An Editorial By:
Why All the Fuss?
On Recent and Indecent Brouhahas
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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
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
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:
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?
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.
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
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
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.
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.
eaten rhubarb lengths ask for light and cloth dearest.
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,
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;
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,
stow his case of samples in the boot.
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:
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.
poets focused on the pure aural
surfaces (without sense) or visual
(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
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.
Contemporary Poetry Review
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