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“The Myth of Poetry’s Decline in the US,” an essay by David Garyan


“The Myth of Poetry’s Decline in the US” is an essay that first appeared in Volume 6 of The American Journal of Poetry (January 1st, 2019).




The Myth of Poetry’s Decline in the United States


America, your poetry has become broccoli. No, this is not a line from an Allen Ginsberg poem, but it is true. Much of contemporary verse no longer tastes good, but it is good for you—or so the intellectuals say. It is time to take a different approach; maybe the reason why creatives/academics in the field complain about dwindling readership (absolutely misleading at best and completely untrue at worst) is not because the public is busy with other, more important things, but rather that post-modern balladry is too concerned with itself. How can readership be plunging when we have more MFA programs and literary journals than ever? In reality, the art is not affected by a waning readership but a change in readership. Poetry is largely not read by the everyday person (by this I mean people who are not scholars, enrolled in MFA programs, or edit a literary journal) anymore because it is, to a large extent, ignoring the sensibilities of the larger population, and, instead, choosing to satisfy the aesthetic of those involved in the art’s creation.


Verse is slowly becoming a hermit (or has already become one according to people who have abandoned it altogether). The hermits have deliberately taken vows of silence and have gone deep into the mountains to create “new languages.” Nobody can find these recluses, and, even if anyone is interested enough to seek them out, the loners refuse to share the burden of helping others understand their tongues; furthermore, they are not willing, at the very least, to provide some clues that people can use to navigate their lexis themselves—the burden is all on the reader and this is the best way, they claim, to learn new poetic “languages,” especially their own. The ascetics believe that their calculated and deliberate unwillingness to communicate the secrets of their lingo makes them more sophisticated than the very people who were interested enough in their message to begin with, and actually took the trouble to seek them out in the first place. The hermits have gone on, then, to call their variety of writing “experimental,” and, in fact, proceeded to claim that label entirely for themselves (even though there are millions of other ways to push verse’s boundaries besides just being difficult and making readers do all the work). To save the art, however, we must also be open to experimentation in other spaces of the linguistic laboratory, such as honesty, openness, and accessibility, because, in fact, new things are still waiting to be discovered there as well.


Poetry, like most sensible academic disciplines, should provide a service to people outside of its circle; in other words, disciplines like science or engineering, for example, are not just useful for scientists and engineers; these disciplines enrich the lives of other individuals who do not necessarily study them—or even want to; however, the majority of those who academically immerse themselves in verse—especially those who study the art of writing it—are in many cases not interested in providing a service to the everyday person at all. They mostly write for other creatives or academics, and they often neglect to consider what it takes to reach the world at large—those who may or may not be interested in the creation of art, much less high literary theory. Whether the non-humanities contingent of the population is actually interested in studying rhymed and unrhymed art makes no difference. Indeed, people must not be keen on studying science or engineering to have their lives enriched by it—better infrastructure, or more effective healthcare are just some of the ways STEM fields have improved society in general, and, strangely enough, also the bard who now uses a laptop to write and edit more efficiently.


Why is poetry, then, almost the only academic discipline—at least in its present state—mostly not interested in providing a service to those outside of its academic circle when other fields clearly have higher stakes than merely impressing their department chair? Maybe one day we will be lucky enough to have a type of experimental pharmacy where the burden to prove medicinal effectiveness rests solely on the patient’s effort to ingest various drugs in order to see which ones actually work, but, naturally, I have some reservations with this approach. Luckily, all noble scientists who have conducted experiments (especially the riskiest ones) never got the crazy idea to abandon their subjects in order for them to better figure out what their own work actually means; the “experiment,” for lack of better words, has always relied upon a mutual relationship between the subject and creator for optimal success.


A large part of what constitutes experimentation is dependent on the subject; it is he/she who ingests the drug and experiences the effects (and who likewise consumes poetic content that, in turn, becomes the experience), but a sensible scientific (and also poetic) study fundamentally requires a good scientist (and poet) who can guide the participant towards some reasonable result or outcome; otherwise, what we have is simply a bunch of recreational drug users (or readers) who do not contribute—or are incapable of contributing much to either discipline in a sensible way, mainly because they do not know what they are doing, or cannot even decide where to begin. The poet is the shaman—he must provide the trance, but he must also guide his subjects (to some extent) in order for them not to waste the experience that is given; the shaman cannot relinquish all responsibility the same way that a poet cannot relinquish the entire burden of meaning-making onto the reader.


