Submitted by Rosemarie Dombrowski, Ph.D.
The Battle between Image and Word: Why Poetry Died and How we Might Resuscitate it (one reader at a time)
Poetry is dead. Poetry is elitist. Poetry is inaccessible, difficult, born out of sadness.
Despite what the mainstream continues to claim, so many ordinary things – things we accept and understand and appreciate – are like poetry, which leads me to what I’ve dubbed the most important question of the summer: why haven’t we, the lovers of and believers in this craft, been able to successfully resuscitate poetry?
Songs are the most obvious and palatable comparison to poems. Both are often comprised of fifty or so words, arranged in stanzas or verses, and clustered around a central theme or idea. Like poems, songs can be devoid of a rhyme scheme, and though some songs tell a story (similar to narrative poetry), not all lyrics have a defining narrative line, making some songs more synonymous with lyric poetry. Your average lay person doesn’t understand the concept of chord progression or signature change, so the music, theoretically speaking, should make the composition less accessible, but no one seems to be dissuaded for these reasons. Perhaps the explanation for the chasm between music consumption and poetic consumption has something to do with input, what the audience is required to bring to the table in order to truly experience the text. Perhaps this wholehearted acceptance of the song and simultaneous descrying of the poem can be attributed to our preference for didactic soundtracks over imaginative silences, visual images over abstract renderings of the mind. Maybe Poe was right about science and, tangentially, technological advances—both should be feared if they’re going to interfere with the imagination, the mind’s ability to fill in the blanks, paint pictures, imbue something with subjective meaning.
Poetry and fashion, though not necessarily considered comparable by most, both speak a metaphorical language, one that forms the basis for another striking comparison. Haute couture collections, in particular, have been referred to as abstract, inaccessible, impractical, bizarre at times, and, as a result, undeniably provocative (though perplexing) and artistic (though niche). Colors, textures, and cuts create a thematic cohesion that few understand the meaning or purpose of, but more and more Americans are becoming curious about NY Fashion Week, and nearly everyone knows the name Bryant Park thanks to mainstream television shows like Project Runway. On the other hand, few have heard the term language poetry, but like couture fashion, language poetry privileges juxtapositions based on sound and appearance, one word musically or visually bleeding/leading into the next in a parade of textual sequences. Society is, at the very least, curious about these wearable works of art, whereas the term experimental poetry might as well be written in a foreign language. Again, the discrepancy between the relatively favorable reception of the former and the complete obscurity of the latter could merely be due to differences in education, exposure (or lack thereof), and/or the levels of visual stimulation provided by each.
As for visual art, despite the recent changes in public education – both pedagogical and financial – that have resulted in reductions in art education and related field trips, students still have greater access to difficult, sometimes abstract, always historically entrenched visual art than they do basic poetry. Accordingly, some sources report that as many as 150 million adults visit museums yearly, but according to the NEA, only 25 million adults read poetry. Ironically, most of my students find Pollack irritating and obsolete, Warhol more of an advertising copycat, and installation art akin to collages that adorn their dorm-room walls. In the battle between visual art and poetry, it seems to be about the ways in which the texts are presented, the ways in which individuals are (or aren’t) introduced to various media in an educational or classroom setting. Like any teacher of literature, I assign some poems that clearly profess their position or story, while others require historical and biographical contextualization. In this way, poetry and painting are kindred spirits; the responsibility of the educator, the lover of the medium, is to lead their audience to the entrance, walk them down the corridor and even the first few hallways. Then, when they arrive at a door, they’ll relish the act of turning the knob, slowly leaning in with the weight of their body and their theories behind them, having some idea of the range of possibilities that lie within. Without guidance, the path to both painting and poetry can be obscured, but again, the former provides visual stimulation and can be viewed with or without analytical intentions. Poetry, for better or worse, is the manifestation of language-thought, and the pictures are ours to paint.
Perhaps the responsibility placed on the reader of poetry is just too great; perhaps that’s something we (I) have to learn to accept, though I’m not willing to resign myself to that fate just yet. Instead, I’ll continue to combat the perceived deficiencies and fears of would-be readers, lead them toward the light at the end of the hallway (or line), present them with images until they’re able to craft their own during the course of a twenty line foray.
Something – years of collective things and people and experiences – has led me to believe voraciously in this craft, its power to inspire and elicit change, its unique ability to make language the most beautiful and accessible medium by which to create art. I’ll always contend that if it can change one life, it can change countless more, but I challenge you to be the judge: http://www.poets.org/.
Rosemarie Dombrowski, PhD
Editor, MERGE Poetry Magazine