Though it might hurt some feelings, any sort of public debate over poetry must gratify those who care about the form. For barely anybody, we're told, reads poetry anymore.
And that, of course, is itself a key issue in a dust-up involving a mild-mannered Nebraskan named Ted Kooser, the former U.S. poet laureate who visits the International Poetry Forum on Wed., April 11. Kooser is tight with John Barr, president of the well-funded Poetry Foundation. Barr is friends with National Endowment for the Arts head Dana Gioia, who, like Barr, calls for and promotes poetry that is less academic and more accessible.
That approach is epitomized by American Life in Poetry, a weekly column funded by the Poetry Foundation, edited by Kooser and offered free to newspapers and online publications. In a brochure touting the column's "engaging and easy-to-understand contemporary American poems," Kooser promises "a fresh spot of value to newspaper readers."
Launched in April 2005, American Life in Poetry is now featured in dozens of dailies. But it also has been criticized as dull, white-bread and unchallenging. In indie mag The Baffler, University of Maine professor Steve Evans writes that the poems Kooser selects -- characteristically about family, neighbors, household chores -- "are almost entirely devoid of verbal wit, cognitive surprise or strong passions."
The critique supports Evans' larger, politically charged broadside about "a cohort of Midwestern white guys with business backgrounds" taking over poetry: "Through men like Dana Gioia, John Barr, and Ted Kooser, Karl Rove's battle-tested blend of unapologetic economic elitism and reactionary cultural populism is now being marketed in the far-off reaches of the poetry world."
Gioia is a former food-industry executive; Barr a former investment banker; and Kooser, 67, a retired life-insurance executive. And cash is on their side: As Dana Goodyear detailed in a Feb. 19 New Yorker article, the Poetry Foundation was birthed by heiress Ruth Lilly's 2002 gift of $200 million to venerable little Poetry magazine. Last year, the Chicago-based Poetry ran Barr's essay "American Poetry in the New Century," in which he assailed contemporary verse, bred largely in academia, as "neither robust, resonant, nor -- and I stress this quality -- entertaining." Adds Barr, "an art enters its golden age when it is addressed to and energized by the general audiences of its time."
"This is the consumerization of poetry," poet and University of Southern California professor Carol Muske-Duckes told Goodyear. "The foundation is talking about trying to reach as many people as possible without really changing their consciousness. It just wants them to buy."
Kooser's poet laureateship, like his 2005 Pulitzer Prize and his partnership with Barr, make him a target in the argument over what poetry ought to be. His own work, meanwhile, is nothing if not accessible: Typically, short, plain verses upon a single subject, from a bemused or empathetic observer's point of view.
But while Kooser is often sentimental, he's also an accomplished craftsman, one whose best stuff is as lovely as a koan. His "In January," set inside a café at night, concludes: "Beyond the glass, the wintry city creaks like an ancient wooden bridge. A great wind rushes under all of us. The bigger the window, the more it trembles."
It's discouraging when big money lines up behind unambitious work. Yet while accessibility shouldn't be valued over art, it is a legitimate value. Moreover, just as art films inhabit the same culture (and attract some of the same viewers) as Hollywood blockbusters, it's doubtful that initiatives like Kooser's American Life in Poetry will keep passionate readers from broadening their horizons.
As Kooser demonstrates, a poet can be both accessible and good. But poets can also be both popular and challenging: Last November, at the International Poetry Forum hosted W.S. Merwin, whose work can be political, despairing, and formally experimental,. Merwin drew 500 people -- a crowd many an indie rock band would envy.
Ted Kooser reads at the International Poetry Forum. 8 p.m. Wed., April 11. Carnegie Library Lecture Hall, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. $12 ($8 seniors/students). 412-621-9893 or www.thepoetryforum.org