REVIEW: POETRY MAGAZINE – INTRODUCTION
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– posted to the PDC blog Oct. 15, 2015
– added to the Cabinet May 25, 2016
This is the introductory essay to my nine-part review of the verse contents of the Oct. 2015 Poetry Magazine on my PDC blog (Part I found here). I here cut from the text the technical aspects and the examination of the first works.
The concluding essay, "Crash Davis vs. the Zombies," is also found here in the Cabinet.
– some editing, Apr. 3, 2016
If you at all have read this blog you might know that I am more than willing to take shots at Poetry Magazine, the touted flagship of verse journals in the U.S. But, then, I have always been far more puzzled by than impressed by the magazine. Never in the many years that I have looked between its print covers have I considered its contents worth the price of possession. Even with it now in electronic format, I have never found it worth the price, counted in time, of reading. Even its reputation has for me, over the years, become less and less impressive. The more I come upon references to Poetry Magazine in the history of U.S. literature, the more the supposed stature of the magazine within U.S. literary culture has become more myth than reality, a myth based primarily on popularity and after the fact branding than on any actual, positive effect the journal may have had upon literary culture. As example, if perhaps an easy example, take this moment from John Tytell's biography of Pound:
|By summer [of 1913] Pound was back in London and beginning an involvement with a new magazine. He had already experienced difficulty with Harriet Monroe: her taste had to reflect that of her backers, who were mostly wealthy businessmen or their wives who preferred inconsequential light verse to what Pound regarded as real poetry, so each issue was a balancing of the inane and the more serious. Pound objected strenuously to what he called the 'rot' in Poetry and wanted a magazine in which he would have more control. (Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano (1987): 89)|
For as long as I have been picking up and putting down the magazine, "inconsequential light verse" has been a more-than-apt phrase to describe both the output and orientation of Poetry Magazine. Though, "inconsequential" may be too kind a phrase, for as equally, and perhaps more and more in the last years, "incompetent" has become a necessary adjective.
[FN] It should be said that I have never given Poetry any extended consideration before these last few years; in those years only because it has been available on-line. As implied above, I refuse to pay money for a magazine of valueless verse, verse that rarely prompts thought beyond that of "why would anyone consider this worth publishing?" Because of this, any observation by me of trends across time can only be casual. Though, I have generally found Poetry Magazine unimpressive if not pervasively uninteresting.
It is my observation that Poetry Magazine has always and only been a flagship of pop-poetry in the U.S., never a standard bearer for intelligent literature, for literature qua literature. If Poetry wants to be the Hollywood pulp of the literary world, that is fine with me. However, where I cross swords with the magazine is in the pretense that it is something it is not, whether that pretense be created by the magazine itself or created elsewhere and never by the magazine denied. When Poetry Magazine publishes barely competent pablum, when it publishes incompetent shamwork, it holds that shamwork up – simply through association to the magazine's own banner, its own history and importance (however mythical) – as meritable verse. In that, Poetry Magazine offers only detriment and progressive deterioration to literary culture – to its values, its standards, its intelligence. Literary culture in the U.S. today is dominantly pop-lit: I say dominantly to distinguish it from majorily pop-lit, which is and always will be the case in any culture. It is not merely, today, that pop-lit is the majority of what is published and praised, it is what defines what is published and praised. In that lowering of standards, in that eliminating of standards, we have created a culture of literature, a culture of participants in verse, be they writers or readers, incapable of intelligent discernment of what is merely competent verse, what is incompetent hackery, and what is genuinely meritable literature.
I would like here to offer an extended passage from a book recently in my hands, the opening paragraphs from F.R. Leavis's New Bearings in English Poetry.
Poetry matters little to the modern world. That is, very little of contemporary intelligence concerns itself with poetry. It is true that a very great deal of verse has come from the press in the last twenty years, and the uninterested might take this as proving the existence both of a great deal of interest in poetry and of a great deal of talent. Indeed, most anthologists do. They make, modestly, the most extravagant claims on behalf of the age. "It is of no use asking a poetical renascence to conform to type," writes Mr J.C. Squire in the Prefatory Note to Selections from Modern Poets. "There are marked differences in the features of all those English poetical movements which have chiefly contributed to the body of our 'immortal' poetry. . . . Should our literary age be remembered by posterity solely as an age during which fifty men had written lyrics of some durability for their truth and beauty, it would not be remembered with contempt. It is in that conviction that I have compiled this anthology." Mr Harold Monro, introducing Twentieth Century Poetry, is more modest and more extravagant: "Is it a great big period, or a minutely small? Reply who can! Somebody with whom I was talking said: 'They are all of them only poetical persons – not poets. Who will be reading them a century hence?' To which I answered: 'There are so many of them that, a century hence, they may appear a kind of Composite Poet; there may be 500 excellent poems proceeding from 100 persons mostly not so very great, but well worth remembering a century hence.'"
