“It is time to experiment, time to leave the well-ordered but stuffy classroom, time to restore a vulgar vitality to poetry and unleash the energy now trapped in the subculture. There is nothing to lose. Society has already told us that poetry is dead. Let’s build a funeral pyre out of the desiccated conventions piled around us and watch the ancient, spangle-feathered, unkillable phoenix rise from the ashes” (Gioia).
What a call to action, right? Poetry was dying, and Dana Gioia ended his important essay about the place of poetry in our society by asking poets to leave the comfort of their self-congratulatory, poet-only communities to save it. Did they do it? I would say, no. We poets still mostly write for each other; very few of us ever make it into the mainstream, and those who do have their work pared down to a handful of poems that get anthologized while the rest is mostly forgotten. So if the solution is to experiment, what should the experiments look like or begin with? What experiment would equate to poetry “mattering” and who does it need to matter to in order to really matter? When I was a kid, my mother helped me memorize William Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper.” She read Nikki Giovanni’s “Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day” to me. She hung Langston Hughes’ “Dream Deferred” on the wall in our hallway for me to pass day in and day out. She taught me to love poems because they meant more than words on a page. They were a reason to be close to my mother. So, there’s a radical idea. Let’s make poetry that brings us together, poetry that makes us more human and confirms our greatest hopes and fears. An experiment connotes breaking rules to make something new. That may be a good idea, too, but only if the experiment creates poetry that sustains us.