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Let Us Now Praise Undead Poets

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Are all poets dead poets? Not a super cheerful thought here in the midst of a rainy Chicago spring, but it would solve some things if it were true. The ceaseless debate over whether or not poetry is relevant to the living and breathing getters and spenders of the world--most recently erupting again at the New York Times in response to David Biespiel's essay, "This Land is Our Land"--would become moot, absurd as a debate over whether or not a pet cemetery should have pooper scooper laws.

Of course when people say, "poetry is dead," they don't mean that everyone who writes a poem is actually a dead person (I don't think), but rather that the art form is "metaphysically" dead to the world. That no one cares. This is always framed as a bad thing. But what if this is actually the way it should be?

The poet Jack Spicer argued that "dead poet" is just another name for poet. Peter Gizzi, in his introduction to Spicer's Vancouver lectures, puts this in the tradition of the great spook poet, W.B. Yeats:

"Spicer introduces Yeats as his poetic precursor--his ghost father--and [Spicer's] poetics perform a kind of serious play (like Hamlet) in which the living are responsible for carrying out the desires of the dead. Spicer presents his poetic practice as an act of 'dictation' that engages the dead in the economy of the living. He describes it as both a 'dance' and a 'game,' but the dance is a danse macabre and the game is a ball game in which you play for more than your life."

In Spicer's world, the live poet is merely a vessel for messages from the dead. All poets aren't dead, per se, but they do exist in a sort of netherworld between the living and dead. So maybe the question isn't, are all poets dead poets? but instead, are all poets zombies? Maybe. Most of us do seem to move a little slow and look a little dazed.

But what of the actual dead poets? The stuff in the ground? Kathleen Rooney, in her feature on the Dead Poets Society of America, a homegrown road show kept up by Walter Skold, explores those who don't necessarily have a poetics built up around necrophilia like Spicer, but rather just like haunting cemeteries.

Skold, a Mainer, who has proposed a National Poets Remembrance Day, has spent the last few years documenting poets' graves across the United States, from Hartford to Black Hawk Island to Mobile. He's tapped into something pretty powerful, as evidenced by the growing following the Dead Poets Society of America has. Which makes sense, since it's easier to love a poet when she's not asking you for money.

"Dead poets are always the most beloved," Rooney writes. "Live ones? Not so much. Love of a dead poet is an unimpeachable love. Dead, a poet is infinite and immortal, while the bounds around the poetry are clear and finite. Dead poets typically won't humiliate you for liking them, won't betray your affection by overproducing second-rate work, or espousing unsavory political beliefs, or publishing something cheap and clever in the New Yorker. You can feel confident in the security of a dead poet's artistic excellence. And because poetry is regarded by virtually everyone as dead--as irrelevant from the moment of its inception--nobody can disparage your preoccupation with a dead poet any more than they can your preoccupation with stamp collecting. The stakes just seem so low."

So maybe a better way to "popularize" poetry--hell, maybe a better way just to explain it-- would be to further valorize the dead, though with the caveat that the dead include the living. Simple! National Poets Remembrance Day would then be a celebration of all the poets in America, living, dead, or otherwise.

Around the Web

The Poetry Foundation : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

Dead Poets Society - Poets.org - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More