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Its Own World To the average reader, the proposition that poetry’s audience has declined may seem self-evident.It is symptomatic of the art’s current isolation that within the subculture such notions are often rejected.
One cannot easily marshal numbers, but to any candid observer the evidence throughout the world of ideas and letters seems inescapable. There is, in fact, little coverage of poetry or poets in the general press.
From 1984 until this year the National Book Awards dropped poetry as a category. In fact, virtually no one reviews it except other poets.
Like chamber-of-commerce representatives from Parnassus, poetry boosters offer impressive recitations of the numerical growth of publications, programs, and professorships.
Given the bullish statistics on poetry’s material expansion, how does one demonstrate that its intellectual and spiritual influence has eroded?
In American letters they date back to the nineteenth century.
But the modern debate might be said to have begun in 1934 when Edmund Wilson published the first version of his controversial essay “Is Verse a Dying Technique?There are now several thousand college-level jobs in teaching creative writing, and many more at the primary and secondary levels.Congress has even instituted the position of poet laureate, as have twenty-five states.With an average of ten poetry students in each graduate section, these programs alone will produce about 20,000 accredited professional poets over the next decade.From such statistics an observer might easily conclude that we live in the golden age of American poetry.One also finds a complex network of public subvention for poets, funded by federal, state, and local agencies, augmented by private support in the form of foundation fellowships, prizes, and subsidized retreats.There has also never before been so much published criticism about contemporary poetry; it fills dozens of literary newsletters and scholarly journals.No one knows how many poetry readings take place each year, but surely the total must run into the tens of thousands.And there are now about 200 graduate creative-writing programs in the United States, and more than a thousand undergraduate ones. No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group.Little of the frenetic activity it generates ever reaches outside that closed group. Like priests in a town of agnostics, they still command a certain residual prestige.