Isn't Poetry Dead?

by on Aug.05, 2011

In a comment to the Kent Johnson blog post, a question was raised: why do we even care about poetry? Isn’t it a “tired media”? Shouldn’t we make it “new”?

Isn’t poetry dead?

Isn’t the poetry “of our moment” “skittery” as Tony Hoagland keeps saying: manneristic, feminine, ephemeral. Shuddering. Spasmatic. Out of control.

Isn’t poetry delirious?

Isn’t it true, as Kenny Goldsmith keeps repeating, that poetry is 40 years behind art. It needs to catch up. It’s anachronistic. It must be made to grow up. And what would that entail? To become “art”? To expel itself from itself? Make itself clean? To make itself true? Mature? Tasteful?

Isn’t poetry stunted?

Isn’t poetry kitsch?

Isn’t there something inherently stunted about poetry? Isn’t it fake to conjure up images that don’t exist? Isn’t poetry too theatrical? Isn’t language too fake?

Isn’t poetry made of words? Words that keep signifying, despite the efforts of experimental poets to foreground the signifier. Isn’t language always not “just language,” isn’t language shit? Isn’t poetry shit? Isn’t poetry constantly conjuring images and puns? Doesn’t it “vibribrerar” in “deformationszonen”?

Isn’t poetry counterfeit?

Isn’t there too much glitter in poetry?

Aren’t the girls’s bodies too glamorous in poetry?

Isn’t poetry best written while wearing make-up?

Isn’t poetry best read in a flowery kingdom? In a velvet underground? Isn’t poetry dead? Isn’t poetry death? Isn’t the most poetical topic corpses? Isn’t the most poetic feeling death? Aren’t we crying now? Isn’t our mascara running? Isn’t the powder smearing? Aren’t we coated with sugar? Isn’t our hair stiff with sugar water? Aren’t we full of a black feeling now? Isn’t our heart a sidewalk? Isn’t our body a wreck? Isn’t our pictures soaked in wine? Aren’t we drinking from our mother’s hands in Hiroshima? Isn’t our sex vampiric? Aren’t there hummingbirds feeding from our open sores?

Isn’t it tacky to be writing poetry?

Isn’t it tacky to wear that gauze over your face? Isn’t your wound infected? Isn’t your pro-life rally expanding? Aren’t their bodies littering the palace of wisdom? Isn’t it called the “winter palace” because the bodies are so pale? Aren’t they dragging us to the abortion clinic? Aren’t they crowning us with doll parts? Aren’t they filching instruments for our abdication? Aren’t they asking us to recite a poem about an unborn child? Aren’t they burning sex tapes because it exilirates them? Aren’t they laughing into their pillows? Aren’t their pillows decorated with Mexican women? Isn’t that poetry? Aren’t our faces appalling? Aren’t we speaking to you through a seashell? Hasn’t it been rinsed with gasoline?

Isn’t Abu Ghraib kitsch? Isn’t poetry to blame for Abu Ghraib? Isn’t poetry insensitive to be so tacky? To put tacks in people’s bodies? Doesn’t poetry have blood on its hands? Doesn’t it reek to high heavens? Isn’t it religious when it reeks? Doesn’t it need to be cleaned off?

Isn’t poetry shit?

Isn’t the bathtub full of letter openers?

Aren’t we going to open the letter?

It’s from the Pope.

Oh, god, poetry must be dead.

What a relief.

Shouldn’t we give up?

23 comments for this entry:
  1. Amish

    Once a became a better instructor (thanks to you, JoGo), I started noticing that the kids in my writing class had this idea of *being* a poet more than writing poems. It was as if they knew it was kitsch to be a poet- no one really IS a poet, just people who live crazy lives and shit in landlord’s porches, I suppose. If you recall, the first semester was all first year students- new to college, new to everything, it seemed. They all wrote poems to get their feelings out OR, better yet, as an assignment while reading Keats in their high school class.

    One thing I feel like I always want to say that I do find tired, just a bit, is that poetry seems to only be for other poets or people who want to be poets and decide to read it for that reason. Maybe that’s just my observation, but it might well be the case.

  2. Drew K

    I think poetry is a lot of the things mentioned here… stunted, counterfeit, etc. Give up on poetry: no. Give up on tired and/or reactionary poetic ideals: yes. I mean, the new age of readers being produced are not readers…they are short-circuited viewers… poetry has to cross that barrier through language, visuals, media, whatever…to survive. It can’t just be content to do what it has been doing for ages and ages. Well, maybe poetry will survive no matter what, but it will just continue to get less and less relevant if it doesn’t address a changing public.

  3. Steve

    That made my eyebrow twitch. I’m exhausted.

  4. Paul R

    For what it’s worth (which I is assume nothing) I asked the question that seems to have inspired this. It was meant entirely tongue-in-cheek as a piece of absurd rhetoric (to counter another argument that struck me as equally absurd). I actually suspect words have a bit of life left in them.

