Recently I was party to several discussions about poetry books sales. Ever a hot topic among the 2,017 people who actually read poetry in the U.S. Bill Moyers was about the last media figure to pay serious attention to the art. In his rapturous television series, The Language of Life, Moyers made it seem like anyone in America with a high school education could get the hang of appreciating poetry - if only they entered one of those breathless audiences in the tents at the Dodge Poetry Festival.
In reality, a new poetry book that sells 500 copies is a wild bestseller. You may have won - not just been nominated for - a Pushcart Prize, but I can guarantee you that if you introduce this fact at your next dinner party, you will receive as many blank stares as there are faces at the table. I don't care how well educated the people behind the faces are. No one - as in the fashionable sense, and the literal sense - who is anyone reads poetry anymore.
Poets are too busy fighting over the scraps of book contest prizes and a few academic honors to notice.
Meanwhile, you cannot find poetry on even the tiniest cable channel. Not on the most marginal radio station (except for a few diehard programs on PBS channels broadcast on the two thin blue coasts).
One of my favorite things Moyer ever said about poetry was in an interview with one of my favorite poets, Naomi Shihab Nye. Moyers told her that he found "deep comfort in poetry" while he was recovering from heart surgery. My father had heart surgery. I watched him be as ill as I've ever seen him for a matter of three or four months. So ill he was in despair. No wonder Moyers sought comfort. Something about having your heart literally hacked open - well, it seems to open the figurative heart as well. In some, anyway. My father, for example, did not find a similar love of poetry in his convalescence. He is still gleeful in telling me he doesn't understand a single poem I've ever written. And my dad has a degree. He reads complicated books. But cannot understand a metaphor.
What gives? Education in America doesn't include the arts much anymore. It never did include them a lot, but apparently where in a public school 50 years ago, you might have to memorize one poem or read a little Whitman, now you can make it all the way through a Ph.D. safely without enforced poetry reading. Without much music, for that matter. Or drawing or art history.
So let the poets quarrel among themselves over the scraps, and read aloud and publish to each other. That's pretty much what we're doing now. Poetry as a form of conversation - of conversation with yourself, as Shihab Nye put it - is over in America.
But for the few teachers out there who still dare to put poetry in front of kids - especially young kids - here are some good sites:
Listen & Write
A Poem a Day for American High Schools
It's true that one of them is British. Maybe we need to turn to other English-speaking countries to figure out why more people read poetry there than here. Maybe we need to ask the poets.
One blogger has thoughts on the matter.
I'm going to get letters about this. But that's okay. What will be really spooky is if I don't.