How Poetry Survives

by CHARLES BERNSTEIN

Speed-of-DarknessIn our period, they say there is free speech.
They say there is no penalty for poets,
There is no penalty for writing poems.
They say this.     This is the penalty.

Muriel Rukeyser, “In Our Time,” The Speed of Darkness

Imagine that all the nationally circulated magazines and all the trade presses and all the university presses in the United States stopped publishing or reviewing poetry. New poetry in the United States would hardly feel the blow. But not because contemporary poetry is marginal to the culture. Quite the contrary, it is these publishing institutions that have made themselves marginal to our cultural life in poetry. As it is, the poetry publishing and reviewing practices of these major media institutions do a disservice to new poetry by their sins of commission as much as omission—that is, pretending to cover what they actually cover up; as if you could bury poetry alive.

In consistently acknowledging only the blandest of contemporary verse practices, these institutions provide the perfect alibi for their evasion of poetry. If what is published and reviewed by these institutions is the best that poetry has to offer, then, indeed, there would be little reason to attend to poetry, except for those looking for a last remnant of a genteel society verse, where, for example, Rebecca Pepper Sinkler, the editor of The New York Times Book Review, can swoon over watered-down Dante on her way to late-night suppers with wealthy lovers of the idea of verse, as she recently gushed in an article in the Book Review. “For some” (“We lucky few” is the last sentences of the article) “there was to be a post-poetry spread laid on by Edwin Cohen (a businessman and patron of literature) back at his apartment at the Dakota, a Danteesque menu announced in advance: roast suckling pig stuffed with fruit, nuts, and cheese; Tuscan salami; prosciotto and polenta, white beans with fennel.”

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Filed under Poem, Reviews, Study

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