It is important to recognize, consequently, that not everyone who takes risks writes one brand of the so-called “experimental” verse—that not all risks have the same value, and that not all risks are necessarily about the deliberate concealment of meaning—in this respect, not all “danger” has the same necessity. We must, thus, rescue the label “experimental poetry” from those who have hijacked the definition and rewritten it to mean only one thing—deliberate concealment of meaning. The problem with intentional obfuscation—or difficulty for difficulty’s sake—is that too much obfuscation leads to a greater decline in the readership of poetry among those who do not write it; this obfuscation, however, has almost no negative effect on the academic institutions where the art is actually produced because journals continue to be printed (yet mostly read by other writers only) and MFA programs grow in number every year. We should not relegate creativity to the populist sphere, but we should also not blame its loss of popularity on the populace when we deliberately withhold its essence from larger societies while at the same time desperately seeking their very recognition and validation.


Some obfuscation and difficulty in writing is good because it promotes closer reading and allows for greater interpretation, but bards should, to some extent, meet the reader halfway; they should challenge the reader to find the gated community where the party is held, but they should also send the invitation, and, when the hermits actually show up to celebrate, they should be willing to speak openly and honestly—indeed, attending a party presupposes a desire to socialize with others, not just with one’s self. What “experimental” writers want, however, is to somehow realize the classic, unattainable scenario: They want to socialize, but they do not want to speak; they want to be read by people outside of academia, but their entire aesthetic is built upon the exclusion of those very people: “As predicted, Simple Joe did not understand my piece about superstructures—success! Oh, when will the world finally recognize my genius?”


A lot of “experimental” verse claims to host a party but it does not want to send the invitation at all; it prefers that the reader find the gathering on their own, and, to make matters worse, some authors also take their house numbers down—if the reader actually manages to find the house through context (looking at the numbers on other houses), they prefer, then, to keep their vows of silence, and this happens out of fear that their cryptic genius is compromised any further, because, gee, after structuralism came post-structuralism, and we have not really taken the time to come up with something even more difficult, except maybe the font “Wingdings” on Microsoft Word, which is not really our invention, but we can nevertheless always fall back on Egyptian hieroglyphics to really push the envelope of “experimental” line onanism. Such authors are so obsessed with their own mind and so preoccupied with holding a pen in their right hand that they love to utterly forget about the readers sitting next to them (the few that they have left, anyways), who are interested in what they have to say, and might actually like them; this one-sided approach to writing does nothing but confuse and alienate the very readers we blame for the “decline of poetry,” which is supposedly real, but I have serious doubts about the veracity of this apparent “decline.”


To say that the US is undergoing a drop in readership is as absurd as saying that chicken nuggets are a vegetable. Take Germany, for example, a country of about 83 million people and the economic powerhouse of Europe. How many MFA faculties does Germany have? 10? 20? 30? 40, maybe? How about only 1? At the University of Leipzig, students can enroll in the only creative writing MFA in Germany, Deutsches Literaturinstitut Leipzig (DLL). Dr. Sebastian M. Hermann, who teaches in the American Studies program at the aforementioned uni, said the following about MFAs in a Deutsche Welle article written by Courtney Tenz: “Speaking very generally, Germans tend to think of creative writing as something that cannot be taught—a matter of genius, independent of education.” Historically, Germany has been called “Das Land der Dichter und Denker” (the land of poets and thinkers); yet, in a country with only one MFA-granting institution, why is nobody complaining about the “decline of poetry” in Germany? In the US, we have close to 300 such programs, and yet, people continue to put forth this misleading argument; with that amount of academic dedication to the craft, somebody in the US has to be reading verse, but who exactly are we talking about here? The problem is that these readers are largely not everyday people.


