Sunday, April 10, 2005

On the Longevity of a Poem

I don't really understand it when poets say they want to write for someone 500 years in the future. Maybe that's just their way of saying that they're hoping for higher book sales of poetry by then. But if I'm not that generous with my interpretation, I'd have to assume that, when poets make such a claim, they are using longevity as a proxy for greatness.

Indeed, perhaps longevity is enough to make out a prima facie case for greatness, but I would require more evidence. I mean, lots of things have lasted for a long time: racism, poverty, famine, war, bigotry. That doesn't mean that they're good. Look at slavery: people can be stupid for a very long time. By the same token, poems that last for a very long time are not necessarily good either.

I think that Asian-American poetry, and contemporary poetry in general, would have a much greater audience, if more people stopped fetishizing the "great" work of "great" pre-20th century poets. I'm not saying that people should stop reading the work of these poets, but they should expand their readership.

I think that I'm preaching to the converted here, but if you're reading this blog, you probably know that a large percentage of so-called poetry aficionados won't touch poetry written after the 1950s. (A lot of these readers of poetry also have the preconception that poems that don't rhyme aren't poems.) Look around the Internet and just talk to people about poetry: I'd say that they form the majority of poetry readers.

But just because a poem is old doesn't mean that it's "great" by any measure, unless "old" means "great," and it certainly doesn't mean that it is a more worthwhile read than a poem written today. Actually, I sometimes find poems written centuries ago to be overly abstract, less emotionally accessible, and about worlds that don't really interest me. Now, I think that these poems have historical value and may be read sociologically or anthropologically, but they sometimes tend not to be entertaining, fun, intellectually stimulating, or emotionally enriching. And I think that poets today should push harder for an audience to read more contemporary poetry.


Blogger Nick said...

hey roger, that first paragraph is a doozy. make us laugh and we'll enjoy every word on your plate.

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I get to agree with you! I like to agree with people.

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Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Nick and Glenn, thanks for the comments. I've been trying to aim for quality and quality, but schoolwork, of course, can get in the way on both fronts. :)

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