The Art of the Dead

by Jeff Oaks

When I heard that yet another person has declared poetry dead, I was frankly relieved. Yes, I thought, just leave me here for dead, please. Go off into your world that has to be upgraded every year, that believes in endless linear progression, in endless smiling, in “positivity” (a word I hate about as much as I hate any word), in endless consumption, in endless trending tweets. Go away, kid, you bother me, in other words. I’m old enough now to have survived a dozen apocalypses (apocalypae?) and at least as many “Death of Poetry” essays and pronouncements.

And yet poetry doesn’t die. Neither does painting or dancing or any other art that the body and mind need to do.

I think what people mean when they pronounce poetry as dead is that it’s “dead” to them, to that particular commentator. Usually these commentators are badly read (as the most recent one seems to be) and so if the one poem they hear issuing from a living poet doesn’t map exactly onto the last time they read a poem (usually 10th or 11th grade, the poem from a late Victorian or Robert Frost), then that commentator says, “Well, that’s not a poem!” Very quickly after that comes the hopeful pronouncement, Poetry is Dead! and all the munchkins break into dancing and singing as a pair of green legs curl up under the porch like salt-sprinkled slugs.

It’s sad that more people don’t have access to the fantastic work being written now, the breathtakingly weird and funny and wild and deeply serious work that’s been written since the Kaiser lost The War. Part of the blame, to my mind, has to do with textbooks publishers’ desire to make affordable textbooks and so turning to works of literature that are in the public domain. There are enormous issues around copyright and the cost of using the work of living writers. Another issue is that many teachers, even English teachers in high schools, are still afraid enough of poetry’s complexities to not want to deal with anything other than approved poems. I’ve been lucky personally to work with and talk to middle school and high school teachers through the Western Pennsylvania Writing Program, so I know that efforts to bridge the gaps can yield great results, but I also know, from the freshmen at the University of Pittsburgh, that most of the students still think poetry has to rhyme, has to be about nature or love or death, OR that it absolutely cannot rhyme and has to be about whatever thoughts happen to wander through your head.

Of course Poetry is both and neither and is always being revived, murdered (sometimes for very good reasons), celebrated, kicked in the ass, discussed, reviled, just like any other living, changing practice. The same is true for painting or theater or politics, isn’t it?

I don’t remember which one of my friends or colleagues said, during one of the earlier pronouncements about poetry’s death, that he thought it would be great if poetry were dead, because then children would be interested in it more, the way they’re interested in dinosaurs and mummies and myths and fairy tales, but I agree. And not in any Death of the Author kind of way. Let poetry be outside the current trending topics. Maybe at the next inauguration, there should be simply a sign held up in the place between two beautiful but merely symbolic performances of our national anthem by celebrity singers:

Here is where a poet used to stand to speak; please fill in this silence yourself.

A new generation of poets might be invented that day.