Question: What do the following poems have in common?
It seemed to me a simple thing since my socks was showin’ through:
Turn my old boots out to pasture, and buy a pair — brand new.
Well, they built this cowboy K-mart outa town there in the Mall,
Where I parked my Studdybaker after shippin’ drys this fall.
There R no words 2 express
how much I truly care
So many times I fantasize of
feelings we can share
My heart has never known
the Joy u bring 2 me
As if GOD knew what I wanted
and made u a reality
My brother built a robot
that does not exactly work,
as soon as it was finished,
it began to go berserk,
its eyes grew incandescent
and its nose appeared to gleam,
it bellowed unbenignly
and its ears emitted steam.
Answer: They are the opening lines of poems by leading writers in their respective fields. And they all, most likely, set on edge the teeth of the readers of Poetry magazine.
It’s not just snobbery. People who care about their poetry often experience genuine feelings of embarrassment — even revulsion, when confronted with cowboy poetry, rap and hip hop, and children’s poetry not written by “adult” poets. Their readerly sensibilities are offended. (If the writing gives them any pleasure, it is a guilty pleasure.) The fact that Wallace McRae, Tupac Shakur and Jack Prelutsky all wrote these for large, devoted audiences simply adds insult to the injury. Somewhat defensively, the serious poetry crowd dismisses such work as verse, not poetry, and generally acts so as to avoid it if at all possible in the future. The fact that these different kinds of poetry don’t communicate, don’t do business with one another is not just a matter of lost email addresses. The advocates of each know what they like, and it’s definitely not what the others are doing. The result is a poetry world of broad divides, a balkanized system of poetries with their own sovereign audiences, prizes and heroes. The only thing they share is the word poetry, and that not willingly.
There’s nothing wrong with this, a generally peaceful co-existence of live-and-let-live poetry communities, except to those who require, for intellectual comfort, a universal theory of poetry that ties it all altogether. It also matters to the Poetry Foundation and organizations like it, who must make choices and use their finite resources to support some kinds of poetry while not others.
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John Barr’s poems have been published in five books, four fine press editions, and many magazines, including The New York Times, Poetry, and others. John was also the Inaugural President of the Poetry Foundation. His newest book, The Boxer of Quirinal, will be published by Red Hen Press in June 2023. You can view more of his work at johnbarrpoetry.com and on Instagram (@johnbarrpoetry).
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