    That said, Amish’s suggestion that a poet is someone who shits on the landlord’s porch opens up whole new possibilities. Practical ones at that … I’ve gone long stretches without writing. Similar stretches without pooping would likely warrant professional help.

  5. Paul R

    Also. I’m forever confused by the comment that poetry is 40 years behind the visual arts. Most of my background and all of my recognition has been as a visual artist (photography). I’ve become a follower of poetry in the last few years specifically because I’m bored with the art world. The poetry world, including the goofy, reductive arguments that it spawns everywhere, is more interesting and alive to me.

  6. Johannes

    Well my reply isn’t totally without its tongue-in-its-cheek… Thanks for instigating.


  7. adam strauss

    Poetry is what it is and what is is depends on whatever coordinates are relevant at that moment. perhaps it is more dead than alive as poetics statements do feel to me a bit like epitaphs. This list reminds me a bit of RS’s Sunset Debris except I’m not sure these questions are questions so much as counterfeits–which is fine. In a lot of ways poetry is like heterosexuality: there’s few demographics it can’t be or isn’t a part of–and this is soooooooo not the modus of a dead discourse! Is it just me or when people mean dead in regards to art do they not mean art itself but rather greatness? Lol greatness doesn’t have to be alive: poems by dead people can be read in an hour from now, or now, or next week, so that’s tres contemporary!

    Back to heteronyms: I think of Aase Berg as much someone with that name as I think Johannes G–she seems to sort of allude to this dynamic in interviews; it would be interesting to see AB’s poems translated by others, but hard to imagine. I’d be fascinated to see a Paul Muldoon rendition! As would I to see an AB version of Seamus Heaney.

  8. Johannes

    There are actually a lot of translations of Aase Berg’s poetry, including some English translations (by surrealists) that preceded mine. The German poet Oswald Egger has translated quite a bit (He also has a poetry book from Green Integer about translation, it’s really good)./Johannes

  9. adam strauss

    Oh, oops, dumb englishcentric mistake. Coolcool–good to know!

  10. Lara Glenum

    I love this, Johannka. Dreamy.

  11. Bud

    That was fun to read! A great poem! Made me more excited about ‘poetry’ than anything in a while.

  12. Kent Johnson

    Isn’t this a poem? How could poetry be terminally dead, if so?

    In any case, as we all know, there is no life without death. And poetry, like everything else, rises from ashes.

  13. carina finn

    favorite favorite favorite <3

  14. Ryan Sanford Smith

    Poetry isn’t dead but it does seem rather full of dead horses & swinging clubs.

  15. Johannes

    Aren’t dead horses poetic?

  16. Ryan Sanford Smith

    Only if literal and still seeping.

  17. g. everett

    i didn’t start attending university, or better put, community college until i was 28. before that, i was a roofer with many interests; poetry was never one of those, though i did love to read.

    at the age of 30 i took a poetry class taught by jamey dunham, a lesser known and wonderful poet as well as an amazing professor. anyway, poetry saved me, and not because i could simply work out my feelings, though that was a part of it. rather, it offered me something more like what the philosopher hubert dreyfuss refers to as a calling, as if poetry chose me.

    i’m not professing to be a great poet or anything, but what i am saying is that, given my background as a roofer and due to an extremely fundamental christian upbringing i had never really read anything poetic other than the bible. when i started writing, i wrote about the things i knew, with little regard for form or tradition. even if it was just for me, or “perhaps one or two good friends gathered after dinner over a jug of fierce red wine” (simic), i found life and redemption in the expression of poetry.

    this may be simple minded of me, but poetry, like all art, is what the maker can make of it. while i won’t disagree that i read and listen to dead poetry in my creative writing classes in school, it seems short sighted to accept that poetry is dead.

    though much of what is written may be but the “flower that coffins a corpse” (an e.m. bounds quote), if poetry is dead, i can only assume it is dead because it was written by dead men and women.

    i apologize for blathering on and mean no disregard to anyone.

  18. Lucas de Lima

    “Literature is an armored machine. It doesn’t care about writers. Sometimes it doesn’t even realize that they’re alive.” -Bolaño

  19. Nathan Hoks

    poetry = literature? I hope not…

  20. Danielle Pafunda

    You know what else is fun about this post? How it says everything like a question? How teenage girls and young women and some boys do? And people are always complaining about that? Like these speakers shouldn’t assume people DON’T UNDERSTAND WHAT THEY’RE SAYING OR TAKE IT SERIOUSLY? Like people GET IT WHEN THESE SPEAKERS ARE TONGUE-IN-CHEEK or something?

    Say it like a host.

    Say it like a girl?


  21. DeWitt Brinson

    What’s wrong with being dead?

    Most of the greatest people living today will be dead. Many great people may be dead already.

  22. Johannes

    I agree. I obviously write poetry…