I would say that poetry gets a bad rap nowadays, but that would be incorrect in that it implies that anyone gives poetry a sliver of thought. The causes for the craft's beleaguered reputation (or lack of one) in the 21st century can be attributed to a number of causes.
- People don't read for pleasure as much as they used to. Obv.
- In order to sustain itself, poetry has become inextricably tethered to academia. This has the same effect you might see in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy: it's still alive, but it's sick. A huge chunk of today's poets are either MFA students or creative writing professors, and they are all writing poems for the approval of other MFA students and creative writing professors. Hence, modern verse's reputation for insularity and inaccessibility, and the very reason Robert Pinsky gets on my nerves so much.
- Conventional wisdom: anyone under thirty who writes poetry who isn't an MFA student must be either a hipster or a goth. Neither is very popular.
- Hip-hop. And I'm not talking about Kayne West and Lil' Wayne and whoever else, but practitioners of the more underground and intellectual strands. Talented wordsmiths are opting for a scene with a little more vitality, and who can blame them?
- Related cause: there is no market for poetry. Not that there ever was one -- you'll notice that all of the most renowned English-speaking poets were either well-off to begin with (Tennyson, Byron, Wordsworth, etc.) or otherwise broke, laden with debt, and/or borderline insane (Whitman, Poe, Shelley, etc.) -- but most creative types embark on their careers hoping for one or both of two things: money and recognition. If there was any time when writing poetry could possibly earn you one but not the other, it ended with the Beats. These days, you're practically assured of getting neither.
But the cool part about this, and one of the reasons I enjoy reading modern poetry (at least the stuff that isn't overacademized and deliberately impenetrable), is that you know the people who still write this stuff must be both passionate about what they're doing and writing precisely what they want to. Hard to approach a project with a cynical, market-driven mindset (like you frequently see in fiction, nonfiction, comic books, television, film, music, video games, etc.) when there simply isn't a market to cater to. Poetry ain't dead. There are a lot of people doing some very cool and interesting stuff -- it's just that nobody is paying attention.
In any event, I am not a frequent poet. Every month or two, I'll find myself finishing a new piece. It's not something I can will or force; it just happens on its own. But now I'm sitting on a stack of work that's never been published (though, as usual, not for lack of trying) or presented to an audience, and have been thinking it's about time I got it out there. And this was why I headed to Brooklyn last Sunday for an open mic in Park Slope.
Open mics are always a crapshoot. All of the people who come to perform are there because they can't get invited to perform anywhere -- which doesn't necessarily mean they are awful, but in many cases it does -- and most of the people who come to listen arrive with the performers. But hell -- a free show is a free show, and an audience is an audience.
So I headed into Park Slope with Eszter and a stack of printouts and found the place without too much trouble. It was a little bar/cafe with a lovely atmosphere: red walls, low lighting, and a laid-back soundtrack. Pretty much what I expected. We arrived late. I was about twelfth on the sign-up sheet, so I took a seat, slurped on a Hot Toddy, and consulted Eszter on which of the six and seven pieces she thought would be best to read.
At 7:30, the first performer came on: a middle-aged man who strummed a guitar and sang off-key ballads about drinking and seasonal depression while a sunny-faced kid of about eighteen or nineteen accompanied him with a bongo, eyes shut, smiling, swaying from side to side like he had taken MDMA at a summer drum circle. Certainly it was a little ridiculous -- but it is hard to just earnestness too harshly, especially when you yourself cannot even coax a guitar into twanging out "Jingle Bells."
Next up was a diffident young rapper of about twenty or so. Tonight was obviously his first or second performance before an audience. You could see how nervous he was. He introduced himself louder than he rhymed, and he kept his feet rooted in one spot, but he never missed a beat. And he was sincere -- which, despite what the sneering Simon Cowells of the world will try to convince you, does count for a lot.
Meanwhile, I had ordered another drink and was eying the rest of the crowd. There they were -- a disparate group of twenty-somethings, sipping coffee and scribbling a couple of last notes into a pocket diary. Poetry fags, one and all. I was eager to hear what they had to say, and for them to listen to me in turn.
The next act was introduced. He shut his notebook, slid it into his pocket, and approached the front with a loose swagger. "Good to see you all tonight," he said, snatching the mic from the stand. "Give yourselves a hand!"
Mild applause. I raise an eyebrow.
"So, uh, anyone excited about the McRib? The McRib is back, man! Sheeit. What kinda rib is that? What animal is that from? Musta been some abomination, some kinda horrible abortion of bestiality or something. Right? Am I right? Sheeeit."
Eszter and I looked at each other. Okay, I thought. The flyer specifically welcomed "poets, musicians, and comics." So we have some lousy standup on the bill. Cool. Just a little airy levity before one of these young Keatses or Kerouacs takes the mic and astounds us with his clarity of perspective and keen precision of craftsmanship. It's gonna happen. Just wait for it.
Applause. The next act approaches the front.
"So, uh, I was out drinking the other night and I started talking sweet to this bartender chick, but her -- she won't have any of it. 'I don't date meatheads,' she tells me. So I say back to her, thinking I'm clever, 'but I'm a vegetarian!' So she says, 'I don't date faggots either.'"
BA DUM CHING! Laughter.
And so it unfolds. One after another, the comedians take the mic.
"You know what's weird? You ever think about how different it is to take a shit and give a shit?"
"I bite my nails. My girlfriend keeps telling me 'that's such a disgusting habit!' I say, 'you know what else is a disgusting habit? Being an annoying bitch.'"
"Now I'm no racist, but..."
"I never ask a chick if she's pregnant. I just sorta hang around and wait nine months and see if a baby pops out. And when I don't see a baby, I get pissed, you know? Means I just spent nine months hanging around with some weirdly-proportioned fat chick."
The crowd cackled with laughter. I go over my own material again and again. The poem about a bird. The poem about frogs. Oh, and that goopy love poem. Christ -- I brought a ukelele to a knife fight. I gave Eszter a nudge and nodded toward the door. It was time to leave.
It was the sensible thing to do, really. Neither of us were having any fun at that point. The stand-up acts all sucked; I'd take doofy poetry over artless jokes any day of the week. Eszter was seething over a misogynist jokester who left -- arm in arm with his girlfriend, no less -- two minutes after he put the mic back in its stand. But it wasn't them so much as the crowd that compelled me to quit the place. They loved these guys. How was I supposed to impress them -- follow up a routine about getting fingered in the ass the first time having sex with a piece about a blue heron? The crowd wouldn't be into it. I'd be wasting my time and theirs. So we left.
And yet I feel infinitely more foolish now than I would have had I balled up and presented my work to an unreceptive audience.
Not only because I sold myself short and copped out -- but this whole thing might have been a better story, something more worth remembering and repeating, had I swallowed it and made it happen, for better or worse. Anything is better than an anecdote that goes nowhere. Any memory is more worth retaining than "that night I was going to do something, but I didn't."
The greatest writers became what they are because they didn't lose their nerve, even when it meant standing naked before the world.