Poetry’s Place in America

When Henry Wadsworth Longfellow visited London in 1868, he was invited by Queen Victoria to an audience at Windsor Castle.  She complimented him on his poetry, assuring him that all her servants read it.  Though Oscar Wilde took this phrase to be a rebuke of Longfellow’s vanity, why should it not be sincere?  The claim was plausible.  In the same century, French readers, in their impatience, tore at new collections of Victor Hugo’s verse, and the poet Alphonse de Lamartine could tell a detractor that his book would soon be in every cobbler’s pocket.  Do Americans who work today in the service industry, trades, and skilled jobs read poems?  Do they, or does anyone, like poetry?

Certainly, our tax dollars—federal, state, and local—support it.  Innumerable organizations and foundations do likewise, using their own funds and government grants.  Lectures, conferences, readings, workshops, open-mike sessions and “slams” in coffee shops and bars, prizes and awards, publications of many sorts, specialty bookshops (Malvern’s, in Austin, Texas, for instance), websites, radio readings, poets laureate, presidential-inauguration poems, National Poetry Month (April), poets-in-residence in schools and colleges—all indicate how, since the 1960’s, poetry, or what passes for it, has become a major cultural player.  Free verse predominates, seldom...

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