Poetry, like classical music or table manners, is one of those crafts that is periodically pronounced dead, dying, or, at the very least, irredeemably esoteric. When was the last time you bought a book of poems?
For some, the very idea of poetry is intimidating—it’s the stuff of forgotten lectures and the sort of tweedy, genteel chatter that’s studded with obscure references you’d need a couple of PhDs to untangle. Yet in this modern landscape, verse might just be more prevalent and accessible than ever—in hip-hop music and spoken word performance, in the hyper-condensed witticisms native to social media, and, as always, at inaugurations, funerals, and the other formal ceremonies marking major milestones in our lives.
Such occasions figure prominently in NYU creative writing director Deborah Landau’s new poetry collection The Uses of the Body—a haunting exploration of marriage, motherhood, and growing older that O magazine dubbed “a thrilling meditation on the passages of life” and Vogue compared to “Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, but for girls (and women).” In it Landau mines the everyday—a doctor’s visit, a night spent pacing the halls with a newborn baby, a tipsy wedding toast—for the powerful feelings of contentment, dread, and longing that can sometimes seize us at the most unexpected moments. If you’re looking for a way back in to poetry that won’t put you in a cold sweat over flashbacks to your high school AP English exam, this might be it.
Which poets would you guess the average American is familiar with in 2015?
I imagine most people don’t read much poetry beyond what they were taught in school—perhaps Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost.
Much has been written about how memorization of poetry is no longer required in most schools. What do you make of that change?
While it’s wonderful to have poems in one’s head, obligatory rote memorization may have turned some people off of poetry in the same way that memorizing facts for a history exam doesn’t necessarily help one grasp or appreciate the nuances of a historical moment.
I think the best approach to teaching poetry is one that helps readers understand that poetry is a vital art form, and that poems can be relevant in an immediate way to the living of one’s life. Brett Laurer and Lynn Melnick have edited a fantastic new anthology called Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poets for the Next Generation, which contains a vibrant array of younger contemporary poets on subjects ranging from love to loss to addiction. This book will appeal to younger people in a way that being required to memorize a sonnet about a flower might not.
Did you memorize poems?
My Chaucer professor required us to memorize the opening passage of The Canterbury Tales, which he insisted would come in handy at cocktail parties. It hasn’t, but I do like having those distinctive and musical lines in my head.
Is there a place for poetry in mainstream society today? Your book recommended on the pages of O Magazine and Vogue would seem to indicate that there’s a sizable audience for this kind of work.
Yes, it was surprising and nice to be included in those more mainstream venues and my new book does seem to have more crossover appeal, perhaps because it takes on subject matter—desire, marriage, pregnancy, motherhood, growing older—that isn’t so esoteric. Twelve thousand people attended this year’s Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference in Minneapolis, many of them poets. That seems a strong indicator of the popularity of poetry, and of course there are poetry readings proliferating everywhere—from the large formal series such as those run by the Poetry Society of America and the 92nd Street Y to the informal gatherings in coffee shops and bookstores and libraries that happen throughout the country.
How has technology changed how poetry is created and received?
Technology makes poetry much more accessible in many ways—the Poetry Foundation, for example, has just launched a new initiative, PoetryNow, in which poetry is published on the Foundation’s website and syndicated for radio distribution through WFMT Radio Network. The Academy of American Poets gets poetry out to thousands of people every day through its Poem-A-Day series, which sends a daily poem to subscribers by e-mail. I have an app on my iPhone from the Poetry Foundation that contains thousands of poems with a push of a button—so there’s always a poem in your pocket!—and of course a nearly unlimited number of volumes of poetry can be carried everywhere on a kindle app.
Are tweets poems?
Tweets require lively, energetic use of language, and compression—all features of poetic language. And I suppose it would be possible to send a poem as a tweet or series of tweets. Some poets are exceedingly witty and popular on Twitter—Patricia Lockwood comes to mind. She has more than 50,000 followers.
Why do you think people like to read poems at weddings, or when somebody dies?
Poetry is a repository for intense emotion, and people turn to poems when feelings are so overpowering that articulation is difficult. The perfect poem can be a great and essential comfort and/or pleasure on such occasions.
Are there ideas or images you find yourself returning to again and again in your work?
Love and death seem to be the recurring themes.
Many people seem to associate poetry (and famous poets, especially if they led unhappy lives) with grief and darkness. Can you recommend some joyful poems?
There are so many, but here are some that immediately come to mind:
“What Is,” by Jeffrey Yang
“Crazy About Her Shrimp” by Charles Simic
“The Undertaking” by Louise Gluck
“blessing the boats” by Lucile Clifton
“After Making Love We Hear Footsteps,” by Galway Kinnell
“Song of Myself,” by Walt Whitman
“Poem” (“When I am feeling depressed…”) by Frank O’Hara
“Poem” (“Light clarity avocado salad in the morning”) by Frank O’Hara
“Come Slowly – Eden!” by Emily Dickinson
Reading your poems, I feel as though I know you, though of course I don't! Do you think we're more likely to experience that feeling of intimacy with poetry than with prose?
Poetry can provide a sort of central line into the interior life, more so than perhaps any other art form—and there’s a certain level of directness or honesty in my poems, of course—but I’d hope that in my work personal experience is distilled or transformed to some extent, through language, so that the reader is receiving a made thing, which is more than just a transcription or journal.
What are you tired of hearing people say when you tell them you're a poet?
It’s a great conversation stopper as you might imagine! I try to avoid saying that I’m a poet if I can.
What were the first poems you loved?
When I was 13 my mother gave me a book of Anne Sexton’s Love Poems. It was a heady and intense book for a kid. I was hooked.
“To Autumn” by John Keats
“To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell
“A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” by John Donne
“I dwell in Possibility” by Emily Dickinson
“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” by Walt Whitman
“Come on All You Ghosts” by Matthew Zapruder
“Our Andromeda” by Brenda Shaughnessy
“How to Draw a Perfect Circle” by Terrance Hayes
“I Go Back to May 1937” by Sharon Olds
“Facing It” by Yusef Komunyakaa