Contemporary Poetry Review

An Editorial By:
Ernest Hilbert

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Why All the Fuss?


On Recent and Indecent Brouhahas

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          Several online portals commendably devote themselves to the business of poetry news, though it must be said that not a lot occurs to justify coverage. American poetry is predominantly sedate: a cozy, sprawling arrangement of professionals and amateurs, competing for a small pool of readers and accolades. Very little strikes us as glamorous or perilous in American poetry today, nothing like Robert Lowell’s manias, the Beats’ mantras of free love and fast cars, the lurid and well-documented self-destructions of Plath, Sexton, Berryman, and so many others. One may well heave a sigh of relief. As amusing as it may be to read John Malcolm Brinnin’s legendary account of Dylan Thomas’s celebrated and greatly inebriated American tours, one imagines that it would be exasperating to be his handler, milling around the Chelsea Hotel lobby, trying to sober him to get to the theater on time. The same can easily be said of a good number of classic American poets. Most of what we now call poetry news consists of reviews, journalistic reconsiderations, and occasional prizes or fellowships large enough to warrant public interest. Last year, however, a small if deliberate spark ignited a fuse stemming from a big bomb concealed in the roots of American poetry. 

John Barr, poet and president of the Poetry Foundation, is a man described by the Christian Science Monitor as anything but bookish: When he “enters a room, the image that comes to mind is ‘live wire.’ Make that ‘power line,’ since Barr, formerly an investment banker known for structuring complex utility deals, seems to have great energy beneath a cool exterior.” The Poetry Foundation was established in 2004 to manage and disperse the vast endowment provided to Chicago’s Poetry magazine by pharmaceutical heiress Ruth Lilly. The gift has been pegged between $100 and $200 million dollars, depending on one’s source and the fluctuations of the market, but either way it is an astounding figure. Barr announced himself in the September 2006 pages of Poetry. Audaciously titled “American Poetry in the New Century,” Barr’s piece made the unexciting (and rather unexacting) claim that “poetry in this country is ready for something new.” He cited the usual bugbears, such as MFA programs and careerist academic coddling of poetry, which he believes shield poets from the experiences they desperately require for inspiration. I do not disagree, but I felt the essay was a bit bloodless and unoriginal. If anything, it was not provocative enough. More significantly, it lacked any tangible ideas about what the new poetry might look or sound like. 

The last century was rife with poetry manifestoes, broadsides, and flung gauntlets. Many were filled with urgent, violent, and often-unreasonable demands for what poetry should become as well as calls for demolition of what had gone before. More than a mere cleansing of the Augean stables, they sometimes used terms that recall the Khmer Rouge anticipating Year Zero. Consider this, from Wyndham Lewis’s “Vorticist Manifesto,” in the 1913 inaugural of his two-issue magazine BLAST!: “We stand for the Reality of the Present—not for the sentimental Future, or the sacripant Past” (that’s right, sacripant). Likewise, Amy Lowell decided on the principles (and principals) of the Imagist movement and defended them vigorously (Pound, sidelined from his own movement, called it “Amygism”), eager to promote “a poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite.” Henry Treece—spokesman for the New Apocalypse poets, a group of quasi-surrealist English poets who had the misfortune of falling between the Auden generation and the Movement poets—described the new poet as someone whose “utterance will be prophetic, for he is observing things which less sensitive men may have not yet come to notice; and as his words are prophetic, they will tend to be incantatory, and so musical. At times, even, that music may take control, and lead the writer from recording his vision almost to creating another voice.” Most poetry manifestoes, like art and political manifestoes in general, aspire to be shots heard round the world’s cafés and lecture halls, if not the world itself. 

