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But What Do the Tortured Poets Think?

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But What Do the Tortured Poets Think?

When Taylor Swift announced the title of her next album during an acceptance speech at the Grammy Awards on Sunday, she spurred a reaction from a typically quiet bunch: the poets.

The album, slated to come out April 19, she said, is called “The Tortured Poets Department.” (Sans apostrophe.)

As the name caught fire on social media, questions abounded. Who were these poets? Did Ms. Swift count herself among them? Was the pop singer stealing something precious from those who write verse?

“As a tortured poet, I approve,” said Christian Wiman, the editor of Poetry magazine from 2003 to 2013. “Or is she making fun of us? I guess I kind of approve of that, too.”

Immediately after the album announcement, a post on Ms. Swift’s Instagram and X accounts revealed what appeared to be the album’s Lord Byron-esque artwork: a gray-scale photo of Ms. Swift, spread across a bed in luxurious anguish.

The title calls to mind the Robin Williams film “Dead Poets Society” — also sans apostrophe — said Adrienne Raphel, a poet and the author of “Our Dark Academia,” who noted that the film was released in 1989, Ms. Swift’s birth year.

“Tay is taking us full dark academia mode,” Ms. Raphel continued, referring to an online subculture that emphasizes reading, writing and a gothic fashion sense. “Let’s not forget the article: ‘the.’ ‘The’ also conjures academic programs: the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the Ivy League.”

Some self-identified tortured poets, like Mr. Wiman, considered the title a playful, and self-aware, call-out to their community.

“It takes us tortured poets seriously, as seriously as the post office, and yet it pokes a little good-natured fun at us at the same time,” said Richard Siken, whose 2004 poetry collection, “Crush,” won the Yale Younger Poets prize.

“Songwriters and poets are interchangeable to some extent,” said Eileen Myles, who has written more than 20 books of poetry. “So I feel a kindred spirit in Taylor Swift’s title.”

Alongside the album artwork, Ms. Swift posted a handwritten poem on social media. Signed by “The Chairman of The Tortured Poets Department,” it rhymes “muses” with “bruises” and ends with “All’s fair in love and poetry.”

Mr. Siken said he was struck by one line in particular: “‘My muses, acquired like bruises’ is brutal,” he said. “She got that exactly right. Muses don’t float in and out without doing any damage.”

Gregory Pardlo, who won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his book “Digest,” seemed to take issue with Ms. Swift’s description of poets as “tortured,” arguing that the modifier plays into outdated tropes about artists and makes light of their struggles. He also had questions about the poem she posted.

“Poets today take mental health very seriously,” Mr. Pardlo said, “and I find it a little troublesome that this poem seems to be romanticizing what are often diagnosed as anxiety disorders.”

Stephanie Burt, an English professor who teaches a class on Taylor Swift at Harvard University, said by email: “I’m hoping the title ends up in part lighthearted, since you don’t have to be tortured to be a poet, or even to be a skillful one. No one should be tortured (literally), and no one should have to feel tortured (figuratively) to make lasting or emotionally engaging art.”

Whether or not Ms. Swift herself is a poet has long been a subject of debate. Ms. Burt posited that she was “not a great page-based poet but a major songwriter. Closely related art forms, but not the same.”

Ms. Burt hastened to add that Ms. Swift belonged to poetic traditions nonetheless: She seemed to be inspired by “Wordsworthian romanticism, Burnsian lyricism — the intense and intensely gendered inwardness and the wit of Laura Kasischke,” she said.

Others have said that Ms. Swift’s autobiographical lyrics and performances evoke 1950s confessional poetry and today’s aphoristic Instapoetry, a social-media-based form that emerged in the 2010s. Among some Instapoets, Ms. Swift is considered a high priestess.

“Taylor’s music is a source of inspiration for many contemporary poets on Instagram and TikTok,” said Ginnie Bale, the poet responsible for the oft-memed verse “He didn’t like drama/and I was [expletive] Shakespeare.”

Lang Leav, an Australian poet whose work is known to go viral online, added: “I have always admired Taylor Swift for her lyrical prowess, so I was thrilled by the title of her new album. Already, it has a quirky, creative and whimsical vibe.”

Some hoped that Ms. Swift’s next era would increase interest in American poetry, a precarious market for academics in real-life poetry departments — usually subsumed by English departments, which themselves face existential threats — across the country.

“If this gets more people to write poetry, I’m all for it, because I want there to be more jobs to apply to,” said Sasha Debevec-McKenney, a poet and creative writing fellow at Emory University. “I want there to be more people fighting to get into poetry classes.”



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