Whenever I start feeling down about low sales numbers and money worries, I can always cheer myself up with the thought that at least I'm not a poet. Poets have it rough these days, have had it rough since the days of wealthy patrons back in the Renaissance, have had it rough for a good long while. Poets are definitely not in it for the money-even Homer had to wander relentlessly around ancient Greece as a traveling bard, and he was freaking blind.
Poetry itself seems to appeal to a minor part of today's population (I know, I'm Captain Obvious). If novels and reading in general have taken a sucker punch to the stomach in today's multi-media frenzy, poetry has taken it on the chin. Few people other than other poets and writers seem to read poetry on a consistent basis, with the vast majority of our fellow Americans either scorning it outright or regarding poetry only as useful for either a funeral or a wedding (which is almost as bad as outright scorn, and has led to the same terrible handful of poems being repeated endlessly to a sea of mute, confused faces, which hasn't exactly led to a boost in poetry's popularity-I never come back from a wedding with a burning desire to tear into a collection of love poems printed off the Internet).
So what's gone so terribly wrong for poetry? As far as I can tell, in my very limited survey, the quality of poetic output is as good or better than it's ever been. Has the public's attention span shrunk so much it can't handle twelve to sixteen lines of verse? People still love to buy 700 page thriller/crapfest novels, so you'd think they could still handle the occasional poem. Does poetry ask too much of its modern readers? Here, sit quietly for a minute and think. Really think. Think about this distilled moment in time and feel what these words are trying to convey. No. Shut up and listen. Ah, fuck you, then!
I don't think the nature of poetry has changed, but something in the collective cultural consciousness has. The more we've learned about the world, the quicker information has been poured into our minds, the harder it has become for the average Joe and Jane to reflect in a deep and meaningful way. It's easy and fun to think about a cooking show or a home makeover, but pretty hard to admit that everything around you will one day be dust. Poetry, at its beating heart, is a subtle and not so subtle reminder that time is fleeting, that we are mortal, and that the best thing we can do, the best we can hope for, is to capture the beauty and life around us while we still can.
I can understand not liking poetry, though I'd like to think even the greatest detractor just hasn't found the right poet for him or her yet. I can also understand being intimidated by poetry in a way you cannot quite express (like I used be, before I read a lot of Bukowski and got it out of my system). There will never be an art form that pleases everybody, but that's probably part of what makes that art form great in the first place.
I'm reading Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins right now. I love how he writes because it serves as a good reminder that a poem doesn't have to be a big deal to be beautiful:
by Billy Collins
In keeping with universal saloon practice,
the clock here is set 15 minutes ahead
of all the clocks in the outside world.
This makes us a rather advanced group,
doing our drinking in the unknown future,
immune from the cares of the present,
safely harbored a quarter of an hour
beyond the woes of the contemporary scene.
No wonder such thoughtless pleasure derives
from tending the small fire of a cigarette,
from observing this glass of whiskey and ice,
the cold rust I am sipping,
or from having an eye on the street outside
when Ordinary Time slouches past in a topcoat,
rain running off the brim of his hat,
the late edition like a flag in his pocket.