Even if these periodic discharges tend to be so vague as to be virtually useless to a practicing poet, they are undoubtedly filled with great zeal and piquancy. What I found most striking about Barr’s essay—insofar as I found anything at all striking about it—was its lack of a plan. I read it and then quietly filed the issue on my shelf, thinking it would probably inspire a few letters to the editor but not much more. To the contrary, it has produced a great deal of noxious smoke; though scant heat and certainly no light just yet. Torrents of indignant, surprisingly vicious, letters poured into the magazine and were duly reproduced in its pages. The blogosphere was set alight. Poetasters and tastemakers tapped at keyboards all night long and stabbed cigarette butts into overflowing ashtrays. This exhilarating first-round mêlée may have been what set New Yorker staffer and contributing poet Dana Goodyear to mold her quietly confrontational profile of the Poetry Foundation for the magazine. 

Goodyear’s piece, “The Moneyed Muse,” is well researched and typically well written. I have no doubt the infusion of over $100 million dollars into the poetry world is a big piece of news to many New Yorker readers. But one immediately senses that Goodyear is prejudiced, however slyly, against the Poetry Foundation and what she believes it represents. This is understandable. It is hard to like big money, particularly when it starts building in your backyard. As Bob Dylan sang, it doesn’t talk, it swears. But is this really what Barr embodies? Isn’t he, after all, in the business of splashing cash around in the aid of poetry? Certainly, no one writes poetry to make money, but money is needed to get poets into print, to bring poetry into newspapers, TV, radio (the Poetry Foundation plans to subsidize such column inches and airtime). The great concern is probably not just how such lucre might sully the seemingly pure world of poetry. One needn’t agree with Wallace Stevens that “money is a kind of poetry” to acknowledge that poetry and finances are not fundamentally at odds. Even revolutionary poets need to pay the rent. Poetry publishers need to balance their books. Nevertheless, Goodyear touched on a concordant fear that the Poetry Foundation may wield the power to occlude certain kinds of poetry from public view by bombarding citizens with simplistic, easily understood, easily marketed poems. With such enormous, unfettered access to an innocent (not to suggest ignorant) public, the foundation is positioned to broadcast its own version of American poetry across the dark fields of the republic. 

The caricature of a methodical, assertive businessman might intimidate some poets, and it is guaranteed to inspire a quantity of loathing and resentment in certain quarters. The businessman is unquestionably a “type” in American mythology, one not particularly loved by those who dedicate lives to poetry. The businessman’s raison d’être is thought to be acquisitiveness, efficiency, and the bottom line, values wholly antithetical to the quiet, slow, independent work of poetry. As if to highlight the image of a corporate behemoth poised to disrupt the poetry world, Goodyear ominously depicts a presentation of the foundation’s goals given by Barr, in which he “advanced to a slide showing a bullet-point list of the foundation’s initiatives. When he stopped talking, after precisely twenty minutes, an aura of satisfaction suffused the room.” What could be less poetic? 

Goodyear’s piece was not about poetry. It was never intended to be. It was about money—of unprecedented magnitude in this field—and its consequences for poetry. Will it energize or vulgarize it? Will it disrupt its ecosystem? Will it redistribute influence from universities to the private sector, from the Northeast to the Midwest? These are legitimate concerns, and everyone has a different stake. The foundation’s mission statement is to create “a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture.” It is certainly not the first such declaration, so why all the fuss? Perhaps because the very act of popularizing poetry, unavoidably a form of marketing, remains a flashpoint. Age-old questions and quarrels arise. What kind of poetry is being popularized, whose poetry, and should it be popularized at all? Should poetry be complex and delicate or undemanding and straightforward, agonizing or entertaining? Should it be taught carefully in a classroom or plastered, as they say, across the side of a bus? Shall it be specialist or populist, agrarian or barbarian, sibylline or shamanistic, ludic or solemn, vatic or civil? These are all, to one degree or another, bogus dichotomies, but they form the many shifting salients across the front in a war begun long ago. Some might trace the origins of this Balkan conflict to Modernists like Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell; others back to Wordsworth and the Romantics. Others might suggest that such old battlefields are natural to any literary culture, that what we experienced in the last century, with its myriad manifestoes and avant-gardes, its countless movements, was merely a drastic acceleration of that process. 

