AWP 2018 Tampa: "Can Poetry Hold the Center?"

By: Greg Emilio

Echoing William Butler Yeats’ seminal poem, “The Second Coming,” this panel, aptly titled, “Can Poetry Hold the Center?” addressed the role and value of poetry in our (un)reeling media landscape. Fake news, volatile politics, fake news and volatile politics disseminated through social media all create a relentless news cycle bound by a common theme: American division. Published in 1919, Yeats’ poem was a reflection of the world’s collective anxiety over life after the First World War. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” the poet writes, grimly assessing the state of a world-stage rendered small by war, a whole world rended by military conflict. This assessment feels particularly prescient in 2018 America, a cultural vortex that often feels wildly out of control.

The panel, hosted by luminary poetry press, Copper Canyon, included poets Maurice Manning and Paisley Rekdal, who read from their work as a means of answering the titular question: “can poetry hold the center,” can poetry keep us together right now? While the poems were unequivocally bleak, the poets themselves seemed optimistic about the potential of poetry to cut through the widening media gyre, to center and still us. As a poet, I’m inclined to agree that poetry is needed now more than ever. Its goal as an art form is communication, understanding. However, I remain somewhat cynical about public interest in poetry. Manning smartly called it an “antidote,” but it’s one that few are willing to take. For poets, sure, poetry can hold the center. For everyone else…what poetry, what center?