Probing Question: Is poetry relevant in American society today?

Can you name a television talent show with over 100 million viewers worldwide, huge studio audiences, hundreds of people vying to perform, and a prize worth up to $13 million?

If you're thinking of The Voice or American Idol, think again. Since 2007, one of the world's most popular reality TV shows has been Million's Poet, a program from the United Arab Emirates that invites contestants to recite their own poetry, composed in a traditional Bedouin style called Nabati, which dates back to the fourth century. The poets are judged both on the quality of the poetry and on the skill of their recitation. How popular is the show? Its ratings are a runaway success, soaring past those for soccer, UAE's national sport.

If we can't imagine such a phenomenon in the U.S. (and who can?) should we conclude that poetry is less relevant than ever in American society? Not so fast, says Erin Murphy, professor of English and creative writing at Penn State Altoona.

Murphy -- the award-winning author of six collections of poetry, recipient of several teaching awards, and recent inductee into the Blair County Arts Hall of Fame -- believes that, despite the minuscule national marketplace for poetry books, the American public still longs for the kinds of insights that only poetry can deliver, and poetry still has an important place in our schools.

"For me, teaching poetry is not about turning all of my students into poets," says Murphy. "It's about economy of language and concision, and there are so many applications. An engineering major who is now getting his Ph.D. at MIT took my intro to creative writing course and credited poetry with teaching him how to explain the technical elements in his field using narrative and metaphor. I also met an attorney who said the class that best prepared him for writing legal briefs was a poetry writing class. So is poetry relevant? Yes, for poets and also for anyone who needs to write or express himself or herself."

We should also take care not to measure the place of poetry in American life by book sales, notes Murphy, nor should we pose television, the Internet, or other technologies or venues as being opponents of poetry.

 

"There is something about a human truth expressed in poetry that has the power to reach us on both an emotional and intellectual level."

 

While we may not have tens of millions of viewers tuning in to watch televised poetry recitation contests, Americans still have come up with a variety of creative ways to weave poetry into our culture and daily lives. For instance, says Murphy, the Favorite Poem Project, founded by our 39th Poet Laureate of the United States, Robert Pinsky, gives ordinary citizens the chance to upload videos of themselves reciting their favorite poems.

"Poetry has its roots in oral culture, of course," says Murphy. "At special occasions on both a personal and national level, when people celebrate and when they mourn -- think of our Presidential inaugurations, weddings, funerals, and commemorations of tragedies, such as September 11 and Hurricane Katrina -- they turn to poets to provide the words that are difficult to summon."

In the aftermath of 9/11, W.H. Auden's poem September 1, 1939 went "viral" online, with countless readers finding meaning in the poem, written in response to Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland, and the almost prophetic feeling of lines such as:

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers used
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective man

At the crossroads of the poetry slam movement and YouTube, the topic and performance of a poem can touch a nerve and captivate millions. As Jeff Shotts, poetry editor at Graywolf Press, put it, "The Internet is basically one big poetry audiobook." A YouTube video of Neil Hilborn's poem "OCD" -- performed during the 2013 Rustbelt Regional Poetry Slam -- has been viewed over 10 million times and generated almost 10,000 comments. The sheer volume of poetry audio files online is staggering and a very positive development, says Murphy.

Poetry also turns up frequently in our public spaces, she adds. Since 1992, New York City's Metropolitan Transit Authority has displayed poems (chosen in association with the Poetry Society of America) in its subway cars, on the sides of MetroCards, on touch-screen kiosks, and other transit venues, all as part of the city's beloved "Poetry in Motion" project. The project proved so successful, says Murphy, that it was replicated in many other cities across the nation.

Other examples of public poems abound. "I love the Poetry in the Zoos project," says Murphy. Providing permanent installations in zoos across the country, the project does double-duty to raise the public's awareness of environmental issues as well as foster an appreciation for the beauty and power of poetry, she explains.

Poetry even has a place in our current world of technological security, says Murphy. "I heard a piece on NPR recently about how the new passwords will be poems -- 'passpoems' -- because they are longer, and therefore more secure, than traditional passwords but easier to remember since they are based on the oral tradition."

The way we share and access poems may change as society and technology evolve, says Murphy, but the drive to explore and express our lives through poetry is a constant. "There is something about a human truth expressed in poetry that has the power to reach us on both an emotional and intellectual level," she adds. "It can be a bold and transformative art form."

Hissa Hilal might agree. She is the Saudi Arabian poet who, in 2010, was the only woman to become a finalist on the TV show Million's Poet. She came in third, won the equivalent of almost a million U.S. dollars, and stretched the boundaries of visibility for Arab women in public life. In a video interview, Hilal said (imagining she is speaking to her own poems), "The people who love you will love you because truth and transparency is enough."

"Truth and transparency -- that's something that will always be relevant in any country and any time period," concludes Murphy.

 

Erin Murphy is Professor of English and creative writing at Penn State Altoona and can be reached at ecm14@psu.edu

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Last Updated July 28, 2017