Thursday, February 26, 2009

Who Listens to Poets?

Poets have long been a tiny part of our national life, no matter how we wish it to be otherwise, or tell each other how important it is. On the other hand, American poetry is booming in its own twisted way. Rap, cowboy poetry, slams, workshops, readings, and graduate programs abound. We have hundreds of on-line and print publications to keep up with. (Wow, I just ended that sentence with two prepositions, and I'm proud of it.) If you want a visual of that list, go to and look at their member list. CLMP stands for Council of Literary Magazines and Presses. In my own corner of the world I can attend four poetry readings a month, most of them small but fervent. I found four huge shelves of poetry books at my almost-local B&N this week, so many that I had to make choices about how to spend my book allowance. Yup, it's a good time to be an American poet. We are free to write sonnets or free verse, language poems or narratives, short, long, serious or light. I can go dizzy just thinking about the many sizes of poetry.

And if I'm dizzy, what happens to the newcomers? Where can a newly outed poet go for solace in this chaos? I think they go to friends, or they make friends with other poets, maybe those who have been around a while. They listen and talk, they scribble and erase, type and delete. They experiment. Experimentation is at the heart of American poetry. Since Walt Whitman and the Belle of Amherst broke the tight-fitting rules, we have each been allowed to choose our mentors and our heroes. If I tried to list the poets I hold in esteem, we'd never reach the end. An important factor in establishing such a list is, obviously, reading and listening to other poets, lots of them, to see what's available and what appeals to me. It means that I finally had the courage to face a mic and listen for whatever response I could get from a handful of people kind enough to listen to me. This dialog doesn't end. It's a life sentence with complicated cell mates and complex phrasing. Come on in, the water's fine.

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