A Celebration of Poetry in the Past 20 Years by Princeton University Press intern, Oliver Newman
The cloning of Dolly the sheep, 9/11, the introduction of the Euro, the election of the first black American president, the birth of Justin Bieber… A lot has happened in the 20 years since the last edition of The Princeton Encyclopaedia of Poetry and Poetics was published. What, though, has happened in the world of contemporary poetry (not including Justin Bieber’s rise to fame)?
T.S. Eliot once declared that, at its best, contemporary poetry ‘can give us a feeling of excitement and a sense of fulfilment different from any sentiment aroused even by very much greater poetry of a past age.’ Here, Eliot is implying that contemporary poetry can evoke powerful emotional reactions borne from its immediate relevance to, and subsequent reflection of, the age in which we live. Adopting this philosophy, poetry’s development during the last 20 years should reflect the development of modern society. This is immediately apparent with the rise of electronic poetry, which resembles our age through its inherent reliance upon modern technological advances and almost unlimited, instantaneous networking via the internet. However, the correlation between contemporary poetry and the present age is perhaps most interesting when examining the medium’s development as a social spectacle, and poetry is rarely more spectacular than when being “slammed” from one opponent to another.
Poetry slamming first appeared in 1984, and has generated heated reactions from poets and academics alike. Unlike electronic poetry, which leaves original material unaltered, poetry slamming is predominantly reliant upon impermanent, sensual reactions that manifest out of the spectacle surrounding the original material, lending it to comparisons with some of the most popular forms of entertainment available today. ‘Seeing poetry slams often reminds me of watching American Idol. You’ve got a series of judges, an audience that comes in looking for a certain shtick that they want to see and that’s what they’re going to cheer for’, stated University of South Carolina Professor Kip Fulbeck in an interview with the Santa Barbara Independent. Whether the audience is ‘looking for a certain kind of shtick’ is subjective, but poetry slamming’s resemblance to shows such as American Idol and X-Factor is certainly evident. Indeed, it follows the same basic formula – three minute rounds, multiple opponents who are graded respectively by a panel of judges, and a general emphasis upon personality and performance.
While academics such as Harold Bloom, who has labelled poetry slamming ‘the death of art’, denounce the form for its reliance upon exhibitionism and competition, it could be argued that these very features elevate the medium to an altogether new art form, one that ironically reflects our age in a way that ordinary poetry could never do. By consciously emphasising performance over artistry, purveyors of the form are unconsciously parodying the age’s fascination with spectacle over original material, a fascination displayed through the overwhelming popularity of shows such as X-Factor (the 2011 final of which garnered a viewing audience of just over 15 million people).
Whether or not these resemblances give the reader a feeling of excitement and a sense of fulfilment equal to poetry of a past age, or whether it simply distorts the artistry of the original material is just one of the many themes explored in the new edition of The Princeton Encyclopaedia of Poetry and Poetics. In fact this fourth edition, revised and updated for the twenty-first century, offers more than 250 new entries and covers all aspects of poetry from its history, movements and genres, to its rhetorical devices, critical terms and more, making it the most comprehensive and definitive edition yet.
Happy National Poetry Day!