In an article for The Smart Set, Michael Lind compares writing poetry to making carrot carnations, the work of well-intentioned hobbyists. Yes, the courts of feudal lords and kings had professional bards, but not tons of them for each territory, and most of these positions evolved through rigorous apprenticeship in their form. The phenomenon of there being thousands and thousands of literary non-hobbyists, millions if we count teachers and librarians and publishers and booksellers and reveiwers as there surely are today, is very recent in human history, and the product of societies and civilizations with broad amounts of time and wealth to spare. To me, this article sounds like it could be the disappointment of a person in a moment of cultural change, when one’s most beloved style goes out-of-fashion. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but as a person whose interests put me permanently “out,” maybe I don’t comprehend enough what’s been lost. Lind writes:
With the exception of rap, which has a mass audience, poetry has moved from the category of a minor art to a craft. In the course of numerous readings of my own published verse, I gradually came to the conclusion that almost everyone in the audience at a poetry reading is a poet or aspiring poet. My guess is that a majority of people who read poetry also write poetry.
Poetry in the twenty-first century is like pottery, woodworking, or the making of carrot carnations. Sophisticated verse was never a major art, and having lost even a small non-practitioner audience, it has lost its status as a minor art. At hobbyist conventions, celebrated practitioners of a craft address an audience made up of other practitioners of the craft, who will then go home and work at the art themselves. Poetry has more residual cultural prestige than carrot carnation making and other hobbies, but that is only because most of the poet-hobbyists are professors with MFAs, while there are no professors of table-setting.
The short story, like poetry, already may have gone from being a minor art to being a craft. When I worked as an editor at Harper’s magazine in the 1990s, many acquaintances would comment on our essays and features, but I never heard anyone mention one of the short stories we published. The short story writers whom we published were almost exclusively MFAs who made a living by teaching short story and novel writing at liberal arts colleges. I may be mistaken, but I suspect that the same group that writes short stories today makes up the majority of those who read the short stories that are still published out of a sense of cultural responsibility in magazines like The New Yorker and Harper’s.
The literary novel, too, may be on its way to losing its minor art status and becoming a pure hobby of the creative writing professors who produce most of it in their spare time, while teaching writing courses. Some time ago, I was surprised when the editor of a highbrow magazine and of a major book review, respectively, both told me that their favorite contemporary author was Patrick O’Brien, author of “Master and Commander.” You hypocrites, I thought. You don’t even read the literary fiction that you publish or review. You read well-written genre fiction on your own time. Goodbye, Jonathan Franzen, and ahoy, matie!
Who are you calling a fuddy duddy?
I wasn’t sure if he so speedily dismissed rap, an enormous category of work that appeals to younger wordsmiths, because he doesn’t like the form or because it doesn’t support his assertions of obsolescence. Yes, well. You can read it all and decide what you think. He’s right about one thing: I don’t read short stories in Harper’s generally. I mostly read the truly excellent work being done in loads of genre and genre-bending forums, especially online, and at all lengths, including micro-fiction that gets damn close to poetry itself. I also think someone from an earlier century might’ve said, “With the exception of Tennyson/Wordsworth/Frost/Angelou, which has a mass audience, poetry has moved from art to craft. You hypocrites. You don’t even write 15,000 line epics like the Iliad anymore.”
Contemporary, lightning-speed communication allows for increased whimsicalities of style. (And when they bring back the gauchos of the eighties, that’s the hill I will choose to die on.) But I don’t usually conflate trends of delivery method or shifts of activity from one forum to another for abandonment of the underlying form. IMO, the careful crafting of verse and story, whether in the packaging I’m most accustomed to or not, is right here and now powerfully conveying understanding, artistic endeavor, and human elevation.
What do you think of poetry, short stories, and/or elaborate vegetable garnishes? (I’m pretty sure the leading image is photoshopped, but it makes me happy anyway, go figure.)