Such claims are symptoms of the very weakness that they deny: they could have been made only in an age in which there were no serious standards current, no live tradition of poetry, and no public capable of informed and serious interest. No one could be seriously interested in the great bulk of the verse that is culled and offered to us as the fine flower of modern poetry. For the most part it is not so much bad as dead – it was never alive. The words that lie there arranged on the page have no roots: the writer himself can never have been more than superficially interested in them. Even such genuine poetry as the anthologies of modern verse do contain is apt, by its kind and quality, to suggest that the present age does not favor the growth of poets. A study of the latter end of The Oxford Book of Victorian Verse leads to the conclusion that something has been wrong for forty or fifty years at the least. (5-6, ellipsis in original)
New Bearings was published in 1932, and the book is primarily demonstrating the how and why of the then new work of the Modernists – specifically, Hopkins, Eliot, and Pound – were a break from the culture of verse of the time and, in reverse, demonstration of the state and nature of that culture.[FN1] Poetry matters little to the modern world: a wonderfully complex opening line that is immediately – at least on the surface – refuted by recognizing the large quantity of verse being published at the time. The change in terms between the first two sentences is the key to the lock. Poetry matters little. Yes, there is a great deal of verse being published, but no – or precious little – poetry. It is a distinction that is inherent and assumed to the history of literary criticism in English: just because a text is verse does not mean it is poetry. The latter requires something beyond material form, something that carries the text above the quotidian.[FN2] It is this distinction that is absent from contemporary verse – indeed literary – culture. It is this distinction that is by necessity removed from contemporary verse culture. It is the case with every cultural art form: it is the difference between music and popular songs, the difference between art and popular painting, the difference between literature and a well-told story. The distinction is hidden in general discourse by the pop-use of the terms: if we call, say, the Game of Thrones books literature, then they are literature, at least to anyone who has not bothered to consider what the word literature means in such a claim, how the word functions in such a claim: which is to give works (and by extension all pop culture) an importance that cannot be – cannot have been – sustained within the traditions of literature qua literature, of literature (to use the terms correctly) as poetry.
[FN1] Leavis was addressing the culture of verse in England; though, there is no reason to believe the critique would not carry across the ocean. Indeed, he elsewhere implies the situation is always worse on this side of the water.
[FN2] Of course, it must be recognized, that "verse" here includes free verse, includes any variation from everyday prose; and "poetry," within the history of criticism, is not limited to verse, though in context of Leavis's book it is verse that is the subject at hand. Similarly, through these essays, that same limited context will, for the most part, be assumed. (On this dividing of verse and prose from the poetic and prosaic, see my post on Donnelly's "Hymn to Life" which explores Owen Barfield's examination of the terms.)
The elimination of the distinction is especially important today in a culture of literature that is so overrun by pop-politics and so-called cultural criticism. The claim that some book of "poetry" that speaks to the situation of whatever repressed subculture is an "important literary work" falls apart when literature is understood as being more than mere verse. If the term literature is held to a higher standard, that book is suddenly no longer important literature. It may be a cultural document, yes; but it is not literature, it is not poetry. It is not meritable within the tradition of literature, in English or whatever language. Indeed, within that context, it is in truth inconsequential – and, frequently, if you but bother to give look, incompetent. But contemporary "poetry" culture, in its obsession with politics – and cultural statements are always only politics – has far too much to lose to permit observation of any distinguishing between poetry and mere verse, between the literarily meritable and literarily inconsequential. There are podiums and popularity and interviews on NPR or Huffington Post and invitations to TED talk and manifesto-space in Poetry Magazine or Boston Review to be had. God forbid verse culture and the critical apparatus within which it thrives is weighed against the idea of poetry lest its voices be revealed as inconsequential poetastery, sham bluster, or outright intellectual fraud. And yet, if we but look at the back covers of published (even, award-winning) books of verse, we see ourselves as readers surrounded by important voices of whatever peoples or plights.
And Leavis: Such claims are symptoms of the very weakness that they deny: they could have been made only in an age in which there were no serious standards current, no live tradition of poetry, and no public capable of informed and serious interest. Three well-chosen factors, characteristics, symptoms.
