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Poetry in the U.S.: A Response to "Poetry Slam"
– Originally posted to Poetry Daily Critique blog July 19, 2013
— added here March 21, 2014

This is a response to Mark Edmundson's Harper's article titled "Poetry Slam: Or, The Decline of American Verse" (July 2013), originally a post to the Poetry Daily Critique blog. The Edmundson essay can be found on the Harper's site, here, though Harper's is a pay-to-access site. Though, other people have scanned the essay onto the web, for example, the pdf here. (You would think with some things Harper's would recognize it is positive advertizing to make the it available.)

Articles (or posts) like this one do appear here and there, enough so that they can be greeted with post titles such as "It's That Time Again" (on Poetry Foundation's site, here). Though I generally fall behind the spirit of the essays – it is no secret here on this blog that I find US poetics to be in a nadir – I often have problems with the arguments of the essays themselves. Usually, this is because the essayist tries to give analysis to those observations, and in doing so, moves into an area outside their intellectual their comfort zone: the result ends up being a mish-mash of poorly applied ideas of literary theory. (A failing always accompanied, ironically, by some attack against literary theory, which is mind boggling to me. But that's another issue.)

This article, however, even though it fumbles about a bit at the start, rather nails it in a couple very important points. As such, I think it's worth talking about here on this blog. )And, perhaps, because of the critical nature of this blog, all such articles would be worth addressing in the future . . . and perhaps one from the past about which I've again been thinking.)

Let me start with a couple weaknesses of the article. The first is nearly unavoidable, and it lies in his use of examples. The problem with example in such an essay is that printing space restrictions do not permit the writer to go in depth, to stand back from the examples and assume the pose of a teacher trying to explain something to someone who, at the start, just flat doesn't see it. Which is the invariable case. When you are arguing out of short examples, the exceeding majority of the people who do see your point will be those poeple who already saw your point before they even began the essay. Those people who didn't and don't won't then be convinced by what will be a rather glancing presentation. But, as I said, it is an unavoidable fault.[FN]

[FN] Indeed, by happenstance, part of the project of this blog is to give demonstration to the argument Edmundson is trying make. I am seventy-odd posts in, and yet in no way feel I have successfully presented the argument to anything close to its full. But such is the nature of these arguments: they can only presented, again and again, in hopes that the reader will finally find a point where they see, and the light comes on, and the cry out "Ooooh!! I get it!" And then you continue presenting that moment blossoms from point understanding to sophisticated understanding. (Which is also part of the point of writing things like this.)

The second weakness is partly a problem with his wording. There are times in the essay where it may appear that what Edmundson is lamenting is the absense of what might be called probing, topical content in poetry. For example, when he says

At a time when collective issues – communal issues, political issues – are pressing, our poets have become ever more private, idiosyncratic, and withdrawn. (62 col. 1)

However, I do not believe Edmundson is speaking solely about topical content. I believe he is actually talking about ideational depth; taking not about a poem moving into content or argument, but into the mythic. As with here:

They [contemporary poems] don't slake a reader's thirst for meanings that pass beyond the experience of the individual poet and light up the world we hold in common. (64 col. 3)

I use the word myth as in the mythic, as in that notion of myth as discussed by Campbell, Eliade, Cassirer, Jung, or as the idea is indirectly used by Derrida and other post-structuralists (with different terms). It is, most simply, depth as I present it here on this blog, as opposed to surface poetry and language. Resonance. That's a good word also, but one needing context to understand it.

From his language in the article, I believe Edmundson would accept my clarification of his ideas. If not, then we have a major conflict as to the solution to the mutually perceived problem: which is that contemporary poetry is all surface, which only ends up as poetry that "fails to make repeated reading worthwhile" (62 col. 2).

