January 28th, 2013 / 5:05 pm
Mean & Web Hype

Alexandra Petri and John Deming Should Probably Get Married Because They Have A Lot In Common Because They Are Both Considerably Misinformed About Poetry


I intentionally missed most of the inauguration of Bruce Springsteen’s boyfriend. Symbols of democracy and freedom make my tummy quite queasy. I prefer the enchantment of The Little Mermaid to the mediocrity of the middle class and the person that they pick to govern them. But a couple of days after The Boss’s “partner” was publicly sworn in, I overheard two princess friends of mine discussing a poetry quarrel that arose from this inauguration. Supposedly a poet named Richard (I’m not sure of his last name, and considering his connection to Obama, he’s certainly not talented enough to Google or even Bing) read. The poem prompted a girl Washington Post blogger, Alexandra Petri, to declare that poetry is probably dead. A poetry boy, John Deming, quickly rendered a rebuttal. After reading both, I’ve come to the conclusion that each has a very un-magical, unsupportable viewpoint on poetry.

To begin, I’d like to declare that being “dead” isn’t deplorable: it’s delightful. Sylvia adored the dead. She covered herself in concentration camp victims. Her skin was “bright as Nazi lampshade.” Was Sylvia disempowered or on the margins of culture? No way, progressive gays! Sylvia was a spitfire. She slashed her daddy and her canonized poet husband. Charles Baudelaire, one of the best boy poets ever, sought the dead too. In “Spleen (ii)” Charles boasts that his skull holds “more corpses than a common grave.” Identification with dead doesn’t disadvantage Charles either. He’s a dandy — someone superlatively superior to humans, a boy who follows his own special set of laws. The dead are special and unique. They’re much more powerful than humans. To call someone or something dead is a term of incredible endearment, and should be embraced.

But Alexandra probably wasn’t trying to flatter poetry by blogging about how it may be dead. She says that poetry isn’t “fresh” and the “news” we used to receive from it can now be gotten through movies and song lyrics. These sentiments are about as insightful as a book by Ben Lerner (so they’re not very insightful at all). Movies and song lyrics aren’t poems. I, myself, am a traditionalist and also probably a Tea Partier. I believe in old fashion values. A poem, to me, comes on a page (digital or otherwise) with line breaks (unless it’s the prose variety). Neither song lyrics nor movies are meant to be consumed the way poetry is. There’s a phenomenon to pressuring poetry proper: the white space, the end-stops, the enjambs, the punctuation – they synthesize into a scintillating spell. Auden says, “It’s a poet’s role to maintain the sacredness of language.” Poetry fills you with words. With poetry you learn how to speak like a terrific and tremendous tyrant (e.g. Sylvia and Charles), not a crass, colloquial American (e.g. WCW and Beat Ginsberg). Poetry, if one has the aptitude to read and/or compose it, can lift you out of the Third Estate (now known as the 99 Percent) and into the First Estate (i.e. the 1 Percent). Poetry, like being dead, makes you special.

But when this boy Deming posted his rebuttal did he mention anything about being special?  Nope… sure didn’t. According to Deming, poetry is “thriving.” Proof of poetry’s prosperousness is evinced in such collections as Fragment of the Head of a Queen and The Angel of Yaw. Cate Marvin, the girl who wrote the first title, spearheads VIDA, an organization that devotes a great deal of its time not making mesmerizing verse but comparing the ratio of gender pronouns that appear in literary publications. Ben Lerner, the boy who wrote the second title, also composed a book in which he spends a great deal of time fussing about sex, himself, and his inability to engage in scholarly work. These two examples support Alexandra’s claim that “everyone can write” poetry. Neither Cate nor Ben whisk you off to a wondrous world. Both of them are very human – very American, very average.

Deming, though, has an affinity for the common everyman. “We are here,” declares Deming, “and we plate your dinners. We teach your kids. We slave over works we know will receive no wide audience. We shoe your horses. We work in all kinds of offices.” For Deming, poets are woven into the fabric of American life. Poets are dutiful workers. They’re able to conform to the Capitalistic system. They don’t kill people (like Sylvia), nor do they obey their own set of laws (like Charles). Poets serve the Constitution, just like the rest of respectable American. All of this is obviously antithetical to poetry. Poets are vessels of God (hullo, John Milton!), monsters (kiss kiss Arthur!), and revolutionaries (Byron). Poetry’s sacredness precludes affiliation with American ideals. Free, uninhibited speech isn’t a part of poetry’s meaning. Everyone can’t compose verse, only those selected by a higher power can.

If John wished to disprove Alexandra’s point he should’ve cited poets like Ariana Reines, Joyelle McSweeney, and Chelsey Minnis. These three girls oppose the rhetoric of the 99 Percent (and John Deming). Ariana doesn’t abide by American Law. In “Nico Said Excrement Filters Through the Brain. I’s a Kit,” she breaks into someone’s house and causes chaos. As for Joyelle, she’s not valorizing working class America. What intrigues Joyelle are America’s antagonist, like the girl torturer, Lynndie England and  the double-dealing Bradly Manning. Then there’s Chelsey. Chelsey could never work in an office. Chelsey cry hustles. She’s a delightful diva, not a diligent drone. These examples (and there’s more, of course) disprove both Alexandra and John. Poetry is neither diluted nor an extension of middle class values. As it has always been, in order to consume and compose poetry one must be special.



Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Erik Stinson

      “Free, uninhibited speech isn’t a part of poetry’s meaning.”


      “summer’s here and the time is right / for racing in the street”

  2. Jeremy Hopkins

      Petri: “Can a poem still change anything?”
      ME: “Could it ever change anything but the reader’s mind?”
      (Oh, that’s kind of what Deming said, but in far fewer words.)

  3. Michael Martin

      Yeah, come read some of those poems at Long Beach Poly, or Cal High or something. Or maybe try it in Dallas, Texas. Most people would be bored to death by poetry these days. Shit just isn’t connecting. I dig Joyelle, and can see how she could thrive and reconnect with the generation raised on Hip hop. Because rappers are our “new poets”, and the only problem with that is there are less female voices in that field. Which sucks, because women are the best at the arts, especially poetry and music. Wanda Coleman, stand up! Jess Novak, stand up! Metta Sama, Heather Sommer, Daniel Romo, Roger Reeves, stand the fuck up! That’s how you know poetry isn’t dead yo. The argument, “Is poetry dead” will stop coming up once you begin connecting with audiences outside of academia and lame circle jerk cliques. And that is done when you interact with those not “within your group”.

      Don’t be scared to roll through the hood and read some poems. If you are, then maybe that’s the point.

  4. Trey

      I laughed at the ben lerner thing. a guilty laugh.

  5. Trey

      but I also, somehow, thought this post was by nat otting for like the entire first paragraph, so I’m in a weird place.