In American letters they date back to the nineteenth century.But the modern debate might be said to have begun in 1934 when Edmund Wilson published the first version of his controversial essay “Is Verse a Dying Technique?
One cannot easily marshal numbers, but to any candid observer the evidence throughout the world of ideas and letters seems inescapable. There is, in fact, little coverage of poetry or poets in the general press.
From 1984 until this year the National Book Awards dropped poetry as a category. In fact, virtually no one reviews it except other poets.
Over the past half century, as American poetry’s specialist audience has steadily expanded, its general readership has declined.
Moreover, the engines that have driven poetry’s institutional success—the explosion of academic writing programs, the proliferation of subsidized magazines and presses, the emergence of a creative-writing career track, and the migration of American literary culture to the university—have unwittingly contributed to its disappearance from public view.
Most editors run poems and poetry reviews the way a prosperous Montana rancher might keep a few buffalo around—not to eat the endangered creatures but to display them for tradition’s sake.
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How Poetry Diminished Arguments about the decline of poetry’s cultural importance are not new.Reputations are made and rewards distributed within the poetry subculture.To adapt Russell Jacoby’s definition of contemporary academic renown from The Last Intellectuals, a “famous” poet now means someone famous only to other poets.Its Own World To the average reader, the proposition that poetry’s audience has declined may seem self-evident.It is symptomatic of the art’s current isolation that within the subculture such notions are often rejected.Almost no popular collections of contemporary poetry are available except those, like the , targeting an academic audience.It seems, in short, as if the large audience that still exists for quality fiction hardly notices poetry. Whereas a new novel or biography is reviewed on or around its publication date, a new collection by an important poet like Donald Hall or David Ignatow might wait up to a year for a notice. , but almost always in group reviews where three books are briefly considered together.One also finds a complex network of public subvention for poets, funded by federal, state, and local agencies, augmented by private support in the form of foundation fellowships, prizes, and subsidized retreats.There has also never before been so much published criticism about contemporary poetry; it fills dozens of literary newsletters and scholarly journals.There are now several thousand college-level jobs in teaching creative writing, and many more at the primary and secondary levels.Congress has even instituted the position of poet laureate, as have twenty-five states.