Poetry in America
Finding Poetry's Place in America
American writer and critical essayist Kenneth Rexroth said in 1958, “There is no place for a poet in American society."
Of course, as a poet himself, he said this more as an observation than as a criticism but was still voicing a popular opinion that written poetry seems to have a hard time finding a broad audience in the United States.
Periodically, though, changes in culture facilitate poetry’s finding of a niche, like poetry being read in jazz clubs after World War II or the widespread publication of poetry in newspapers and magazines after September 11, 2001. These two examples where poetry actually found its place in the United States popular culture seem unrelated, such polar opposites on the spectrum of the American experiences of triumph and of terror, and yet they share the result of stimulating an interest in poetry, whether it was for at least ten years in the mid-twentieth century or for a few months at the beginning of the twenty-first.
So where are the similarities between what Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died” did for his audience in 1964, for example, and the effects of W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939” on a post-September 11 audience?
After all, the post-war jazz-poets lived in a time of great American success and confidence, sharing their art form with people invigorated by newfound international power whereas the population immediately after September 11 felt violated, challenged in a way it had never been before, and afraid for what the future might hold.
In studying these two specific works from the respective eras in which they were popularized, it becomes quite clear that the periodically renewed American interest in poetry is not random but fixed on the major element of change. The United States’ position in the world being challenged seems to create in audiences the need for binding with their communities and therefore the desire for poetry because the messages offered by poems allow the readers or listeners to interpret individual meanings without feeling as if a commercial intention is being forced upon them.
The widespread debate in the United States of the poet’s place in a modern culture began more or less officially with Edmund Wilson’s landmark essay “Is Verse a Dying Technique?” in 1934, where he predicted the future of literature to belong almost exclusively to prose.
Countless literary critics tackled the topic for the decades following, notably Joseph Epstein in 1988 with “Who Killed Poetry?” Epstein’s article took Wilson’s speculations to a microcosmic level, focusing on recent decades as opposed to the several previous centuries. He argued that part of the “death” of poetry in American society could be attributed to the poets themselves: where the Modernists in the early part of the century worked passionately for a cultural ideal, contemporary poets were too much becoming simply “professionals,” treating their art as work and therefore alienating an audience who might be looking for the passion that used to be expected from poetry.
While the American public has never actively excluded poetry – and poetry certainly has always had at least a marginal place with the poets themselves – critics such as Epstein would argue that poetry simply has never found its niche in American society in the same way that, for example, music has.
This is arguably because poetry requires a certain amount of work to interpret its full meaning, and critics have often discussed whether or not there is room in the fast-paced American society for such a seemingly time-consuming art form. Yet as this debate has sustained past World War II and all the way through to the modern day, the American public’s interest has, for brief historical moments, excited itself over poetry in unexpected ways.
The growing jazz culture in the post-war era indicated a swelling self-esteem that Americans gained from the war, and ordinary people found themselves in jazz clubs listening to a new hybrid breed of poets: the jazz-poets.
Barry Wallenstein describes this instance in his essay called “Poetry and Jazz: A Twentieth Century Wedding,” writing that the jazz-poet culture of the mid-twentieth century was an appropriate niche for the modern poet as a lyricist, a vocal musician, a “jazz-poet.”
Whereas previously the bulk of public poetry performances took place at readings in poetry clubs, frequented by highly literary crowds but generally inaccessible to Americans on the whole, poets such as Frank O’Hara from the New York School began reading alongside popular jazz musicians who, according to Rexroth, essentially handed the poets a new, more general audience who could enjoy their work.
Listening to Poetry
Poets were undergoing a major shift – like many other artists – as the United States rose to take its role as world leader after the collapsesin Europe following the Second World War. Whereas perhaps before a poet or writer would visit Paris or London to be inspired and experience the artistic culture in those places, after the war it was poets from Paris and London who were coming to visit New York (and eventually places like San Francisco, as well).
Suddenly living in or frequenting the center of the greatest thriving “art colony” in the world, American poets felt a newfound power and appropriately sought ways to share it with new audiences. Music and poetry have always had a somewhat obvious connection based on their emphases on tone, lyricism, cadence, and personal expression, making them a natural combination in jazz culture.
Dana Gioia, for example, insists heavily upon maintaining the musicality of poetry. While Gioia argues this from a more fundamentalist point of view, believing that poetry should revert back to its older styles of sonnets and blank verse, his point about musicality in language remains pertinent; that interest in lyricism in songs seems to have taken the place in American society of the potential widespread interest in lyricism in poetry only furthers this point.
Because poetry and music seem to feel so inherently linked throughout their respective histories, audiences of jazz had little trouble accepting a poet speaking words over their favorite saxophonist’s improvisations. But if poets who read in jazz clubs attracted a wider audience to acknowledge their art, what were the features of that poetry that allowed the listeners to really identify with the work and to keep on listening?