Poetry pundit David Orr fired his own broadside from the decks of the New York Times, in which he declared that the “history of American poetry, like the history of America itself, is a story of ingenuity, sacrifice, hard work, and sticking it to people when they least expect it.” He believes that Goodyear’s New Yorker piece was nothing less than an “assault,” that Goodyear “stuck it” to Barr and the Poetry Foundation, and that she “wants to portray the Poetry Foundation as a culturally conservative, slightly tacky enterprise led by a dilettantish, ex-Wall Street fat cat.” That did it. The Contemporary Poetry Review e-mail inbox filled and my phone began to ring. Everyone wanted to talk about the coming civil war in American poetry. Preston Brooks had beat Charles Sumner about the head with a gutta-percha cane! Writers volunteered to post their own opinions in the pages of the Contemporary Poetry Review and set botefeux to fuse at what they imagined might work itself up to a kind of Fort Sumter. Some were already talking of a March to the Sea. I feared that I would be dragooned into this ugly warfare. 

I realized that what was really at stake was not so much poetry as our shared ideas of what a poet should be and what role poetry should serve in our society. These are, in some respects, the same issues. In his classic Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce describes politics as “strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles.” This is no less true for literary politics. The poet is the ambassador of the poetry. Should poetry be whispered? Will it topple walls? Should the scruffy, bespectacled bohemian represent us or will the role be ceded to the strutting, bespoke businessman poet (I have yet to hear anyone use the term “businessperson poet”)? Should the poet be ideologue or craftsman, artist or artisan, experimentalist or humanist, classicist or mad scientist? I believe, from a strictly artistic standpoint (which is to say, as a poet), that all of these affinities can be important to poetry in varying degrees—some in only very small and rare ways. This tolerant approach is sometimes lost in all-or-nothing polemics pushing for one manner or method over others. As a critic, I tend toward one side of the previously suggested series of competing binary features (see below). Perhaps this conflict, more than anything else, is what constitutes real news in the poetry world (Pound’s news that stays news), but only when someone whose profile is sufficiently high drives a media spike in the ongoing debate. This debate is always bubbling away beneath. Once this frenzy percolates to the top, the common reader is shocked to learn that poets do not always like each other and even spend some time at each other’s throats. 

But why? Why all this fuss over poetry? It seems outlandish if not unseemly. We consider W.H. Auden’s famous pronouncement, from “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” that “poetry makes nothing happen.” For that matter, rarely do poets, at least here in the United States. There are notable exceptions, historically speaking. One might point to the example of Allen Ginsberg, but as Michael Schmidt puts it in his book Lives of the Poets:

“His poetry made things happen,” said one obituary. That’s not quite right. His performances, his polemics, his affronting or affirming presence made things happen . . . . But after the priest and prophet has departed and we are left clutching his book, what do the poems do? 

Daisy Fried has remarked, “I wish poetry made things happen. I think that it does, but in very subtle and small ways. People who write poetry and read it feel better because they do. I wish poetry could have more of a political function. But at least it makes you more aware of the world and makes you look at the world in a different way.” I agree with her. It may be that all the ink spilled over something as munificent as public philanthropy for poetry is really just a leeching of the bad humors collected in the glands of poets faced with so little page space to go around, with so little and sometimes disturbingly too much in common. Or is it just healthy competition in an extraordinarily limited marketplace? Of course, sparring of the Barr-Goodyear-Orr variety is rare, but it marks one way to get poetry as controversy, or rather the business of poetry as controversy, into Poetry magazine, the New Yorker, and the New York Times—a trifecta if ever there was one. 

I believe, as the English Movement poets did, that poetry deserves, and in fact enjoys, a very real but limited social role in modern society. It will not overturn governments, certainly not here. With each passing decade, it is less and less likely to woo a lover. It may have great impact on an individual reader at times, but that has surely always been true. Although the name and the group were something of a journalistic device, Movement poets such as Philip Larkin, Thom Gunn, and Elizabeth Jennings shared a belief in poetic sobriety and modesty as correctives, sanity-preserving measures, against the political fervors of the Auden generation, whose activism, as Auden himself admitted, did nothing to prevent the Second World War. Confronted with this realization, he wrote in “New Year Letter” that “Art is not life and cannot be / A midwife to society.” 