It should be noted that Leipzig’s creative writing program has its roots in the communist East German government, which founded the Johannes R. Becher Institute and here, in 1955, began the first so-called “creative seminars.” Notwithstanding, Tenz writes: “To keep the writers from getting too caught up in the world of fiction and philosophy, they were regularly sent to work in the coal mines.” Truly excessive, to say the least, and probably having more to do with the economic sake of East Germany than anything else, the idea, nonetheless, to put some distance between writers and the academy might be a good one to implement here in the States (albeit using different means) because it may remind artists that they are not simply writing for their workshops, and that many of their readers are not scholars enjoying comfortable existences, but, in fact, enduring challenging lives that many academics today are quite out of touch with. In other words, the everyday person probably does not need additional “challenges,” or what people with English degrees like to call “poetry,” which comes from learned individuals who feel that they must be obstreperous because they have nothing better to do in office hour.


It should come as no surprise that today’s creative writing program in Leipzig no longer requires employment in the coal mines; what is striking, however, is that the sole “MFA” in Germany mostly gets criticized nowadays for producing “institute prose,” which Tenz says critics define as “a consequence of studying instead of living outside the academy, where many authors find their inspiration.” Dr. Joseph Haslinger, a well-known Austrian writer and professor at the University of Leipzig, further echoed the danger of excessive academicism and theory within creative writing programs in Tenz’s article: “There is talk of works which are crafted with virtuosity but with scanty content, works which hide their deficient experience of life behind well-oiled literary technique.” David Ignatow’s, “No Theory,” is the perfect example of a poem which encapsulates the aforementioned view:


No theory will stand up to a chicken’s guts being cleaned out, a hand rammed up to pull out the wriggling entrails, the green bile and the bloody liver; no theory that does not grow sick at the odor escaping.


However, what do the most prestigious MFA programs in the US do for their students? They surely do not make them smell the odor escaping from a chicken’s guts—oh no, God forbid the rich kids should suffer some adversity and actually improve their stories or poems in the process. “Here is what we will do instead, Professor Pennelegion-Dickford-Buckley-Smith, III: Let us give incoming students $30,000 stipends a year so they cannot focus just on writing, but so they can concentrate exclusively on writing what we want them to write without worrying about how they will fund their indoctrination program.”

With the sensibilities and needs of the general public mostly ignored by today’s contemporary writers, it is no wonder, then, why so many people refuse the urge to invite the art into their lives; it becomes apparent why they are sometimes put off by its anti-social, high-brow ways. The elitists have successfully moved the party to their aforementioned gated community, and refused the populace entry into the most sacred, intimate rooms of the compound; they force individuals to watch from a distance while they themselves salivate over “theory” and try to do everything possible to turn the plain cheeseburger into a manicured hors-d’oeuvre, all because no one is allowed to eat cheeseburgers inside a chateau. The writer, Joseph Heller, perfectly summarized such a position: “They know everything there is to know about literature, except how to enjoy it.”


The problem is that “sophisticated” literary theory is used as a cover for the inability to communicate profoundly in more accessible ways—authors take a vow of silence about the meaning of their work, because, deep down, they arrive at the realization that they have nothing interesting to share, so they invent their own language and speak to themselves. Consequently, the entire burden of meaning-making is redirected onto the reader and if the recipient does crack the code, it is not he who gets the credit for being a master codebreaker, but, strangely, the poet who becomes the “cryptic genius,” all on the backbreaking work of the ones who read him. This is an unfair exchange. No one should ever be someone else’s unpaid Alice Kober for writing that might, at best, be described as “experimental Morse Code,” but this is exactly what is happening.


To say “experimental” verse is an experiment is akin to saying that a scientist should write random numbers on the wall and redirect the burden of discovery onto other scientists, all in hopes that they will find some genius in the work (if it exists at all)—without guidance or help from its author; it sounds insane, but this is exactly what many “experimental” bards expect of their readers. It becomes apparent, then, why so many people simply give up trying to decode the hermit’s language or are no longer interested in finding his gated community where meaning is so closely guarded—even if they were initially very interested in the language or fascinated by the writer’s personality; readers are told there is a great party being held and if the invitation does go out, it arrives with no directions to the house, much less an address (even that would help) that can help society at large enter this space that is, at present, largely open only to those who are doing the creative work themselves. How are people supposed to feel welcomed, much less access these spaces, when many of the writers flat out neglect the sensibilities of the very ones they desperately seek (or claim to seek) recognition from?