But that's not saying it cleanly: I am blurring together in the word surface two points: the what and the why. First the what:

Contemporary American poets now seem to put all their energy into one task: the creation of a voice. They strive to sound like no one else. And that often means poets end up pushing what is most singular and idiosyncratic in themselves and in the language to the fore and ignoring what they have in common with others. (62 col. 1)

There, again, I see Edmundson arguing myth and depth over surface and convention, and that poetry has turned away from depth and focused instead on voice. Voice over all else: not just ideational depth, but also basic poetics, such as meter, rhythm and rhyme. Edmundson quotes Emerson:

"Our poets," [Emerson] writes, "are men of talents who sing, and not the children of music. The argument is secondary, the finish of the verses is primary." The Emerson makes a critical distinction. "It is not metres," he says, "but a metre-making argument that makes a poem, – a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing." (62 col. 1, he is quoting "The Poet," which can be found here)

There is a correction here that is worth noting: the complaint of Emerson is not exactly the same as Edmundson in its surface effects. Emerson is talking about what has the primary convention of the pop poetry of his time: "the finish of verses." Edmundson is pointing to "voice" as that overarching convention of today. But the two are the result of the same error: when you write poetry of no depth, when poetry is wholly surface in its effect, that poetry will inevitably collapse upon some defining conventionality. Quality of poetry in Emerson's time was defined through the conventions of "the finish of verses": quality in today's poetry is defined through voice. It is still the issue of surface versus depth.

It is important to note that the "poets" of which Edmundson is speaking are the heralded contemporary poets, those "who get the major prizes and the plum teaching jobs and appear from time to time in the pages of The New Yorker" (61 cols 2-3). That is, the upper tier of U.S. poetry. The lower tiers I feel are imitators of those: they mimic what they read, and create even thinner poems. But through this you can see where I both agree and disagree with Edmundson. Yes, it can be said that voice is all that is left in the majority of contemporary US poetry. But, I argue, the great mass of poetry being published today, that which we greatly see represented in such sites as Poetry Daily and Verse Daily, is, for the most part, indistinguishable. That is in part because they are merely mimicking the upper tier (and each other) without even the depth or ability to create their own voice. And, in turn, it is in part because of contemporary attitudes toward poetry, and Edmundson gets into the system of poetry-oriented academics that promulgates those attitudes. But there is an important step to make, first.

The Three Qualities of the Superb Poet
Edmundson gives what he sees as the three necessary ingredients to "a superb lyric poet."[FN1] And I have to say: I like this part. I think there's much value here.

  1. "something of a gift"
  2. "something to say"
  3. ambition

The first, something of a gift, is the touchiest, for it is an easy thing to start here and get to a kind discriminatory snobbery, that only those with something of a gift should be writing poetry. And, I have to admit, that I think it is an unavoidable conclusion that – just as with every other human endeavor – some people are more gifted at poetry – at aesthetic writing – than others.[FN2] But for me – and most other academic progressives – that is not and excluding recognition. Developing sophistication in aesthetic writing (be it poetry or whatever) is also about the development of the mind and the individual self: the exploration of writing resonant poetry is also the development of a resonant mind. And accomplishment in developing one's poetic sophistication pays off even more in the ability to engage the poetry of others than it does in the ability to write it. Writing and reading and the individual mind all feed each other. But, in the end, it is not merely "writing poetry" that is the laudible exercise: it is striving to develop sophistication that merits the praise. A distinction I make in the epigraph to this blog.

[FN1] I am not sure if Edmundson recognizes that the word lyric here is a pointer to the mythic, or if intends another meaning of the word.

[FN2] There is a line by James Dickey – I believe it is on the back of the biography James Dickey: The World as a Lie – where he speaks of recognizing the limits of his own talent, and how he used method to try to overcome them.

The second ingredient – "something to say" – is very much that aspect of ideational depth: writing poems that are more than surface effect, more than mere conventionality. It does not mean "having a subject": it means having an intellectual and spiritual, individual depth about the subjects. More accurately, it is about engagement with the subject. Having something to say does not at all mean expressing yourself; nor does it at all mean 'unveiling for the world your inner emotions,' or some other crap like that. But let's move on to number three, which is the key.

AMBITION: If there is one thread that runs through my blog it is the absolute lack of ambition on the part of the exceeding majority of the poets I see. Their poetry demonstrates a sheer absense of striving, a lack of trying to make something worthy of reading. I recently picked up the James Wright complete, Above the River, and put it down about half of the way through because the far majority of the poetry could not pass that fundamental "so what?" test. I just couldn't care less about the next poem. (And the exceptions to that response are so very much exceptions.)