Jazz-Poets in America
The jazz-poet movement would not have been entirely successful as an art form merely due to the coincidence of musicians and poets coming together onstage; the newfound confidence of the poets and of their audiences allowed them to relate through a kindred spirit surrounding their changing roles in the world, creating a temporary niche for poetry in American culture.
This trend allowed poets to reach out to a broader, more culturally “typical” audience (as opposed to a solely intellectual one) through the popularity of jazz music and a more colloquial approach to their writing. These jazz-poets were able to recite in jazz clubs that were frequented by normal people enjoying a night out, as opposed to the elite intellectuals and literary enthusiasts generally associated with a traditional poetry reading.
Naturally, the poetry that the new category of jazz-poets performed in these clubs adopted certain qualities typical of jazz: improvisation, a new vernacular, call and response between voices or thoughts in the poem, interjections such as “yes” or “oh no.” In this way, the poetry seemed to be a living expression of its popular culture movement.
The Day Lady Died
Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died,” as a specific example, helped to seal the gap between jazz and poetry and thus to close up the one between poets and their audiences.
By openly acknowledging the globalization of the world and using certain jazz language to draw in his listeners, he allows the audience to mourn the death of Billie Holliday while simultaneously remembering that their place in the world has been moved to the top of the order. O’Hara uses the new collaborations with jazz to further develop these ideas.
Wallenstein looks at “The Day Lady Died” as a classic example of poetry and jazz influencing one another. Specifically, he argues that it imitates the jazz-based idea of improvisation on a theme, the theme being an ordinary day in the life of a speaker (or even, perhaps, the life of a typical New Yorker, now on top of the world in many senses). The words flow on the page in a way that makes them sound almost ad-libbed, and it is certainly not hard to imagine how they might be performed:
It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me
The lack of endstop punctuation and the relaxed tone indicate familiarity between the speaker and the spectators, almost a camaraderie stemming from their confidence (not to be confused, of course, with smugness or conceitedness).
The constant references throughout the poem to international commodities like Gaulouise cigarettes, the hamburger, and the New Guinea poetry anthology seem to classify him as a global citizen, a cosmopolitan New Yorker, but in no way does this name-dropping alienate readers or listeners because that is not O’Hara’s intention.
On the contrary, it is a subtle acknowledgement of the globalization taking place at the time that the poem was written, which was something that everyone – poet and general American audience alike – had on their minds. That poets sought to diminish the distance between artist and audience through informality implies that they knew they could take advantage of their collaborations with jazz musicians and endear a new group of people to poetry that might otherwise simply overlook it.
By asserting their cosmopolitanism, the jazz-poets claimed a new authority for their art as representative of their times, in the broadest sense.
The Forces At Work
What, specifically, was this poetry doing to the people who heard it and causing this generally renewed interest? If it was the camaraderie that interested people in the art form again (poetry had not been actively excluded; it was merely absent from the culture), then what were the poets doing in their poetry that made the new audience want to stay?
Like many jazz-poets, O’Hara used the musicality of his words and the jazz of his verse to ask important questions about the mundane part of life in juxtaposition to all the changes in the world. He was not simply “confident” as a New York School Poet now at the center of so much attention; he wanted to ask questions about it.
Neither is “The Day Lady Died” only a response to the death of Billie Holliday or an elegy to her (though those are certainly two meaningful readings). O’Hara uses his readers’ colloquialisms to challenge them to figure out what was really happening. Though he does not directly tackle how the United States will handle its new position in the world, he flirts with the question in his nonchalant acknowledgement of all the international commodities and artists like Strega and Verlaine.
Where is the meaning in the deaths of beloved cultural icons like Billie Holliday, and does that affect “the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre,” as O’Hara mentions, in the same way that it affects the teller at the bank?
Artists like Frank O’Hara were not writing for the intellectual elite but rather to share something with the common man. The world was changing, and so was their place in it. That O’Hara and other jazz-poets of the time were able to share their experiences of being human in their poetry – and that they did so with the intention of reaching out to new readers – allowed audiences who were listening to the poems to feel as if they were not alone in the shifting of the world under their feet.
Even if these poets were not necessarily offering answers to issues of the day, simply having the outlet to acknowledge questions (or to even just be playful about those questions) in a time that was full of uncertainty gave jazz-poets a distinct place in the world and in American society.
A Terrible Tragedy
Half a century later, September 11 was an event that triggered a public response to poetry as the position of the United States in the world was changing once again, and this time the response was less a movement, as with the jazz-poets, and more a reaction.
The sudden unrest and confusion spreading through the country ignited a newfound need for poetry in a very tangible way. Gioia, in studying the demise of poetry in the United States, wrote, “One can see a microcosm of poetry’s current position by studying its coverage in the New York Times."
