by David Ebenbach
The “Is Poetry Dead?” articles are coming. Often they show up in National Poetry Month (April), but they can appear at any time. Spring or Fall, day or night. Maybe you’re in the middle of writing poetry, or reading it, and you look away from the poem—only for a second, but still—and there, on social media, out from behind a curtain or something, jumps the article, screaming: IS POETRY DEAD IT’S TOTALLY DEAD ISN’T IT DON’T LIE IT’S DEAD I TELL YOU! DEAD! DEAD?
It’s almost cute—each time it’s like the article thinks it’s the very first one to ever think of the idea.
Except that the argument definitely gets old. You hear the same things again and again: declining readership, only poets read poetry, it’s not in the newspapers, the Kardashians don’t keep up with it, et cetera. And then poets get defensive and flood the message boards and try not to use the word philistines or, also, assholes. (I once used up a whole, perfectly good day live-tweeting sarcastic rejoinders at Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri in the wake of her article titled, well, “Is Poetry Dead?”)
And we do this over and over.
Well, it’s time to resolve this debate, once and for all, so that nobody ever needs to write an Is Poetry Dead article ever again.
How? With science.
(Because, in America, science resolves all debates.)
You see, there is a biological definition of life. (This exists so that, when someone goes to create a Frankenstein’s monster, they can’t just start yelling “It’s Alive!” without first checking a few things.) According to scientists (i.e., Wikipedia), all living things have to meet seven criteria: they have to respond to the environment and show metabolism, reproduction, organization, homeostasis, growth, and adaptation. And so, ipso facto, cogito ergo sum, if poetry meets these criteria, it’s alive, and we can stop asking the question.
Pretty good idea, right? I know.
So? Is poetry alive?
Let’s start with the easy stuff: poetry, first of all, does Respond to the Environment. I’ve been to a lot of open mic readings in my life, and I can tell you: whenever there’s a tragedy in the news, or something wonderful happens, whether in the world or in an individual life, people write poems. Whole poetry organizations come about this way, like Split this Rock, which developed out of the group Poets Against the War, which happened because of the first Iraq War. Poetry is an Environment-Responding superstar: check.
And why do poems respond? Well, for lots of reasons. One reason is that this helps the poet to process the happening, the experience. Looking at it close up, through the refracting lens of artful language, allows the poet to turn the thing into another thing. Confusion can become clarity, or the beginnings of it; certainties can become good questions; pain can become beauty and vice versa; helplessness can become a handhold, a grip. Poetry transforms (and in its presence we can be transformed). In other words, Metabolism: also check.
Poetry, meanwhile, definitely Reproduces. How do you make poetry? Well, I don’t know about you, but what I do (and what a lot of my friends do) is begin by reading a bunch of poetry written by other people. Eventually, after a lot of friendly mingling with this other poetry, I get a tingly poetry feeling in me, and a poem of my own starts to form. Then I put the other folks’ poetry down and get to writing. This really works; poetry makes poetry. Reproduction: hell, yes.
Organization may be a tougher call, especially given that some poetry readings start an hour and a half late because the poet who’s supposed to read in fact caught the wrong bus. But that’s not what biology means when biology talks about Organization. What biology means is a life form is an orderly form, that there’s a hierarchical structure there. Atoms make up molecules make up organelles make up cells, etc. And poems are like that, of course, with phonemes and words and sentences and stanzas, though it all gets complicated by lines, which may be smaller or larger than sentences, or even words, might be the same size as stanzas or smaller. But the bigger point is that a poem has form. Sonnets, sestinas, villanelles have obvious form, but even free-verse follows a logic—it just invents its own internal logic with each new poem.* If a poem is any good—and lots of them are—it’s got Organization. So, check.
Related to this is Homeostasis, which is about internal balance, or what Barbara Herrnstein Smith (who is kind of a genius and deserves a specific shout-out) would call stability. A living thing is regulated so that everything stays in tune with everything else and nothing goes off the rails. Bad poems probably don’t have this—the end of the poem doesn’t bring closure to the beginning, the image set shifts violently for no reason, the diction of the poet vacillates wildly—and those poems are, I guess, dead. Or at least in critical condition. But good poems? Good poems are whole, and each part secretly knows about each other part and stays in balance with it. The regulator is the poet, who repeats a sound or a word in order to keep the current line in touch with other lines, who only lets the poem say what it’s been set up to be able to say—or who changes the set up so that it matches what gets said—and who goes back through an early draft to make sure the poem coheres in its voice, in its structure, in its energy. So, yeah: Homeostasis.
On, then, to Growth. According to the scientists (i.e., Wikipedia again), “a growing organism increases in size in all of its parts, rather than simply accumulating matter.” This is a complicated concept in the sense that I don’t totally know what it means. But, if we look at the poetry analogy, a poem gets to maturity (i.e., final draft firm) not just by piling words on, but through the development of all its constituent elements. The voice of the poem clarifies in the beginning, middle, and end. An imagery set solidifies to hold the poem together, informing the poem throughout. Growth is not always just about getting bigger; tadpoles lose their gills as part of their maturation, and there are some fish that show their age through the location of their eyes—they start out with eyes on both sides of their head and end up with both on the same side (which is completely crazy). With poems, the final version is certainly not always actually bigger than the first version—but there’s ultimately a coherent whole that sees not more words but more appropriate words, in that they work more appropriately together to form a grander effect. That is, poems Grow.
Maybe most important for our exploration is the requirement of Adaptation; for something to be alive, it has to adapt to its environment. In some sense, poetry obviously does this. The sonnet, born as a form in Italy, changed when it met the English language. Verse in wild-and-woolly America became decidedly freer; it’s also become more post-modern in an era when people have become increasingly suspicious of truth-claims. Iambic pentameter, stage plays written in verse, slam poetry, perhaps even song lyrics—these have all been adaptations to new environments. And it’s this characteristic that pushes us to ask not, “Is Poetry Dead?” but “Where and how can poetry live?” While we check the Adaptation box, let’s definitely keep asking this second question.
The bottom line: as you can see, technically speaking, poetry is as alive as a kangaroo or a bacterium or the kind of fish that is actually (I kid you not) called a Sarcastic Fringehead. We have checked the vital stats, and the stats are vital. There is officially no need to further rehash the Dead Poetry question; if you question the aliveness of poetry, you basically hate science.
Check, in other words, and mate.
One last and more earnest thought: If you have to keep asking if something is dead, it probably isn’t. So ask away, I guess. Doing so doesn’t kill anybody or anything, and least of all poetry.
*Take, for example, William Carlos’ poem “The Red Wheelbarrow,” often held up as a paragon of free verse. But how free is it? Four stanzas, and in each stanza there are two lines. In the first and last stanzas the first line is three words, four syllables total, and the second line is one word of two syllables. In the middle two stanzas the first line is three syllables, consisting of two words and part of a third, and the second line is the rest of that word, two syllables long. That’s some serious order.
David Ebenbach is the blog editor for AGNI, and also the author of five books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, including, most recently, the poetry collection We Were the People Who Moved. He lives in Washington, DC, where he teaches creative writing and literature at Georgetown University.