It is Difficult to Get the News from Poems
by William Skink
A great quote from the poet William Carlos Williams:
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
WCW is one of my favorite poets, and this bit of verse has stuck with me over the years. What I think Williams is trying to get at is something poetry in America has been struggling with for a long time.
Americans don’t look to poetry to enrich our understanding of current events. Poems are more likely to be thought of as decorative, or ornamental, like a flowery escapist medium to be listened to but not heard.
Maybe it’s difficult to get the news from poems because really what cultural value do we place on poetry? Who reads it? Who buys the books or writes the reviews? Who knows Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen is a more potent engagement of “news” than anything cable news will ever be capable of?
It wasn’t always so. A book titled Partisans and Poets: The Political Work of American Poetry in the Great War documents how the lead up to America entering WWI was in part grappled over in verse. In searching around for material about this book I found this blurb:
In Partisans and Poets: The Political Work of American Poetry in the Great War, Van Wienen examines the historical, social, political, racial, and gender-based components of poetry production as they address America’s alienation from and subsequent participation in World War I. Van Wienen balances a number of perspectives on the war: progressive, conservative, patriotic, pacifist, and radical. As if addressing the poetic mainstream directly, Van Wienen says that the “status” or aesthetic of war poetry is not the focus of this book; but poetry’s service to politics and ideology is. Van Wienen argues that partisan debate over the war influenced poetry writing and vice versa. He demonstrates through sampling the mass press that the degree to which war poetry was published from 1914-18 in the popular press made it more representative of American culture than professional or academic poetry in literary journals.
Poetry published in the “popular press”? Indeed. I wrote about this book when I first got it 4 years ago, here. In that comment thread, and a few others, there were actual back and forth conversations in verse. Back in the day conversing in verse was a more common phenomenon. Poetic engagement of the issues of the day was not uncommon.
The problem, from the ivory tower academic standpoint, is that topical poems usually lack the staying power of the canonical poems. But maybe it’s the academic over-reliance on the almighty canon that has contributed to the slow disappearance of a more accessible form of poetry.
As a poet who wants his poems to be accessible and sometimes topical, I won’t shy away from putting out less-than-great topical poems for the enjoyment of readers here. I will soon unveil a series of Missoula food haikus I’ve been working on the last few days. Stay tuned…