In the days immediately following the September 11 attacks, Auden's poem was printed on the editorial pages of at least four newspapers. As an art form that often distinguishes itself in its ability to be highly expressive, what better way to write or to read the thoughts of others during that time than in verse?
Instead of being crowded out by busy lives and editorial opinions, poetry took center stage as an answer to the impassioned searching that Americans were doing at the time. Poet Mary Karr says, “I probably faxed more copies of poems – and received more faxes from other devoted readers – in the following weeks than I had in years."
Poems like W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939” that depict an American attitude of the past bore a haunting resemblance to the current confusion. People clung to them as possibly the only truth worth believing because, in sharing the fear and shock induced by tragedy, poetry is made more meaningful than commercial media in its attempt to honestly capture a moment.
Suddenly, Auden’s “September 1, 1939” became popular all over again with the renewed fears of war and confusion surrounding the global climate. Ironically, though Auden had later famously rejected the poem for its alleged untruthfulness, readers found meaningful parallels between the honest concerns between their time and that of Auden’s when he wrote the poem.
Lines like “The unmentionable odour of death/ Offends the September night” and “But who can live for long/ In an euphoric dream” struck home in an awful way for people who only recently had learned all too well the meanings of them.
“September 1, 1939” embodied the universal sense of loss to those who read it, both loss of human life and loss as to what the next step could possibly be.
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
The last line especially echoed in the hearts of American readers even though Auden later changed it to “We must love one another and die," which ultimately takes nothing away from the helpfulness of the calm resolution in the poem’s tone.
Auden’s questions were still more than applicable in this new world: Are we as alone as we feel we are? “There is no such thing as the State,” Auden tells us, “And no one exists alone.”
What can we possibly do now that this has happened, especially since we are mere civilians and therefore possess so little power over the events that can (and will) make us most vulnerable?
Again, that Auden was able to express these fears and questions through calm resolution and without panic, even if he was not offering absolute answers, gave Auden and poetry like his a very significant role in the American culture of the time. His opinion seemed more valid and meaningful because it was offered, not in a panicked tone, but in a voice of calm simplicity.
Though Auden may not have been writing on a happy subject, it was all the more important to twenty-first century audiences after the September 11 attacks that he seemed to be communicating his personal truth from outside of the general panic that they were feeling. His words soothed the fears of a people who wanted nothing more than to have some reasoning behind what was happening to them.
Strength in the Face of Evil
It was not only the words Auden used or the coincidence in setting of the month of September that made the poem feel real to people, though, just as the relevance of jazz-poetry to the lives of those who ultimately loved it was not merely caused by the poets standing next to musicians when they read their poetry.
Instead, the larger force of the world’s change appealed poetry to the senses of a post-September 11 American citizen, intellectual and anti-academic alike. Stephen Burt describes the response to the poem after September 11 quite eloquently, saying that it speaks to our helplessness and our need to feel like we are part of a community.
This “[groping] for appropriate response to ‘evil,’” as he calls it, was done by every person who felt unsettled by the attacks. So while the fearless poetics of Auden’s words made “September 1, 1939” that much more beautiful and easily relevant, it was the human need to have experience in common with others that helped the poem (and poetry in general) to find its place again, albeit briefly.
Sense of Community
How exactly, then, do the two poems and their intentions relate? In both the mid-twentieth century during the era of the jazz-poets and for several months after September 11, 2001, poetry found its footing in the context of American society, but is there a serious connection that goes further than that?
The jazz-poet movement was more of an extended engagement with effects that lasted several decades, while the renewed interest in poetry after September 11 seems to have been relatively short-lived. Audiences of the jazz-poets wanted to feel a familiarity and closeness with the people around them and were able to do so through the language and the newly confident attitudes found in jazz-poetry.
Towards the end of 2001, readers of poetry were also seeking a relationship through poetry with the rest of the country, a sense of community like that which the audiences of the jazz-poet era found in poetry, and turned to timeless words when they felt they could not find words themselves.
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Poetry in America
The connection lies within the power struggle that is history: both the jazz-poets and the post-September 11 poets were able to forge temporary niches for their poetry in their respective time periods because the shifting of the United States’ power creates in audiences the need for poetry with the need for community.
People wanted to feel that their shock and confusion was shared and that it meant something.
O’Hara played with questions people had with colloquial speech and jazz techniques like improvisation. Auden’s soothing tone comforted audiences who needed just that. In both cases, the American public had the sense that their world was shifting beneath them, and they clung to one of the oldest forms of art, used by William Shakespeare, the Bible, and storytellers of ancient epics like the Odyssey: the art of words.
Perhaps poetry will never find a constant, widespread audience in the United States where fast-paced media and way of life overtake any extra room there is for the contemplation or reflection that poetry demands.
But history seems to suggest that poetry will never disappear in America, as it is given new life, sometimes only for the briefest of times, in the shifting tides of the ever-changing global climate.