Q & A: American Poetry

Q & A American Poetry: Carol Muske-Dukes

What are your predictions for American poetry in the next century?

Here is my prediction for poetry in the next century. I predict that we will produce an American Pope (No, not the guy in the funny hat who hates birth control)--an American Alexander Pope,male or female, who will rise up among us and launch a bonafide satirical tradition in American poetry. We are long overdue for some poetry parody, satirical examinations, for example, of those of us who write it, of how it is written, of how the wheels of poetry-commerce turn. It's time for an American Dunciad--and merciful heavens, where will we find the candidates? And I predict we will begin to have some serious (literary) criticism of poetry by poets. We will have some debate, even (!) actual dissent. Katha Pollitt, in the current (May 11, 1998) issue of The Nation points out that there is "so little open dissent in American poetry that Mary Karr caused a scandal when she suggested in print that Amy Clampitt "used too many adjectives". Is that not a call to arms? Especially when there is so much poetry being written today: "Fire in each eye, and papers in each hand, / They rave, recite and madden round the land."

The other side of my prediction may sound like a candidate for satire itself. I'd like to predict that what I saw happening with a reading of favorite poems here in L.A. could happen again, all over the place. As part of the poet laureate's Favorite Poem project, a varied assemblage of folk read aloud poems they cherish and admire. So the reading was not about a living poet's ego, it provided a place to give breath to the poems of the past (or rapidly-vanishing present) a way to give breath to a profound collective regard for poems that seems to be very much alive. A young woman from South Central L.A. reading Neruda in Spanish and English, a security guard reciting Langston Hughes, my 81 year old mother singing out "Crossing the Bar," a Mexican actor hailing Octavio Paz, a ten year old reciting a haiku in Japanese, then English. It would be tonic to think of ordinary people not feeling intimidated by the perceived elitism of the art--and reading, not their own workshop --but poetry we have, or wish to have, "by heart". (And I'm not talking about theory-ridden Identity Politics here. What I'm talking about is a little closer to a community sing.)

I also recently took part in the Academy of American Poets' 101 Famous Poems Project--another reading of great American poems, co-sponsored by the American Poetry and Literacy Project--another event that demonstrated this rarely-expressed popular love of verse. I don't know that Andrew Carroll will make his journey across the country again, giving away anthologies of poems--but the combination of concern for literacy and the desire to hear America reading and reciting aloud seems to me to represent a future source of energy and activism for poets.

I predict that poets will help teach poetry, not just in workshops, but elementary schools, for example. Not Poetry in the Schools, but the occasional poet dropping in to say why "Those Winter Sundays" or "Amor Mundi" or "The Jabberwocky" can matter.

So--here's to a Pope-ish plot and a popular coup. Isn't poetry always about contradiction?

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