Poetry Escapes the Academy and Goes Popular

WICHITA, KANSAS. — Wichita, Kansas. -- Maya Angelou has fallen from grace among some of her fellow poets and members of the academic literati. She has committed the ultimate sin. She has become popular with the American masses.

Ms. Angelou, who gained nationwide acclaim for reading one of her poems during the Clinton inaugural, recently appeared at the University of South Florida in Tampa to present some of her work. A huge audience waited for her, so large that more than 1,000 people were turned away from the university auditorium.


"It's ridiculous," snapped one person. "They didn't know who she was before the inauguration. It's not a Def Leppard concert."

While that remark was intended as a snide putdown, the Florida crowd might actually have sensed a subliminal connection between the poet and a rock group. Some cultural historians see a direct line between the English Romantic poets of the early 19th century and modern rock stars. Mick Jagger's sneer and Lord Byron's pout show a remarkably similar display of attitude.


In fact, poetry is becoming something of a hip art form. One of the newest crazes is "poetry slams," which are like the battles of the bands in the 1960s and 1970s, only poets compete against each other.

It may be that poetry is more popular today among angst-plagued trendies than at any time since the Beat era of the 1950s. If so, it is an encouraging development.

For generations, poetry was one of the primary forms of popular communication in the United States. Millions of American children once memorized the verses of such "schoolhouse" poets as Whittier and Longfellow. Walt Whitman traveled the country, creating a uniquely American poetic voice and vision. In the early 20th century, Carl Sandburg and his fellow Illinoisan Vachel Lindsay continued Whitman's "people's poet" tradition. After World War I, American-born poets T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound helped shape the consciousness of the modern mind and defined the 20th century as "The Waste Land."

Following World War II, serious poetry generally disappeared from the public dialogue. In his 1954 book, "The Literary Situation," Malcolm Cowley blamed the decline of popular interest in poetry on the movement of many poets and other intellectuals to the universities.

Cowley's point was put best by poet Randall Jarrell: "The gods who had taken away the poet's audience had given him students."

In effect, poetry has fallen victim to the same curse that has infected much of American culture. Where poets, writers, painters, dancers and other creative individuals once sought popular audiences or depended on private patrons, such people now are more likely connected to academia or hooked on government arts grants. The result has been a desiccation of culture, particularly in the literary arts.

As a journalist, I find it depressing that daily newspapers and mass-circulation magazines are the most influential means of written expression in the United States. Journalists simply don't have the time or insights for the kind of creative work that can reshape human awareness and extend the boundaries of imagination. That type of work comes from great poets and novelists.

Part of the problem is that few people are more removed from general society -- the larger community -- than "serious" writers.


Unlike some great writers of the past -- Dickens, Zola, Melville -- many of today's writers have little understanding of how most people live and work. Where aspiring writers once labored on newspapers or in gritty real-world jobs, today's young novelists are more likely enrolled in a college creative-writing program. There, rather than rub their noses in the raw material of life, young writers produce self-pitying drivel on the tragic struggles of assistant professors of English or pick in their subconscious at the scabs of abuse, despair and other wounds caused by their own tiresome personalities.

Many of today's writers cannot deepen the literate reader's understanding of contemporary life because the writers themselves know little of the world outside the company of writers. For many of them the foremost issues are whether they get academic tenure or funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.

It's a sign of the decay of creative vision that so much current literature is written in an obscure language that is virtually incomprehensible to the average college-educated reader. As has happened in so many fields, literature has become jargon-ridden and code-laden. It's so bad that some literary critics would even "deconstruct" language of any meaning whatsoever. As a result, most serious literature today is read by virtually no one beyond a narrow range of literary cult-followers.

Unique among world societies, Western civilization is a culture of the word. The Judeo-Christian tradition is based largely on the written message of God. American democracy is based on a clearly expressed legal system. In Western history, the printed word has been the primary agent of cultural change.

It's amazing that at a time of wrenching social upheaval so few writers have anything to say that doesn't center on themselves and their inner lives. A look at a stack of recently published novels or the book sections of magazines and newspapers will turn up few purposeful guides to life in the late 20th century.

If Maya Angelou's new celebrity or coffeehouse poetry slams help draw more people to literature, great. But the new folks might not find an eager welcome from the current masters of the word. After all, Ms. Angelou talks about rocks, rivers and trees -- and even Washington politicians understand what she means.


David Awbrey is editorial-page editor of the Wichita Eagle.