Art For the Happy Few

Speaking to a journalist in 1897, humorist Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) stated, “I have even heard on good authority that I was dead.” As I continue the April observance of National Poetry Month 2024, I’ve read similar statements related to poetry.

More than half a lifetime ago (August 1988), Commentary Magazine ran an article “Who Killed Poetry?” Written by Joseph Epstein, the article is still available to read online. Back in that time, Epstein’s commentary is said to have caused quite a stir in literary circles. The essay provoked necessary discussion about poetry’s relevance. Coincidentally, the highly-acclaimed film Dead Poets Society was released in 1989. Epstein’s death of poetry statement was published eight years before National Poetry Month‘s inaugural 1996 celebration.

The hubbub created by Epstein’s essay went unnoticed by me as I was smack-dab in the middle of mothering my four little ones. Fast forward several decades and I definitely wanted to understand Epstein’s point of view. His comments are highly relevant to anyone who creates poetry. For those of us who consider poetry a calling, Epstein doesn’t paint an encouraging picture.

There are numerous valuable points in his essay, but his last paragraph provides a concise summary. He says:

“… the entire enterprise of poetic creation seems threatened by having been taken out of the world, chilled in the classroom, and vastly overproduced by men and women who are licensed to write it by degree if not necessarily by talent or spirit.”

Gives one pause, doesn’t it? Epstein makes a case that the domain of poetry has become something of a closed system, revolving around the horde of academics who teach, write and publish poetry. He reminds the reader there are more than 250 universities with creative-writing programs, but notes “… outside a very small circle, [poetry is] scarcely read.” If poetry hasn’t earned its audience (people who are curious readers as opposed to those who are reluctant readers), maybe poetry is dead indeed!

Is there hope? Over the years, I’m relieved to say there have been excellent responses to Epstein’s 1988 reproof. (I’ll post more about those responses later this month.) Literary critic Bruce Bawer appeared to share Epstein’s point of view when he observed “A poem is, after all, a fragile thing …” judged most worthy when the poet’s academic credentials “can be listed on a resumé.”

Based on Bawer’s observation, I offer the sonnet below, my tongue-in-cheek homage (if you will) to those 250 university creative-writing programs where poetry is duly protected from the plebes and given the occasional half-hearted nod to maintain its life support.

The Fragile Thing, a sonnet

Whether there’s hope for poetry, it’s not my place to render judgment. I will simply continue humbly composing for my Audience of One.

Comments Are Always Appreciated!