A Response to Daniel Halpern’s “A Few Questions for Poetry”
On Dec. 30, 2016, Halpern published a defense of poetry in the New York Times. As often seems to be the case with these kinds of defenses, he raises some valid points while making a few troubling claims, not the smallest of which is the stance that poetry needs defending.
Halpern’s evidence for this is that poetry books don’t sell, though of course they do, just not enough to make most collections commercially viable. That’s not to say that every book of poems loses money, just that the profits in publishing poetry are extremely modest. Breaking even on a book of poems is an accomplishment. I should know. 2016 is the first year in a very long time that I will have earned a royalty check on a book—both my 3rd and my 2nd collections earned enough to warrant a small check this year.
Yet writing poetry is about much more than turning a profit, and it might be argued the absence of commercial success is part of what makes poetry so valuable. It’s hard to accuse a poet of selling out to make a buck, after all. Poets write because they love the form or because they have something to say, not because they can make a living at it. In fact, there are many poets from all walks of life who write in a myriad of styles. There may be more poetry produced today than ever before. So far from being near extinction, poetry may be thriving now more than ever.
This fact was driven home to me this year, when I took over editorship (along with my MFA students) of Poetry South. We were amazed, not only by the number, but the quality of the submissions, and by the experience of the poets who sent to our small rag. Many were poets with multiple books, and most were previously unknown to us. Because of this, one goal for the magazine in 2017 is to publish a list of recent and notable books, mostly by Southern poets. We’ve started a bookshelf at LibraryThing that also shows up on our site.
Halpern is at his best when he argues that poetry is still important because it fights against extinction, though the danger is not that poetry itself will become extinct, but rather that careful, precise, musical, ludic, thoughtful use of language might go the way of the dodo without poetry to keep it alive. The act of writing or reading a poem exercises the mind in ways even the best prose can only approximate (which is not to say there is less value in prose, only that it’s different). Poems are made of patterns of sound and sense. They focus our attention or confound our senses. They can be profound or ludicrous, yet they always challenge.
So I beg to differ when Halpern appears to relegate poetry to the task of commemoration at a funeral, wedding, or other important moment in our lives. To be fair, he does acknowledge other roles for poetry, but keeps coming back to commemoration as his touchstone. The existence of sites like Poetry Daily is evidence that poetry is for more than commemorating the important moments. It is also for the everyday moments.
One of my students has started a poetry open mic series in our small Southern town that has proven quite popular and spilled over into the neighboring town as well. I remember the early days of the Poetry Slam in Chicago when there was a similar energy for poetry (and still is). Poetry is not only published in books, but it is found in coffee shops, bars, magazines, on buses, bulletin boards, or online. So book sales should not be the primary evidence of poetry’s current state of health. Look at who’s writing and reading and listening to poetry, and you’ll find that it’s doing all right.
But certainly there’s nothing wrong with a good defense of poetry such as Halpern’s. I would agree that poetry could use even more readers and listeners. However, if in defending it, you box poetry into a corner and relegate it to a limited role like commemoration, then there might be something wrong with the defense. Or if you make it out to be near extinction, that could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I doubt either was Halpern’s intent, yet reading the defense made me wonder whether it is better to defend poetry or to celebrate it, to decry the lack of sales or to acknowledge the sheer number of practicing poets and readers of poetry, who clearly aren’t in it for the money.