The Onion on Poetry

Parnassus Staff

The Onion may bill itself as “America’s Finest News Source” with a wink and a nudge, but, as with all good satire, its joke stories hold more than a grain of truth. There are cheap shots, to be sure, like “Poet Takes Extra 5 Minutes to Vague Up Poem,” in which a poet says his work will “not be totally ready for publication until his 5-year-old nephew completes work on the third stanza.” But the spoof of bad “poetic poetry” is pretty hair-raising: “Harshness your light fallen—Sporadic. Droppings.”

Some longer pieces that have appeared over the last few years are eerily—poets might say depressingly—insightful about the problem of finding an audience for poetry today. In an article titled “Distressed Nation Turns To Poet Laureate For Solace,” imaginary crowds throng about the home of Philip Levine, eager for “the poetry they need just to able to get through their day.” The thought that the American people might be “ ‘eagerly anticipating his words’ ” is laughable, even absurd. “ ‘The sheer excitement that overcomes our people when a poetry reading is announced tells you how badly we need this guy,’ ” says a fake Scott Brown. The image of Levine exiting his house, “donning…a pair of wire-rim glasses, opening a brown leather-bound journal, and taking a seat on his porch swing” to appease the hordes of his admirers is like something out of a Christopher Guest movie—which is to say, very funny, but maybe also a little sad if you think about it too long.

It’s hard to read things like this as writers and lovers of poetry because Levine’s work is, in fact, relevant—his 1991 collection, What Work Is, is peopled with laborers and factory-workers struggling to resolve soul-crushing jobs with their inner lives and desires, or with patient but desperate job applicants, waiting and waiting only to be told, “No, / we’re not hiring today.” The poems are, by most standards, quite accessible—plainspoken, earnest, and moving, as this oft-quoted passage from the title poem demonstrates:

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another. — “What Work Is

This is not fuzzy abstraction or self indulgence, nor is it a litany of meaningless words that happen to sound nice together—this is a poem that could actually make a difference in the life of someone facing an uncertain future.


More on poetry from The Onion:

National Poetry Month Raises Awareness of Poetry Prevention

I Could Write A Better Rubaiyat Than That Khayyam Dipshit

Offensive Lineman Uses Expressive Poetry To Deeply Move Linebacker

National Organization For Women Cites Domestic Violence Survivor Poetry As The Most Compelling Reason To End Domestic Violence

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Publisher & Editor: Herbert LEIBOWITZ
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