I called a friend, a poet and editor himself, and asked him whose trench I should leap into as grapeshot screamed overhead. He offered quite sane and sturdy advice. He said, “Poetry doesn’t happen at the Poetry Foundation. It doesn’t happen at The New Yorker. It doesn’t happen at the New York Times. Get away from the noise. Don’t be distracted by it. Good poems will always be written, people will read them, and the best thing you can do is go home and try to write one.” My friend was right. I know I’m part of the noise machine. I happen to love literary gossip as much as any 19th-century Grub Street hack, but sometimes it reaches an enervating pitch, as with the Barr affair (as I hope it will one day be known). Perhaps it is easy for me to walk away because I claim to hold no stock—in financial terms—in this massive corporation, the American poetry establishment. I folded the newspapers, turned off the phone, went home and wrote a poem, which may or may not have been good, but at least it wasn’t another volley in an ancestral turf war. 

Along similar, or at least not entirely dissimilar, lines, some concerned readers recently wrote in about my last editorial, inquiring what exactly I meant by “avant-garde” when I spoke of a

tradition of governed, cheerful nonsense in the traditions of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, and John Lennon, rather than the unmodulated, and typically unsatisfying, nonsense produced by avant-garde poets. 

To be clear, I should have written “typically unsatisfying nonsense tactics employed by avant-garde poets,” so that no one could mistake my comment for an outright dismissal of avant-garde poetics as “nonsense.” I was also asked whom I had in mind as “avant-garde.” 

Well, for a start, I named myself and quoted from my own earlier published work. That’s as sporting as you can get. To be exact, I had in mind the chance operations, schematics, and invented grammars (which produce nonsense) of Jackson Mac Low, John Cage, and Clark Coolidge, as well as their legion of epigones, which I personally feel to be typically unsatisfying—not entirely unsatisfying but largely unsatisfying. Witness this specimen from Mac Low:

Begin big singing not asking.


If every preceder bites a piece the whole piece is still eaten.

Happy peculiar people refuse refining any time.

Refusing certain material choose a regular necessity.

Every piece of a whole precedes all pieces.


Little eaten rhubarb lengths ask for light and cloth dearest. 

An afternoon with Ms. Stein is usually enough to provide me with the recommended annual dose of this sort of writing. Having read thousands upon thousands of poems in my adult life, I have drawn these modest conclusions from my experiences with self-consciously progressive poets: I maintain that, historically speaking, the greatest innovations, the ones that stick and prove most useful, often come from poets who do not consider themselves cutting-edge at all, but rather look inward and backward rather than forward. 

Consider Wilfred Owen, in thrall to the sweetnesses of Keats. Owen invented pararhyme and produced what remain the most convincing and authoritative uses of it, in which he paired rhyming consonants featuring vowels that register higher and then lower on the palate. One effect is a falling sensation in each couplet to mirror the decline he intimates in his haunting anti-war “Strange Meeting”:

For by my glee might many men have laughed,

And of my weeping something had been left,

Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,

The pity of war, the pity war distilled.

Now men will go content with what we spoiled,

Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled. 

Likewise, Gerard Manley Hopkins would not have thought of himself as progressive or “advance guard” at all while discovering (not inventing) sprung rhythm, which he saw as a neglected variety of deeply traditional folk accentual verse, extending syllables from the accent in a given foot. By doing so, Hopkins anticipated the notion of the “breath line” or “variable foot”:

Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;

And áll trades, their gear and tackle and trim.


All things counter, original, spáre, strange;

Whatever is fickle, frecklèd (who knows how?) 

