Notes on "Light" vs. "Serious" Poetry, Advertising vs. Art, and an 800 Lb. Gorilla or Two

Watts Gallery, Compton, Surrey by Martin BeekAfter the first of many holiday gorgings to come, I was thinking a little light verse might be in order.

But first: Poetry may be moribund as far as the average reader is concerned, but that doesn't stop advertisers from deploying it without, as far as I can tell, even trace amounts of irony. In case you haven't noticed, Walt Whitman’s "Pioneers! O Pioneers!" and "America" are currently being used to shill blue jeans in a series of television ads. I confess I kind of like one of the spots (and pretty much hate myself for it). I figure any exposure for poetry is not a bad thing, though I find the contextual non sequitur troubling, and I admit I have some qualms about accessorizing one's dungarees with "pistols...and sharp-edged axes," but, then again, I don't keep up with fashion trends the way I used to.  (For more on advertising wearing art’s clothing, see the late David Foster Wallace’s cogent little screed in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again***).

Yes, I was saying--a little light verse!

Once, not so long ago, writers of accessible, unapologetically middlebrow poetry made good livings, were widely loved, and better yet, widely read. Cutting well-heeled figures along that wide, clean and perpetually sunny side of the street were the likes of Joyce Kilmer, John Greenleaf WhittierOgden Nash, Dorothy Parker (perhaps the heaviest of the light versifiers), and the guy who many believe put the icepick to the genre once and for all, Rod McKuen. I guess, one could argue that Billy Collins is the current eight-hundred pound gorilla of light verse, but I’m guessing he would bristle at the label. And if I know anything, I know that a poet who sells as many books as he does is not to be trifled with (especially if you are a poet who uses the word "cicada" in a poem, or, I guess, you happen to be a cicada yourself).Cicada Perched on Finger by S. Shepherd

Reading over what I have written, I see that what I am trying to get at here has nothing to do with light verse, but rather the notion of "popular" versus "academic" poetry. To a great extent, questions about accessibility have replaced the old distinction between poetry as entertainment and poetry as "art." Today, many poets who fall into the latter category, deploy humor in ways few "serious" poets did in the past (see: Tony Hoagland, Dean Young, and Joshua Beckman).

Of course, there is no real dividing line between the two camps, but broadly speaking, you have on one side poets like Collins, Mary Oliver and Kay Ryan, championed by another unusually large simian, Garrison Keillor, who write very good, proudly non-experimental poetry dealing with matters of life and (occasionally) death. On the other side are those poets who at least gesture toward the edges of the envelopes of form and content. They question and problematize the act of writing in ways that make each poem seem to be "about" the act of writing poetry. Every poem becomes an ars poetica.

There need be no value judgements between to two approaches (though I am as guilty of them as anyone). It is merely a matter of the way one chooses to answer the question: "What is a poem for?" There is no wrong answer except a complacent shrug.

***You can read the full-text via MasterFile Premier Database on the HCPL website--search Wallace, David Foster Shipping Out.

Photo Credit: Watts Gallery, Compton, Surrey by Martin Beek
Photo Credit: Cicada Perched on Finger by Schizoform / S. Shepherd