On Poetry & Friendship


Dear Friends,

Before sharing a thought-experiment of sorts, I want to briefly mention (and invite you to) three happenings this week at Innisfree: 1) Alan Mudd will be reading on Monday (tomorrow) the 15th at 5:00pm, 2) I will be reading on Thursday the 18th at 7:30pm, and 3) Indigo Deany has her art on display for the month! Mudd will share from his recent Lunar iteration of Red King; I will give away copies of a short book with long title. All three of us would truly love to see you. 

And now, a Sunday meander. I hope it meets you where you are.

“All I currently feel like doing is reading the work of my friends." I wrote those words to a lifelong friend back in March of this year. The feeling seems to exist at the center of a whirling variety of professional and institutional expectations. And I wonder: Why wouldn't it be valuable to admire and encourage the work of one's friends? What makes competition better than play? What separates the two processes in the first place?

“Can Poetry Matter?" (The Atlantic Monthly, May 1991) is an excellent essay by Dana Gioia (currently serving as Poet Laureate of California). In it he discusses a poetry characterized by an eagerness to please the right people, to close the specialized loop, a culture turned subculture, diminished by bureaucracy and corroded by subsidization. “Like subsidized farming that grows food no one wants," he writes, “a poetry industry has been created to serve the interests of the producers and not the consumers. And in the process the integrity of the art has been betrayed."

Gioia then makes a leap from this void of integrity to the current economic mode: “The cultural credibility of the professional poetry establishment depends on maintaining a polite hypocrisy. Millions of dollars in public and private funding are at stake. Luckily, no one outside the subculture cares enough to press the point very far."

I hold an MFA in writing & poetics, which I suppose places me squarely in a subculture. But my concerns are no less relatable for the placement: 1) How can I earn a steady living? 2) Where is community? 3) What is this body for? 4) Who is this mind and why?

Gioia seems to be addressing the core of poetry, not just the literary endeavor. He seems to be thinking about larger standards for “making" a living. (Etymologically, poetry comes from the Greek poiesis, literally “a making, fabrication.") I will go out on a limb here in saying there are plenty of us — human beings — who don't feel the need to earn millions of dollars. Survival is much simpler than all those zeros. So, how can we expect poetry to have a broad cultural impact when what we “make" — money — increasingly pits specialization against relatability?

At another point in his essay Gioia cites Robert Bly in suggesting that the praise of “mediocre poetry" leads to a collective doubting of our critical faculties. He extrapolates: “Seeing so much mediocre verse not only published but praised, slogging through so many dull anthologies and small magazines, most readers ... now assume that no significant new poetry is being written. This public skepticism represents the final isolation of verse as an art form in contemporary society."

What if poetry has never been a purely literary art form? What if verbal mechanics are just one aspect of the poet's function? What if the poet today is on the verge of a new cultural role? Why not insistently praise the poet's struggle? It is a human struggle.

All nations struggle with the political necessity of boundaries and the personal absurdity of borders. We know that language is a fluid system and that systems are both discrete and interdependent. Perhaps what I mean to say after all that is this: Poets are doing good work. And by good work I mean good living. It is the life that matters. If a human being can matter, so can poetry. We must be willing to meet it where it is.

Yours in the Yes of Summer,

- Joseph Braun