily output, something like: "Yes, but I only have the words; I don't know how to use them!" Great works of art cannot be judged by the standards of mass production. Just as a Yugo is not a Rolls Royce, "Harry Potter" is not "Paradise Lost." If every car were a Yugo, we might have an idea of what the world would be like without great art. Entertainment is important, but so are other things. Every book cannot be trendy. Philosophy is not trendy. History is not trendy. Truth is not trendy. But they are vitally important. Plato said "Poetry comes nearer to vital truth than history." Who do we listen to, Plato or Wexler?
Wexler seems to think a poem must be read 20 times "before the sound and sense of it takes hold." This demonstrates that he is an amazingly bad reader of poetry. Reading a good poem is like taking a bite of an apple. The first taste is sweet and invites you to take the next bite. A good poem invites but does not require study. As a teenager, without the advantage of a classical education, I was able to read and enjoy even highly complex poems like Eliotís "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," a poem Wexler cites. Did I understand everything about the poem? No, and I still donít. But I enjoyed the poem on that first reading, and Iíve come away with something new on every subsequent reading. Itís interesting that even Eliot didnít completely understand his own poem. When asked once what he meant when he said, "I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled," he admitted that he wasnít sure. If Eliot didnít over-think every line of his own poem, why should we? Wexler probably studied poems too much and enjoyed them too little. Perhaps thatís why he eventually wrote them off as "dead."