On a personal level, I do not understand how poets publish book after book of poems that are, essentially, indistinguishable from the books of poems published by their piers. Books of poems that show such trivial effort, such a low level of striving. It is as though, for most poets, "I wrote this" is sufficient to any claim quality. When I go to a bookstore and look at the poetry shelves to pick something up, I plow through the contemporary volumes like a cardinal digging through mounds of millet for a sunflower seed. The near whole body of them is almost entirely characterizable under the simple description of "here's some poems I wrote." (And then there are also those that are just plain bad.)

And I am not interested in "some poems you wrote." I want to see striving. Accomplishment. I want to regret having not come upon it earlier. (Or, as with Mick Imlah, sadness that there will only ever be those three volumes.) I want poetry – and literature in general – to be presented to me not with "here is something I wrote," but "this demands to be read." Edmundson uses the word hedging: referring to Northrop Frye, Edmundson says, "the poet-prophet may do many things, but he never hedges." Even when such poetry doesn't succeed, it is still not run of the mill, it still demands attention, it still speaks itself and loudly. And that is an important distinction. For it is only in striving to make something great that you develop your own sophstication. It is only in striving to make something great – whatever "great" is at your current sophistication – that you develop at all. And when you are not striving, you are writing convention – which is, in the end, not writing, not making, not creating.

And that is how you get to a contemporary poetics based on voice, a body of poetry that is wholly surface, a body of poetry that – bizarrely, gives little if any thought to basic poetics like the line and stanza: when you remove ambition from the equation. That is what you get when you move from crafting something out of words to "expressing yourself" as the point of poetry: and they are not the same. (As I have said many times: diary with linebreaks is not poetry; it is diary with line breaks.)

On this point, on hedging and ambition, is where Edmundson's examples do come to life, as he compares Seamus Heaney to Yeats, (and then to Ginsburg and to Eliot). And it all goes to point out the nature of Heaney's poetry, something I have long questioned, as Heaney is to me emblematic of the shallowness of contemporary poetry. (Which is to say, emblematic of what is upheld in contemporary poetry.) His version of Antigone, called The Burial at Thebes, has to be one of the most embarrassing literary endeavors of the last decades. It is Antigone in plot only. It is Antigone reduced of all its depth, resonance, intellectuality, mythicality, poeticality – indeed nearly every quality that one might attribute to great poetry and great literature –, bringing it down to little more than story. If I were the director, waiting upon a play rewritten by a major poet, handed The Burial at Thebes, I would have had to have had my hand surgically removed from my forehead.[FN]

[FN] I read Dana Gioia's Nosferatu: An Opera Libretto to much the same experience. Which I bring up to point out that literary ambition as Edmundson and I are talking about it does not speak of the size of the project. It is speaking of the ambition, using Emerson's words, above, to make something "so passionate and alive, that [. . .] it adorns nature with a new thing."

But The Burial at Thebes sounds like Heaney. And that is the surface and point of it. (Remember: success with convention is merely the performance of the convention. All else is irrelevant.) It reeks of lack of ambition. It thrusts forward nothing of "look at me! I merit and demand that you look at me!" But it does sound like Heaney.

But let me move on. Because I want to get to where Edmundson touches on the source of the problem in U.S. poetry: the attitudes toward poetics and ambition.

The Inbred MFA Culture

Poetry now is something of a business. You make your way into the game by getting a sponsor: often it's a writer in residence from your undergraduate school. Then come the MFA and the first book, both of which usually require sponsorship – which is to say pull.
    To thrive in this process you often must write in the mode of the mentor – you must play the game that is there to be played. You must be a member of the school, you must sing in the correct key. If you try to overwhelm the sponsor, explode his work into irrelevance – well, the first law of success is simple: Never outshine the master. (66 col. 1)

Endmundson continues with a conversation with "a fiction writer, a woman of considerable achievement and reputation, about the MFA program in which she taught":

I put forward the idea that students came to the university to hide out, to show up for a few classes while the scholarship program financed them, however meagerly, and they pushed forward trying to write the Great American Novel. Not so. I had it wrong, my friend said. What the students wanted was not glory – not if glory meant high risk and the chance of failure. They were not there to be great. They were there to get a union card: most of the wanted a degree, a published volume, an assistant professorship at this college or that, and then another colume, which would but them one step away from the Grail.