It seems strange to say, but perhaps academics actually want this “decline” because it favors their kind of art. Maybe that is why we keep hearing so much about this “decline” in what seems like every literary journal because the argument favors the status quo—those who are heavily invested in literary theory and promote the type of verse which agrees with those theories while excluding all other aesthetics because they may threaten their academic specialization or have a direct influence on what classes actually enroll. In other words, imagine doing post-structural theory on Bukowski—it seems inherently absurd from the get-go because the theorists claim that all language is subject to the principles laid out by post-structural theory, yet, at the same time, almost no professors want to breathe within a five mile radius of a Bukowski collection (let alone teach it) because they realize the inherent, monumental absurdity of the effort: “Yes, Professor Winterbottom, I realize that even Bukowski’s work conforms to the principles of différance laid out by Derrida, but, golly, to do our privileged theory on this, excuse my saying, filth, is as silly as inviting a hobo to a White House dinner. Surely, the classes will enroll like wildfire and we’ll be suffering because we specialize in Keats and no one wants to read Keats—they all want to read this drunk, Bukowski. Well, we shan’t give them that pleasure, Professor Winterbottom. No, we shan’t.”


No, we have no right to say that the art is in decline simply because people refuse to read what the academy wants them to read and instead choose other things. If the academy has assumed the liberty to dictate what aesthetic is given attention and what aesthetic is ignored, then they should also assume the duty of realizing they cannot gain the readership of those they choose to exclude; however, the academy does not want to assume this latter virtue, and, therefore, it has resentfully declared that “poetry is obsolete” because those that they have excluded are not willing to support them in building an aesthetic that does not favor the excluded writing. Even though the art gains a greater academic audience every year, the actual diversity of the aesthetic grows very little and we simultaneously lose large portions of the non-academic readership that are needed to continue having a diverse audience. Why not, then, try to bring more flavor back to verse? Is it not about time to stop feeling guilty about reading a poem and “understanding” it? Why does everything have to be so damn difficult? Why can’t it simply be challenging, or even hard? Why does every piece have to be deconstructed so much that it is impossible to put it back together? No, difficult must stay because it is one of the experiments, but it cannot claim to be the only experiment.


Judging from the tidal waves of bad relationship lines on the internet, and the massive book sales of the so-called “social media poets,” it is surprising how many young people actually gravitate towards the craft, and, more importantly, how deceiving it actually is to say that the art is in “decline.” One must only look at how many people still believe in its power—even if they read “bad” writing or write badly themselves—to understand that “decline” is really not the proper word to use here. Yes, verse must be saved, but it must be rescued from a change of readership that is increasingly becoming too academic and one-sided. Writing does not belong exclusively to the university because it was not born there. Poetry was born on the walls of Sumer, in the amphitheaters of Greece, among the plains and mountains that Native Americans considered sacred, and, even, one might argue, after the invention of fire, at the moment when that caveman realized what he/she had done and uttered the ultimate sound of success. The art used to be generation after generation of kids raised in the wilderness, but their descendants have finally been adopted into hallowed halls of education and made to dress like royals in order to show off this prized possession that, for ages, made men and women—not university professors—immortal. “Behold, Professor Donahue and Professor Dinwiddie. In this cage, we have poetry in Ph.D. regalia, a soon-to-be visiting professor at Dartmouth and then Yale—under direct supervision, of course, and a great candidate for the tenure-track position at Brown; yes, Professor Donahue, it was once naked, dangerous, and powerful, but we have done a good job taming it—giving it some culture, beating the nostalgie de la boue out of it, so to say.”


To save the craft, one must return some of its privilege and essence to where it came from—to the world. Paradoxically, we can start with the people who choose it as a university path—not those who have studied it for years, but, rather, young people who have no clue about how verse should be analyzed, and, hence, have fewer biases about what must be read and what must be excluded; too many times, the few “creatives” who brave to pursue English degrees—despite parental objections to become doctors or lawyers—encounter unnecessary and deliberate obfuscation of the art. However, we need less academics who understand everything about writing (which amounts to informing students that they are utterly responsible for finding their own meaning) and more teachers who actually enjoy creating, mainly because they can formulate some original ideas about the craft without holding onto current or past literary trends like they are the only two pieces of paper on a sinking boat full of metaphors. In a word—less post-structural theory in class, and we need to stop equating only “difficult” genius with genius.