An age in which there were no serious standards. One of the false conclusions that people take from lines of thought like that which I am presenting is the assumption that it is a call for the elimination of popular literature. It is not. There is supposed to be popular literature, popular music, popular art: the absence of such would speak a sick society indeed. (Though, that popular music today is less "popular" and more the product of an industry, immediately disposable consumables force-fed to an uncritical audience, is itself symptom of cultural illness. The same idea can be said about popular literature, if not to the same degree. Pop literature, pop poetry, is playing catch-up in that regard.) The problem being confronted is not the presence of popular literature, of a pop culture of literature. It is the destruction of the culture of high literature in favor of and by participants in that popular culture. The consequences of that destruction are important, and extend far beyond the mere question of what gets published and publicized; indeed, the destruction of the culture of high literature is followed by the destruction also of the culture of popular literature. Following that, however, takes us beyond the scope of this project, except perhaps to point out what should be obvious: when there are "serious standards" of literature qua literature, those standards, those works and authors striving to meet and surpass those standards, pull popular literature up with them, increasing the vibrancy of both, increasing the vitality of both.
We are in an age in where there is no live tradition of poetry. What more evidence do you need beyond the idiocy of the cry of "dead white males" within cultural criticism and cultural literature? a cry that has never served any purpose except those self-serving ones listed above: podium time, political popularity, and resulting academic and cultural positions. A person truly interested in literature does not – to a very great degree – give a damn about who wrote what literature. It is the literature that is important. Something not lost but intentionally abandoned in the contemporary climate. However, it is important to focus upon that word "live": a live tradition. A contemporary culture in engagement with the tradition of literature that precedes it, both within and beyond local geography. It is always the true literature that is in living engagement with the tradition that rises above the rest; and it is not for naught that MFA culture, a degree that has little to do with learning within the tradition, generally eschews and at time vocally rejects engagement with the tradition.
An age in where there is no public capable of informed and serious interest. The key phrases to everything (not forgetting that very important word live[FN1]): a public capable of informed and serious interest. It is a simple question: how can there be serious interest in literature within a culture of literature that does not take literature seriously? in a culture of literature that does not take the study of literature seriously; in a culture of verse-writing that does not take the most basic study and discourse of poetics, of verse, of prosody, of language, seriously? Under the lens, it is not only the verse that appears in Poetry Magazine that suffers from this lack of informed seriousness but also the articles, essays, and reviews, in spite of all the pretense. If you can at all step outside the discussion and look at it objectively, you will see that the discourse of contemporary verse culture is far more about justifying contemporary verse culture than it is about discussing or exploring it.[FN2]
[FN1] I hope to return to this word, "live," in posts to come in this project.
[FN2] I have had the want to give demonstration to the lack of seriousness in the prose found in verse oriented magazines and websites, and have started efforts to that end, though never to what I would consider success. Perhaps I shall try again in the future.
A more recent – and U.S. directed – speaking of this state of literature can be found in Denis Donoghue's well known address, "The Use and Abuse of Theory":
|In 1992 the work of literary criticism cannot be said to be impelled by a new literature. No literature written in the past forty years has called for a distinctive critical response; by this, I mean a response such as was required to deal with the formal organization of The Waste Land, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake. So far as I can judge, critics no longer feel impelled to devise new procedures to deal with current poems and novels. Nor do poets and novelists show much interest in the theory and practice of criticism. (The Modern Language Review 87.4 (Oct. 1992): xxx)|
The two moments are sixty years apart but are speaking the same situation: a culture of literature that has abandoned intelligent attention, seriousness, and informed knowledge. Donoghue is pointing to the situation through the results: how can there be – why would there be – serious criticism about contemporary literature if contemporary literature itself was not seriously concerned with literary criticism, with a living engagement with the tradition of literature, which cannot be discerned from a living engagement with the tradition of literary criticism? Poetry Magazine, and the works it puts forward, is demonstration of its own disengagement from that living tradition: its concern does not lie within the literary, it lies within the popular. Only, the popular of today is – here I break from Leavis – not merely dead but also so frequently so very bad. Thus my favorite phrase within the Leavis excerpt:
|A study of the latter end of The Oxford Book of Victorian Verse leads to the conclusion that something has been wrong for forty or fifty years at the least.|
The situation is not that the contemporary culture of verse (and literature) in the US is but demonstrative of certain preferences or is too embedded in a particular cultural era; the situation is such that there is something wrong with the culture of verse. The efforts of the defenders of contemporary verse to deny this – one need only look to responses to those articles that come out speaking this possibility, that there is something out of balance in the culture of literature – are themselves demonstration of the fact: they are "symptoms of the very weakness that they deny." A healthy literary culture would not stand in defiance and refusal of such critiques as Edmundson's "Poetry Slam" (to choose but one): it would question whether those critiques might have some merit. But contemporary literary culture could not bear such self-examination: how many contemporary "poets" would be willing to put their own work to the test? to any test? So, instead, the response is only ever a tell tale chorus of "nuh-uhhhh"s.