As a MFA candidate studying poetry, I am often questioned. Why not do something relevant? Why poetry? I’m used to answering that question in a variety of venues with non-poets. Christmas dinner with the extended family. Local bars with strangers who might want my number. On national platforms like TEDx, where I discussed poetry’s ability to develop our emotional literacy and ultimately empathy. But I think it’s time to address the poetry community specifically and explore why people outside the poetry community don’t find it meaningful. I will begin with the question that every publishing poet is asking, which is: what does it take for poetry to endure?
In academic circles, it’s often argued that the timeless quality of a work is what allows it to persist. As a result, I’ve seen many poets around me disillusioned. They avoid using names of friends, “too” personal events, technologies that are “current,” “internet speak” and a variety of other cultural artifacts that could give their work personality or speak to the moment. Because to be timeless is to avoid being “too” timely. They believe they can be timely to the cultural mood only and they must access it through something seemingly eternal like nature. But really, in our climate-change-stricken world, how can we be so sure that nature stays and the internet leaves?
It is easy for some poets to believe the fallacy that only the timeless persist because so few poets find an afterlife in the American consciousness. But when I look around at all of the wonderful contemporary writers I know now, I have trouble believing that each time period has only a handful of texts worth remembering. Regardless, it is true that only a few make it to a canon—or, at the very least, a high school or college syllabus. So how do they get selected?
There’s no exact formula. Some of it is luck. Some of it circumstances. Some of it is privilege. And of course all of the texts that survive to be canonized are stylistically interesting and say something unique about its time period. I can agree with my professors on all of these things. But they haven’t endured because they’re devoid of cultural references or artifacts that situate them in a particular culture or period of time. Even William Carlos Williams “wheelbarrow” is a technology going out of fashion. Shakespeare’s syntax and diction is no longer commonly employed, outside of the idioms we’ve adopted. And when climate researchers began using Thoreau’s notes to study changes in the species in Massachusetts, they learned that he called the same species different names and had to decode his work to use it.
No text—no matter how intelligent, scientific, intriguing, or beautiful—is without culturally-bound artifacts that represent their era. Everything requires context.
So why are academics so obsessed with timelessness? Many are nostalgic for the past. They encourage modern poets to emulate the “greats.” They encourage poets to have conversation with dead men. This, they believe, is how you last. But I’m tired of this narrative. It’s hurting our communities, inside and outside academia. By focusing on the objects and events of our time that might be eternal, we are missing the truly universal aspect of our lives: our emotional experiences. By taking out the personal, the time-specific, the events of our current lives that need interrogating, we are missing opportunities to connect with living people inside and outside of the poetry community. Ironically, by working so hard to achieve immortality, we are almost insuring that poetry dies.
Poetry has the ability to open the emotional borders of the general population’s experiences if we allow ourselves to worry less about being eternal and worry more about being relevant. Sian Killingsworth’s poem, “A Woman Walks into a Bar” focuses on the present skillfully. The poem is a parody of a common colloquial mode of jokes that begin with the line, “A Man Walks into a Bar.” But when a woman walks into a bar in modern-day America, the end isn’t funny.
Killingsworth uses the familiar mode to tell sexual assault stories that have reached the consciousness of young American women today. The first two sections of the poem recall details of infamous Brock Turner case. Context clues like “the dumpster” and “the bare breast” picture clue us in because those details were so widely publicized that it has become part of a collective memory. But Killingsworth never treats the situation quite like the joke the title suggests until the ending of section three (the third of the series of jokes). She writes to the general American reader, addressing our expectations:
3. A woman walks into a bar
you think this is going to be
a joke, right? Well.
Here’s the punch line.
She gets raped in the parking lot.
Gets. Like it’s a gift.
Readers of this time period know both the judicial term “gets off” and the urban dictionary definition of “gets off.” He orgasms and has no consequences. She’s raped. There is no joke for the woman who walked into the bar.
If this poem lives on to find a new life on a graduate school American literature syllabus 100 years from now, the Brock Turner case will no longer be present in the consciousness of the readers. Maybe the “a man walks into a bar” mode of joking would be extinct. Maybe there would be no urban dictionary definition of “gets off.” If the poem were to live on, someone would have to tell them about what was happening in American history then. Is that so bad? Because then the poem offers an opportunity to preserve not just the mood of the time, but also important cases in the history of American womanhood.
If Killingsworth was worried about avoiding culturally-relevant phrases, this poem wouldn’t have be written. But thank god she wasn’t. Because this poem is moving—for poets and non-poets alike. For people of any gender or political affiliation living today.
In an increasingly ideologically-divided America, it’s irresponsible for poets to stay in the ivory tower and worry about what will happen after they die. It’s our responsibility to do the kind of emotional labor the general community needs now. To teach others how to process their own emotions and have empathy for their neighbors, no matter how different. To do work to help unify the people in our individualistic society that has increased rates of loneliness, depression and suicide. Writing and reading poetry can vaccinate our communities from the hatred and misunderstandings that isolate us, if we make what we’re writing both timely and accessible.
Thanks to social media movements, spoken word communities, and current event poetry publishers, there’s evidence that poetry’s readership is on the rise in America. But the poetry being consumed might not be the kind that would make college literature professors proud. But then, is it so bad if we leave the dead men to rest in their graves and read living poets? Is it really so bad to cultivate connections with those outside the ivory tower who haven’t had access to the same formal training or academic rhetoric? So what—the conversation will shift. Poetic voices will be more diverse. Poetry will continue to be valued. What’s so bad about that?
Crystal grew up in the southeastern PA hillside. Her poetry has previously appeared or is forthcoming in Sport Literate, Collective Unrest, Driftwood Press, New Verse News, Occulum, Anomaly, BONED, Eunoia Review, isacoustics, Tuck Magazine, Writers Resist, Drunk Monkeys, Coldnoon, Poets Reading the News, Jet Fuel Review, Sigma Tau Delta Rectangle, North Central Review, Badlands Review, Green Blotter, Southword Journal Online and Dylan Days. She is currently pursuing her MFA at Iowa State University, gave a TEDx talk on poetry the first week of April and her first collection of poetry, Knock-Off Monarch, is forthcoming from Dawn Valley Press this autumn. You can find her on Twitter @justlikeastone8, on instagram @stone.flowering, or at her website.