What Has Happened to Poetry?

Over at Virginia Quarterly Review, Willard Spiegelman asks this provocative question: “Has poetry changed?” Since the 80s, Spiegelman has served as a literary magazine editor-in-chief, a position that has required him to review hundreds of poetry submissions. At Southwest Review, where he works, Spiegelman received more submissions from poets in 2010 than he did in the 80s.

The internet era, however, has soured Spiegelman’s view on poetry:

“Well, there are many ways in which submitting to a literary magazine is not like sex. But the two activities have one thing in common: Timing is everything. The problem is that the eager author has no sense of it.” I may arrive at my desk in a foul mood. If so, I probably will reject everything my eye passes over. If I feel the weight of a groaning backlog, I also feel less willing to add to it. But if the planets are in a proper alignment, my natural sanguinity may translate into greater flexibility and generosity, and give an unpredictable advantage to whoever wrote what I pick up that morning.

One earnest woman raised her hand. “Don’t you think that the Internet is a wonderful thing, because it allows more voices to be heard?” she asked hopefully.

“Not at all,” I shot back. First of all, there are too many voices. Dr. Johnson complained more than two centuries ago that more people were writing than reading. And, besides, I retorted, “How much time do you spend reading the work of other poets you find on websites, rather than reading your own postings there?” She sat down, saddened and abashed. I did not mean to offend, but rather to make some obvious points.

Ever year, he notes, most of the poems he reads are classics from his formative years, staples that he returns to. The poems that are submitted nowadays tend to rebel against rules, forms, and conventions.

Form makes its considerable demands. Our current crop of students would profit from more of them. Perhaps such demands might reduce a commitment to what Prunty calls the “democratic” or “ecstatic” kind of poems that students favor. Perhaps it would increase an appreciation for poetry’s difficulties. Whatever happens to poems, however, one thing is certain: poetry will survive.

Poetry’s obituary has been written and re-written. A new academic declares the art form’s death as each month passes, but poets exist, and they aren’t going anywhere. As Spiegelman observes, the challenge writers face is not that “writing is dying,” but that writing, first and foremost, is an intimate, intensely personal act. While writers want their work to be published and widely distributed, Spiegelman suggests that the creative process is a transformative, learning experience–which he argues could be a comforting thought for frazzled writers.


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