The Speed of Poetry
When I visit the Poetry Publication Showcase, an annual display of the year's new poetry books at Poets House in Manhattan, I feel as if I've been granted a precious audience with Poetry itself. Like the large golden bee in a James Wright poem, "drowning in his own delight" as he burrows into a juicy pear, I gorge, revel, wallow. In this year's version, on view in April in New York and displayed again this month at the American Library Association's annual conference in Chicago, the good, the bad and the trendy of the new millennium strutted their stuff side by side with the fabulous has-beens in the Library of America's two-volume anthology The Twentieth Century. Eccentrically produced micropress chapbooks danced cheek to cheek with the glossy offerings of trade biggies Knopf and Norton. The Language poet and the New Formalist bedded down together, alongside the spoken word artist in slightly muffled print guise (Listen Up! Spoken Word Poetry, edited by Zoë Anglesey [Ballantine]). I rediscovered Aleida Rodríguez, whose work I savored years ago in lesbian feminist lit mags, finally out with her first book, Garden of Exile (Sarabande). When I wearied of contemporary riches, I refreshed with a quick dip into The Selected Poems of Po Chü-i (New Directions) or The Selected Poems of Max Jacob (Oberlin).
I first encountered the Poetry Publication Showcase in 1992, the year of its inception, when I covered it for a writers' magazine. Then as now, the display was produced in tandem with a series of panels, readings and other events that offer one of the best available chances to assess the current status and immediate prospects of poetry in the United States. In 1992 the mood was feisty but beleaguered: "We few, we happy few, we band of poets" went the boast. Now there's a sense that poetry's making it, moving rapidly to the center(s) of our cultural life. Poets House executive director Lee Briccetti, who dreamed up the Showcase as a way to bring attention to a severely marginalized literary form, hopes the poetry world is poised to take advantage of what she terms "a moment of cultural readiness."
This moment was created by a range of phenomena by now so familiar in poetry circles that the Academy of American Poets' website matter-of-factly refers to "the 'poetry renaissance' of the 1990's." Among oft-cited indicators of the trend are the proliferation of Internet poetry sites and displays of poetry on public transportation; the rapid success of National Poetry Month, begun in April 1996; television documentaries on poets and poetry by Bill Moyers and Bob Holman; and US poet laureate Robert Pinsky's Favorite Poems Project. With the runaway popularity of slams and other spoken word events, poetry gets anointed as a star of popular culture ("Rap Is Poetry" proclaimed the lead story in the March-April Black Issues Book Review) even as it is being revived as a token of elite cultural capital (acting schools chancellor Harold Levy mailed poems by Wallace Stevens to members of the New York City school board this spring, in what the New York Times described as an effort to "raise the level of debate on education policy").
It's a moment of peril as well as one of opportunity. I keep thinking of a phrase from Walter Benjamin's essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction": reception in a state of distraction. Benjamin associated this phrase with the loss of the possibility for a contemplative response to works of art. He connected that loss to the evaporation of "aura," the trace of art's religious origins that he claimed is destroyed by the reproduction of unique and stationary objects as ubiquitous, portable photographs. Distracted reception strikes me as an unavoidable consequence of the conditions under which today's poetry is produced and consumed--the general conditions of our wired lives as well as specific conditions of publication, distribution and so forth. It doesn't bode well for my commitment to poetry as a contemplative genre that I've actually been thinking of the Showcase as a chance to get up to speed with current poetry.
Poetry's new momentum clearly owes something to these yearly displays, which have enabled poetry advocates to take stock of, and improve on, mechanisms for what Briccetti calls "allowing the public to bump up against poetry." And it's a two-way street; Poets House has thrived on the increasingly poetry-friendly atmosphere. Founded in 1985 by Stanley Kunitz and Elizabeth Kray, the organization has occupied its present site, a comfortable SoHo loft space it is rapidly outgrowing, since the early nineties. Its browsing library, which is free and open to the public, has been built entirely by donation and now numbers some 35,000 volumes--more comprehensive, Briccetti contends, than the Library of Congress's poetry collection. Readings, talks on poetry and events such as Carol Conroy's "Poems by Heart" workshops (where participants recite memorized favorites) are held throughout the year.