Sunday, December 14, 2008

Where did all the tragedy goers go?

How rare is tragedy is American pop culture? Why has tragedy disappeared almost entirely from the American drama? Why is American film mostly afraid of tragedy?

There are great exceptions, of course, but here are the top 10 grossing films of 2008, so far:

530,258,989 The Dark Knight (2008)
318,298,180 Iron Man (2008)
317,011,114 Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
227,946,274 Hancock (2008)
223,641,119 WALL·E (2008)
215,395,021 Kung Fu Panda (2008)
159,066,369 Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (2008)
154,529,187 Horton Hears a Who! (2008)
152,637,269 Sex and the City (2008)
143,704,210 Mamma Mia! (2008)

Where did all the tragedy goers go to?

A small percentage of people still see tragedy regularly by attending the opera, where dead heroines and heroes are the norm. I could be wrong, but I think classical ballet also features a lot of dead heroines and heroes (Giselle, Petrushka). Even so, these audiences would be a small percentage of the total cultural audience.

It’s stranger than you think that tragedy is missing most of the time. A lot of the most important and even lucrative films and film sagas have been tragedies: The Godfather, The Deer Hunter, the entire Star Wars series (Darth Vader, the chosen one, dies after serving the evil emperor for most of his life and almost kills his whole family in the process). If you scan Time’s top hundred films of all time, I think you’ll see more tragedy is represented there than is usually the case.

This is, I think, even more true if you look at the 100 greatest films list from

Of course, since I am a poet and writer, I want the answer to be that the people who craved tragedy and all the great things it does for humanity to have found it in great books of fiction and poetry and other genres. But is that happening? If you look at the 100 Best novels as selected by The Modern Library, it may be true. At least it looks more serious than the films, perhaps. (I’ve only read and seen a small percentage of both lists).

But tragedy as a genre came from poetry. So it would seem natural to look for the greatest poetry books and consider what they look like. I just looked for them with Google, and there is NO LIST of greatest poetry books that I could find except for a blog by Janaka Stucky, and it is for 2008, and you can find it at

Thanks, Janaka Stucky!

Well, the absence of a list of 100 greatest poetry books is a glaring indictment of the lousiness of the American educational system I have to say; it proves the folly of teaching greatest poems in anthologies! (But I’ve said before that the one-stop shopping method of teaching poetry is destroying poetry as a genre, killing diversity, enriching multinational corpocrats blah blah etc.)

Speaking, to fully disclose everything, not as a reader but as an editor/publisher of a small press, I have to look back at what I have published since 2006. Patrick Lawler’s Feeding the Fear of the Earth, Anne-Marie Cusac’s Silkie, and Susan Settlemyre Williams’ Ashes in Midair. I think there are tragic elements and actual tragedy in these books. Speaking as an author of a few books, I think there are some tragic elements in my work. Tragedy is, after all, ultimately uplifting and affirmative. It is about whatever wisdom we have been able to gain through life; it is about the things that make life have meaning.

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