No student who happens to pursue a career in medicine would ever hear this on the first day: “Well, students, welcome to medical school. As you know, medicine is a very difficult subject and we will try to do our best to help you succeed; therefore, we have picked textbooks that are unnecessarily difficult and the burden is entirely on you to understand them. The authors are dead, although they actually live comfortably in New Haven and Boston, and if you do not read closely enough, your patients will soon be dead too. Good luck.” Exaggerated, of course, but often only sarcasm and hyperbole work to drive the point home: No professor would ever want to make medicine harder than it actually is, or confuse their students unnecessarily. However, many of those in academia working in Liberal Studies departments all across the country—for some reason or another—feel that verse should be “academictight”: No zephyr of enjoyment shall pass through or escape from these fart-ridden academic containers we call lecture halls and classrooms. Well, it is impossible to save the life of poetry, much less the life of one person, if the students—who potentially sacrifice power and prestige to study it—are continuously insulted with inaccessible writing and made to feel stupid when they cannot satisfy the often insane artistic reading demands of those who wrote gibberish.


Anyone can write something that is cloudy in the experimental sense—something akin to this scenario: “Dear Reader. I am conducting an experiment: You are on an airplane flying coach over Paris at 40,000 feet; it is quite overcast below, but, luckily, you are sitting next to a window, and, at least, there are no screaming kids. Your job is to describe how it feels like to walk the streets of Paris; by now, you have probably realized that “Paris” is my experimental poem and I am trying to make you ‘see’ it from a vantage point that makes it quite impossible, in fact, to see anything at all.” If the endeavor fails, the writer can always fall back on the comfort of saying exactly that— thereby escape any serious criticism, much less allow themselves to feel vulnerable; in other words, the paradox is that the so-called “experimental” writer is actually taking less risks because failure is almost always excused—in other words, the courageous act of experimentation alone is enough to excuse the mess outright; however, try to write a bad villanelle, or even a bad lyric piece in free verse—the ridicule will come like mudslides in Los Angeles after the El Nino. Perhaps another type of risk worth taking, or experiment, for lack of better words, is honesty, melody, and originality, capable of reaching people who hold no academic titles—to attain an audience in new, original ways, and to struggle doing this with a language they already know. Sometimes, the bard must also work hard to create meaning, and not simply assume that readers are happy to carry this burden all the time. The poet’s plight for new, accessible meaning can also lead to sophisticated writing, or have we forgotten this? Our difficult journey for original clarity should continue to be an experiment worthy of pursuit, and, in fact, it is this area of the “laboratory” where most of the risks are actually dangerous for the writer because it is here that ridicule is most likely to occur; if one writes a bad poem, it is his fault; on the other hand, if readers cannot find redeeming qualities in an excellent work, they can try again if the piece is accessible enough, or simply ignore it. However, “experimental” writers are often not interested in this type of experiment because it requires “openness,” not obfuscation—it requires empathy for someone else—the ability to feel vulnerable, above all, and the ability to guide someone towards a “new” language using the language people are familiar with.


Poetry can be saved if writers take a little more time to notice the artistic sensibilities of the everyday person—they are there; I am absolutely sure of it. Readers must be challenged, but not sacrificed; they must not only be invited, but also be given some guidance. “Experimental” verse, on the other hand, is like a mountain guide who tells people to climb difficult peaks themselves—maybe one or two climbers will somehow reach the top, and this has always been the guide’s excuse that his philosophy is sound. Good poems, however, meet the reader halfway—they do not abandon them. If the art is to be saved, it must not only talk to itself, but reach out to others for help.



Works Cited


“No Theory.” Against the Evidence: Selected Poems, 1934-1994, by David Ignatow, Wesleyan/University Press of New England, 1994, pp. 59–59.


Tenz, Courtney. “Leipzig Writers’ Program Shapes New Generation of German Authors.” Deutsche Welle, 17 Mar. 2010, www.dw.com/en/leipzig-writers-program-shapes-new-generation-of-german-authors/a-5355211.

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