The High-Wire Artist

Robert Gumpert/NB Pictures/Contact Press Images
Nicholson Baker, Berkeley, California, 1998

Anyone who believes that poetry in this country is either dead or about to breathe its last ought to stop by a good bookstore and take a look at all the books and literary magazines being published. Or even better, let them search the Web and sample a few of the millions of entries found there on the subject of poets and poetry. The more they learn, the more baffled they’ll find themselves. At least one search yielded, for example, some 1,480,000 separate items on Emily Dickinson, 184,000 on John Ashbery, and 170,000 on Mary Oliver. Even the darkest cultural pessimist is bound to be taken aback.

Who are these folks who seem determined to copy and comment on almost every poem in the language without earning a penny in return? Are they a small, dedicated minority or a vast army of loners and insomniacs whose numbers run into the thousands? Do they have regular jobs? Are they married and do they have children? Where do they find the time to spend so many hours at the computer? In addition to what I already mentioned, there are more than 27,000 blogs on the Web devoted to poetry and countless online poetry magazines, both serious ones and ones where anyone can post a poem their eight-year-old daughter just wrote about the death of her goldfish.

According to a recent National Endowment for the Arts study, reading poetry continues to decline, especially among women. Still, in September of last year, more than 19,000 people attended the twelfth Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in a little town in New Jersey in which I participated with twenty other poets. Anyone who was there could plainly see that the thousands in attendance were Americans of all ages paying close attention and genuinely amused and even moved by the poems being read to them. For a country renowned for its short attention span, this was pretty amazing.

As was to be expected, most of the people in the audience at the festival were teachers and high school and university students, some of them coming from the 150 or so writing programs we now have in this country. What was striking about the poetry being read on the main stage every night was its variety. No single, overall characterization as to style and subject matter seemed possible. It’s as if these twenty poets did not live in the same country and in the same historical moment. This is the way it usually is. All our great and not-so-great poets have been more or less at odds not only with their times but with one another. Still, it doesn’t answer the question: Why this outpouring of affection? May poetry fulfill some profound need? Where else but in poems can these Americans find solace for their solitude and hear…

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