Petitions and the Power of Poetry

A petition at Yale University signifies that now is the time for English departments to teach new kinds of poetry -- and to teach the old kinds in new ways, writes Eric Weiskott.

April 14, 2017
 
 
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Lin-Manuel Miranda in the musical “Hamilton”

Is poetry obsolete?

As an English professor and a poet, I face this question every day. The death of poetry would put me out of a job. Each year, I teach a required seminar called Studies in Poetry, in which I must convince a new group of Boston College sophomores that poetry matters in the English major and in life. Although they’d never say it, many students probably enter the class wishing they did not have to take it. My job is to change their minds.

At Yale University’s English Department, where I earned my Ph.D., poetry is making headlines. Last spring, students petitioned the faculty to scrap Major English Poets, a required yearlong sequence featuring mostly white men. Last fall, faculty members agreed to meet to reconsider every word in the title of the course. And just recently, the faculty voted to revise the major, retaining historical distribution requirements while adding a new course, World Anglophone Literature. Major English Poets is now optional.

The last word in the title (Poets) may well be the least important. The students were not suggesting that a roster of white male novelists would be an improvement. The petition didn’t mention lowercase “poetry” once. Yale English professor Leslie Brisman has stated that the new major requirements were meant to remove poetry from its “privileged position” in the department. Has poetry given up the ghost?

Many professors already behave as though poetry doesn’t exist. Of the 10 texts most frequently assigned in American college classes today, according to the Open Syllabus Project, only one is in verse (Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, No. 7). Poetry is viewed as something that people made long ago, like hieroglyphs. To find a frequently assigned poem written after 1700, you’ll have to move down to No. 62 (Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”). Those figures refer to syllabi from all departments, but that’s the point. Poetry is something you must occasionally read if you major in English or a foreign language. Otherwise, it’s skippable.

Few publishers are committed to the genre. In college, I interned at one of them, Wesleyan University Press, which publishes about a dozen poetry titles per year, a figure that counts as a cornucopia in the world of poetry.

But publishers are only responding to demand. The National Endowment for the Arts has reported that poetry reading among Americans declined from 12 percent to 7 percent between 2002 and 2012 -- down from 20 percent in 1982, according to an earlier NEA report. In fact, just by virtue of completing Studies in Poetry, my students read more poetry last year than 93 percent of Americans (probably much more, since the NEA survey only asked whether respondents had read one single poem). I’m not sure whether to be proud of this or not.

Rumors of the death of poetry have spawned many laments and defenses. Way back in 1991, poet Dana Gioia was already worried (“Can Poetry Matter?”). Surveying this metagenre in a more recent essay wryly titled “Who Reads Poetry?”, Virginia Jackson arrives at the following diagnosis:

In these cases and in many other early-21st-century instances … there lurks the fear that poetry and poetry reading are nearing extinction … But our idealization of poetry is at least partly why we seem to think we are in danger of losing access to the ideal. Our own abstract idea of the lyric makes it possible for us to imagine that we could liberate reading from it or that we are losing our academic discipline, culture or minds if people aren’t reading it.

In other words, poetry’s naysayers and its defenders both misrepresent it as a monolithic enterprise, synonymous with lyric, its most prominent subgenre. Jackson recommends turning to late-19th-century America, her area of expertise, to rediscover the diversity and cultural power of poetry.

Looking back farther, to the Middle Ages (my area of expertise), we learn that anxiety about the future of poetry is nothing new. In the 14th century, London middle manager Geoffrey Chaucer invented the iambic pentameter. At the end of his first composition in this new verse form, Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer notes the “great diversity” of the English language and addresses the poem itself, praying “that no one miswrites you/Nor mismeters you through a linguistic defect.”

Chaucer worried that future readers wouldn’t hear the poetry in his poetry. Chaucer wasn’t an English professor or a poet laureate. (These positions didn’t exist yet.) He worked as a bureaucrat and wrote verse in his free time. Even so, he was worried.

His fears turned out to be unfounded. Chaucer is often called the father of English poetry, and his Canterbury Tales, which I teach every year, ranks a respectable No. 26 on American syllabi. Major English Poets always begins with Chaucer.

Fast-forward to the present, and poetry in English is as diverse as ever. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway hit Hamilton is a poetic tapestry, the strands of which include George Washington’s Farewell Address and an 18th-century-duel-themed update of the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ten Crack Commandments.” Miranda is a worthy heir to Chaucer, who delighted in weaving together old and new influences.

Meanwhile, Bob Dylan continues his never-ending tour. His caustic and absurdly beautiful lyrics received a full-length analysis in 2003 (Christopher Ricks, Dylan’s Visions of Sin) and garnered Dylan a Nobel Prize in literature -- two signs that the institutionalized boundaries between poetry and music might be dissolving. And Patience Agbabi remixes the Canterbury Tales for the 21st century, creating poetry at once authentically medieval and insistently modern.

Now is the time for English departments to teach new kinds of poetry, and to teach the old kinds in new ways. Students at Yale are right to demand a decolonized curriculum -- though this goal is compatible with studying Chaucer, who was making a political statement when he wrote in English rather than French or Latin. The Yale petition reflects the power of poetry to organize communities of readers and learners. In the context of higher education, this power mostly lies in the hands of professors and other people with a business interest in conserving a highly unrepresentative English literary canon. The petition and the predictable reactionary responses to it (“A Safe Space From Chaucer”) lay bare the power differential and the racial, gender and socioeconomic politics behind it.

Yet it is possible, as shown by the recent curricular changes at Yale, to resist the false dichotomy between literary value and social justice. Students deserve both.

Bio

Eric Weiskott is an assistant professor of English at Boston College. He is the author of English Alliterative Verse: Poetic Tradition and Literary History. Follow him on Twitter @ericweiskott.

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