So you see how it is not all and wholly the fault of the established poets: the issue lies also in the lower tiers and the up-and-coming. The attitude is pervasive: ambition is not favored, for ambition is (by definition) standing out from the crowd. And one does not get one's green card by standing out. But also I think there is an inherent laziness: the weakest scholars of poetry in a graduate English department are most likely the MFAs in poetry. I would bet money on it. In fact, I have frequently found it hilarious to watch the intellectual pretzels they concoct to justify their lack (and, even, refusal) of scholarship. The MFA industry does not exist to create great writers. It exists to perpetuate itself. And successful perpetuation demands mediocrity, and the acceptance, by the industry, of mediocrity. Because if the publishing industry, if the creative writing professorship industry started to demand excellence, the industry would rather shut down.[FN]

[FN] I am generally opposed to the MFA program as it exists. I think it's a joke degree. If there was a kind MFA that people got after or beyond they fulfilled the requirements in a masters in lterature: that I could get behind. But as it stands, I think the MFA degree is probably the single greatest culprit in the decline of U.S. poetics. For example, the U of Michigan MFA program (#2 in Poets&Writers 2012 top 50) requires 36 credit hours. Of that, 24 credit hours – two thirds of the program – is in workshops. But workshops can only demonstrate the knowledge brought into them. And when such a trivial part of the degree is in scholarship on the subject of literature (and believe me, MFAers are not the ones taking courses in narratology or poetic theory), then the scholarship, knowledge, and literary sophistication brought into the workshop is likewise trivial. I am no longer astounded by the shallowness of the discourse of MFAers on the subject of their degrees. And am welcomingly pleased when I meet those who are the exceptions to the (albeit generalized) rule. And recognize that today's MFA professors are taught by MFA graduate: so the scholarship is not coming down from above, either.
    This, actually, reminds me of my favorite Ezra Pound quote:
Let us suppose the child, never having taken a music lesson in her life, hears Busoni play Chopin, and on the spur of the moment, thinking to produce similar effect, hires a hall and produces what she thinks sounds somewhat the same. These things are in the realm of music mildly unthinkable; but then the ordinary piano teacher spends more thought on the art of music than does the average ‘poet' on the art of poetry. ("I Gather the Limbs of Osiris.")
With MFA programs, it's not only thinkable, it's institutionalized.

Now, there is a moment here in where I think Edmundson stumbles. It is where he writes

I suspect too that some of poetry's reticence about speaking in large terms, swinging for the fence, owes to what one might call a theory-induced anxiety. In the modern-day university, the literary theoriests are down the hall from the poets. What cultural theory seems to have taught the younger generation of poets is that one must not leap over the bounds of one's own race and gender and class. <66 col. 1)

There is a confusion here, one frequently made – understandably, if uncfortunately. That confusion is the identifying of literary theory with cultural criticism. Cultural criticism grew out of literary theory, and has greatly separated itself from those root – though, while simultaneously trying to claim legitimacy through those roots. But cultural criticism is, actually, opposed by the great degree of true literary theory.

Literary theory grew out of structuralism, which morphed into post-structuralism. (Indeed, early structuralism already carried elements of post-structuralism, so much so that structuralism could legitimately be called proto-post-structuralism.) The primary current of post-structuralist theory is the recognition of the division of two modes of thought, that our mind addresses the world through two modalities of thought: that which I identify as the aesthetic and the nomic. Before structuralism/post-structuralism, back through the Enlightenment, back to when the Renaissance was crushed by the Reformation, it was only the nomic that was elevated as true thought. Once post-structuralism blossomed, all other areas of litearary theory were affected. Feminist theory evolved into queer theory. Marxist theory was recognized as being theory about the nomic reality (not reality as a whole, something which Marx himself recognizes). Though, not all Marxist theory recognizes that categorization: read, for example, Frederic Jameson's The Political Unconscious, a wonderful text about the nomic world that yet does not recognize the presence also the aesthetic reality.