          In a 1975 Paris Review interview, Kingsley Amis asked why innovation is “thought of as entirely to do with style and intelligibility . . . there are other forms. I mean after all, can’t one have experiments in mixing farce and horror, comedy and seriousness?” Bringing the novelist’s touch to bear on his verse, he achieved these tonal amalgamations in poems such as the ironic “A Song of Experience,” which features a distasteful womanizer who talks of women who “were bold; / Some took it like the Host, some like toffee; / The two or three who wept were soon consoled.” But such menacing braggadocio is neutralized when the poem’s tone switches from sneeringly bawdy to gravely observational. The poem’s speaker spies the braggart outside the smoky, late-night pub where the braggart reigns, and the very dullness and ordinariness of this glimpsed life shocks the reader:

I saw him, brisk in May, in Juliet’s weather,

            Hitch up the trousers of his long-tailed suit,

Polish his windscreen with a chamois-leather,

And stow his case of samples in the boot. 

In all three cases, innovation is integral rather than superficial, and it is indispensable to both the creative process and the finished poem. The only sensible goal of the poet is the construction of robust, persuasive, meaningful poems. Anything else is novelty or naivety. Politics and biography will eventually evaporate from a poem—as Auden imagined “Time and fevers burn away / Individual beauty from / Thoughtful children”—and leave it unescorted, to succeed or fail by its merits. Innovation should only be used toward this end. After a hundred years, any particular innovation no longer feels fresh and becomes simply an academic footnote. As Cynthia Ozick recently put it in Harper’s Magazine, referring to contemporary novelists, the “avant-garde’s overused envelope was pushed long ago, and nothing is more exhaustedly old hat than the so-called experimental.” In the cases I cite here, innovation was not introduced in an attempt to push or pull the art form forward. As hard as it may be to accept, poetry can and will always evolve, without being insistently herded and violently prodded by its own practitioners. In other words, the laurels accorded those who advance poetry must sometimes go to traditionalists. 

          For a contrasting example we can turn to the concrete poets, who were a self-consciously avant-garde international movement. I have examined thousands of examples and concluded that nearly all possibilities were exhausted in a brief period of maybe five years (I allow that recent computer technologies have cleared further avenues in this realm, even if hypertext and digital poets see themselves in a different tradition). Concrete poets, skirting the realms of visual art and musical composition, struck out simultaneously from the main road onto many narrow paths and encountered many dead ends. Nevertheless, academics manufactured prodigious commentary on these short-lived twists and turns. In all the glasshouse intellectualizing, the art was lost. Consider this clarification by Klaus Peter Dencker:

Paradigmatically, a genre like visual poetry itself could now innovatively embrace the audiovisual media and with them become interactively productive for recipients (and vice versa), to counter the danger of increasing reproductivity [sic] that is able—through a flood of pictures, the exhaustion of language, and word reduction—to work against the ominous leveling of reception ability being driven by the rapid development of technology. 

Concrete poets focused on the pure aural surfaces (without sense) or visual excisions, patterned repetitions, and redeployments (again, without regard for traditional or shared sense) rather than aspects like rhetoric, humor, philosophy, psychology, drama, lyricism, or what have you. (I am not denying that concrete poetry is sometimes diverting and mischievous; rather lamenting that, as with such all such experiments, it quickly becomes tedious.) Once concrete poets chucked those elements overboard, they actually limited their possibilities in a utopian drive for perfection of particular isolated elements of sound, morphology, and typography. In this respect, they mimicked many of the visual artistic movements and sub-movements of the modernist era. Concrete poets were unusual only in their late arrival on the scene, beginning in the 1960s. 

            It is not likely these battles will ever end, and it would not be helpful if they did. I feel that I am in a period of retrenchment that may reflect conditions in the poetry world at large. One critic recently remarked to me that we’ve come to a point at which “someone like Mac Low seems a little quaint and almost old-fashioned. But this state of affairs won’t last, because ‘experimenter’ is a personality type like ‘revolutionary.’ For a while the builders have time to pick up the pieces and do the unexciting but constructive work you describe. Eventually the radicals will regroup and find (or be offered) new targets. And we’ll be off on a new wild ride. Just wait.” Maybe struggles over what constitutes a superior style, as well as arguments about what the best purpose for the art form might be, keep us busy and out of trouble. Now, if you will excuse me, I hope to go home and tinker with a poem. Thankless and poorly paid, it has the virtues at least of honest work. 

Ernest Hilbert

Editor, Contemporary Poetry Review 

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