By Victor D. Infante

And then there was Oprah. Few things have cut across the poetry community like the “Power of Poetry” issue of O Magazine. And certainly, there was plenty there to digest: Maria Shriver interviewing Mary Oliver, Edward Hirsch writing about how he discovered his passion for poetry, Maya Angelou offering thoughts on writing, W.S. Merwin on his connection to nature, and of course, the most controversial bit, spring fashion modeled by Suheir Hammad and other younger poets, with snippets of their words artfully pasted into the pictures. “Artfully,” of course, meaning the words of poetry are simply a backdrop to the clothes, as is true of everything in a fashion photo shoot. Even the poets themselves, in this instance, are secondary to the clothes. But that’s what editorial fashion spreads do – in that instance, the poets are there to sell the clothes, even if the hope is that the opposite occurs. Certainly, if someone buys a book by Hammad or any other of the worthy wordsmiths presented, then it was, on some level, a success.

But still, whenever these odd incursions of mainstream media intersect with poetry, there seems to be a visceral reaction. Take David Orr, for example, writing in The New York Times, “The problem is that poetry can’t approach the world inhabited by O and fashion design — that is, the world of American mass culture — with the same swagger as other fields do. When Terrell Owens holds forth on poetry in O (yes, he does), much of the audience knows that Owens is a football player, and has at least a vague idea of what football is, what it means and why it inspires otherwise reasonable people to put Styrofoam cheese slices on their heads. But poets and poetry readers . . . we can’t bring our context with us. We’re at the mercy of someone else’s display. The sad thing about ‘Spring Fashion Modeled by Rising Young Poets’ is not that the photos are a debasement of Art. The sad thing is that they capture an inevitable and impossible yearning. The chasm between the audience for poetry and the audience for O is vast, and not even the mighty Oprah can build a bridge from empty air.”

Yet many poets, in the numerous discussions spurred by this issue, still express a sense that this could only do some good, could expose a viewpoint about poetry that most readers are largely unfamiliar with. That it could, ultimately, do the art form some good. and perhaps they’re correct, although there’s a certain déjà vu about the conversation, as though we’ve been here before. In a lot of ways, it’s reminiscent of the conversations surrounding HBO Presents Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam, or before that poetry at Lollapalooza, or poetry on MTV. Presumably, there were similar discussions in the Beatnik coffee houses when Jack Kerouac read excerpts from On the Road on The Steve Allen Show. There is always someone like Orr, bristling at the intrusion.

And always, there is someone like Kathleen Rooney, writing on Harriet, the Poetry Foundation’s blog, who says of Orr, “One hopes that they do so out of an honest ignorance of the role poetry actually plays in the lives of most people who read, write, and share it.  One fears, however, that they do so out of a desire to preserve poetry as a domain of connoisseurs, as an elite signifier for the educated and affluent.  Someone may be well-served by this attitude; poetry is not.”

Enmeshed in this constantly reincarnated conversation are some of the more salient arguments about what it means to be a poet today: balancing artistic integrity with commercial concerns; the desire to make a living with the repulsion at “selling out,” of carving the depth out of one’s work in order to keep and maintain an audience.

And always, there’s a question skittering on the edge of the argument, the one few want to address: “What is a poem’s job? What is it for?” Mind, this is a different question than, “What is a poet?” As Angelou points out in O, anyone can write a poem, but few will. and even if you write one, that’s a far cry from devoting your life to the pursuit of an art form.

What’s more, the conversation begs the question, “What brings a reader to a poem?” Which is a different question from, “What brings an audience to a reading?” Readings are largely communal events, where poets and poetry fans (and the occasional beleaguered friend or spouse) come together in a common love of the art form. Or sometimes, and this is increasingly true these days, they’re sort of rock star events, where an audience comes out of appreciation of a particular artist. But loving an artist is different than loving a poem. Is different than needing a poem.

One can argue what constitutes a poem for eternity, but at the end of the day, it boils down to heightened, metaphor-laced language illuminating some sort of truth. It can be political or spiritual, funny or brutal, personal or social, but at the end of the day, it’s a relatively simple thing. And it’s beautiful. Whether it’s funny or barbarously ragged, it’s beautiful. Because “beauty is truth, truth beauty,” as John Keats once wrote.

And most of the time, these simple, beautiful things are ignored. Because truth is uncomfortable, unless we can disguise it as something else – as a rock ‘n’ roll event to be consumed, perhaps, or as a fashion spread in a glossy magazine. “Poetry must be appreciated or ignored,” as W.H. Auden wrote, and clearly, most choose the latter.

Until, inexplicably, they don’t … until the poem is desperately needed by someone. At that point, it transforms into something else entirely. It becomes food, oxygen, a medicine at the back of the cabinet, almost forgotten. In that moment, what was once a trifle becomes something capable of saving a life.

Sometimes that moment is clearly understood, the welling of emotion drawing someone to the volume near forgotten on the top of the bookcase. Other times, one discovers it by chance – an annoyed spouse dragged unwilling to the poetry reading, hearing something they didn’t even know they needed. It doesn’t much matter, really. All that matters is that the poem was there when needed.

And in that, perhaps, is the true value of Winfrey’s work here: Not in giving momentum to an art form which has, frankly, gotten several pushes before, and which nonetheless retains an ambivalent relationship with mass culture, but rather in something more intangible. Perhaps its best to think of this magazine issue – and Def Poetry Jam, and MTV’s experiment with poetry, and all the rest – as simply a signpost along an overgrown trail, reminding the culture at large where the poetry resides, when it’s inevitably needed. Ultimately, it’s OK that poets themselves may travel in and out of the mass-media culture – we all have books to sell, after all. But this isn’t about us, about our careers and our personas and what not. It’s about what brings an individual reader to an individual poem. And it’s best to remember that anyone who’s walking that particular thorny path is walking it alone. That’s the reason they needed a poem in the first place.