Anyway: there is one current that runs through post-structuralist theory: it is not by accident that I call it theory about the aesthetic reality. Indeed, Derrida himself said – just as did Nietzsche, the god-father of post-structuralism – that everything he wrote was about the aesthetic. To sum up this rather clumsy and overly-brief presentation, in the end, literary theory is theory about creative writing. It primarily addresses what nomic thought is, and how nomic thought it not creative. But it is still absolutely and entirely about creative writing.

So, while I think Edmundson is correct in saying that cultural criticism has contributed to the want for mediocrity, for ambitionlessness, for hedging in creative writing, he is false to identify cultural criticism as the whole of literary theory.[FN]

[FN] In fact, the reason cultural criticism has broken away from literary theory is that if you look at cultural criticism through a post-structuralist lens, you will see that it has become the very mode of thought that post-structuralism was critiquing: nomic, centric thought (however much they deny it). And thus you can see how it might have had a dampening effect on creative writing. As such, cultural criticism still tries to legitimate itself as being theory, even though, in the end, it is the opposite. It is was theory studies. It is what post-structuralism decries as the death of the individual. In truth, my second greatest culprit in the decline of U.S. letters is cultural criticism, for how it has elevated as 'literature' a body of writing that usually has very little aesthetic or poetic sophistication (or, even, quality), and denigrated the achievements of the history of English literature (i.e., "dead white men") in their critiques – critiques which I argue have far more to do with perpectuating their field of study than it does literature or scholarship.

And I think I have about covered everything I wanted to address. It is very worthwhile article to have about: get a photocopy and put it in your files. And read it now and then to remind yourself of the point of creative writing: endeavor. And that rule that I push: just because some poetry has been published, just because the person who wrote it is famous, or established, or teaches an MFA program at whatever university, does not mean that is at all good. It susually just means it is just like everyone elses (if with a different voice). It is a safe assumption to make that if the new writers of today strove to be greater the old writers of the day, they would mostly succeed. Only, that success will not come from imitation: it will come from studying poetry.


I have thought, at the last minute, to make a note of correction as concerns the notion of "voice." For, it is very true to say that the sophisticated a writer becomes, the more they climb into the rarified air of the aesthetic, the more ideosyncratic their writing becomes. Pound sounds like Pound; Eliot sounds like Eliot; same with Donne, Williams, Milton, Blake, Shelley, Keats, etc. But that is not "voice" as is being used here. Here, voice is a mere surface effect. A poem by Keats sounds like Keats because it is a microcosmos created by Keats. That is, the very depth of the poetry has Keats's thumbprints all over it. It is far easier to create the mere surface effect of being idiomatic.


Note added 6/20/2013–

By happenstance last night, after writing the above, I came upon this passage in my rereading of Fussell's Poetic Meter & Poetic Form. The coincidence of it – and such coincidences are oddly commonplace with me – rather demanded me tacking it on the end of this essay. This was published in 1965:

A lot of people take the term free verse literally, with the result that there is more bad free verse written today than one can easily shake a stick at. Most of it hopes to recommend itself by deploying vaguely surrealistic images in unmetered colloquial idiom to urge acceptable opinions: that sex is a fine thing, that accurate percetion is better than dull, that youth is probably a nicer condition than age, that there is more to things than their appearances; as well that Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were war criminals, that the C.I.A. is a menace, that corporations are corrupt, that contemporary history seems "entropic," and that women get a dirty deal. All very true and welcome. Yet what is lamentably missing is the art that makes poems re-readable once we have fathomed what they "say." (88, 1979 rev. ed.)

Obviously, Fussell is talking out of the context of rhythm and poetics, but he says almost exactly what Edmundson is pointing out in his essay – though 50 years previous. And in the inbred reality of MFA poetry, there is really no impetus for that accusation to be addressed. Even though the poetry being produced is . . . well . . . in a touch of rhetorical play, I have taken the lead-in sentence to the above – which is to say the final sentence of the preceding paragraph – and held it for now:

When it solicits our attention as poetry, a group of words arranged at apparent haphazard is as boring as tum-ti-tum.

Which, one would think, would go without saying.