poem by poet laureate Posted on 4 September, 2004 by ghw With 9/11 just a week away, L points me to this poem, “The Names,” by Billy Collins, poet laureate of the United States. Share this:Click to email a link to a friend (Opens in new window)Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to share on Pinterest (Opens in new window)Click to share on Tumblr (Opens in new window)Click to share on LinkedIn (Opens in new window)
George — do you think (and this is a serious question, not a sarcastic one) that there’s any significance to the writings of a nation’s poet laureate when he or she writes within a culture that hardly recognizes that poetry still exists?
Just thinking out loud
Good question. However, I would not agree that we hardly recognize poetry exists. Here’s a partial though longwinded answer:
Looking way back in time, poetry’s roots can be found in primary oral cultures, before there was widespread use of and facility with the external technologies of memory (what eventually evolved into alphabetic systems of writing as we know them today in script, typographic, and digital forms). Things like meter and rhyme helped oral poets remember the details in long lists of names, catalogues of treasures, and historical relationships between communities. These poets performed an important cultural function (memory) that is now fulfilled for us by other means. Collins’ “The Names” hearkens back to this tradition.
I think oral poetry is alive and well in America today, even as printed collections of poetry don’t sell so well. (Although Seamus Heaney’s 2001 translation of Beowulf was a bestseller. At the moment it’s listed as #2,028 at Amazon, which is impressive but perhaps partly a result of being assigned in the classroom. I think narrative poetry will probably always outsell lyric poetry.)
In the three American cities — Atlanta, D.C., Kansas City — I’ve lived in over the last twenty years, I’ve seen an active poetry slam culture spring up. For much of this we can thank the popularity of hip hop (or maybe it’s the other way around: hip hop is popular because we like oral poetry). The sucess of 8 Mile at the box office speaks not only to Eminem’s celebrity, but to the enduring appeal of watching (a dramatic representation of) extemporaneous and poetic wordplay in an agonistic environment, the example of an environment that scholars like Walter Ong have described as having a greater energy to them than does writing. (Note that I am not comparing the quality of Eminem’s poetry to that of Billy Collins.)
In Spring of 2002 at the University of Maryland, when we co-sponsored a poetry slam in honor of the centennial of Langston Hughes’ birth, close to 1,000 people attended, many of them African-American high school students.
When Billy Collins came to read in Kansas City in the Fall of 2002, more than 800 people turned up to see him (granted, these 800 were not a wide cross section of KC’s diverse population; they were mostly white and middle class).
I’m guessing (though I’m not certain) that one could find a large number of such examples from across the country.
So I believe that American culture not only recognizes that poetry still exists, but that we value it, though perhaps more in its original and warmer oral form than when it’s “frozen” on the printed page.
George, you make some valid points, and I hope you know I was mostly playing devil’s advocate. I sometimes forget we have a poet laureate, but I personally value poetry very highly. It just seems that, in our culture, it’s not highly valued. And your point about oral poetry is an interesting one. I’m not sure I completely agree with it, but I’m openminded enough to say it seems valid, even if it doesn’t necessarily fly for me.
Collins and Rita Dove attracted a similar, if not larger, crowd in Atlanta last year. Georgia Tech has decided to support poetry actively, with Collins actually serving as a guest lecturer at Tech last spring, I believe.
I’d agree with George that poetry slams (and hip hop in general) are becoming the primary way in which poetry sustains itself within literary culture.