Saturday, June 22, 2013

Some quick thoughts on the Harper's "Poetry Slam" article

There's a big "what's wrong with poetry" piece in the latest Harper's and Jordan Davis was nice enough to send me the PDF (we recently let our subscription of many years lapse). [UPDATE: You can read it online, sans paywall, here.] Harper's is certainly capable of putting out a high-quality think piece on an obscure topic, but this wasn't it. In fact I found the author so reactionary and ill-informed on contemporary poetry that I almost don't want to respond; it's like letting the terrorists win. But what the heck, I'll respond to a few points.

First of all, between the title ("Poetry Slam, or, The Decline of American Verse") and the bio, it feels pretty parodic right away. I mean: "Mark Edmundson teaches English at the University of Virginia. His book Why Teach? will be out this fall from Bloomsbury." That's funny, right? It's like "Mark Edmundson is a professor of mathematics and the author of What the Fuck is Math?" But indeed, why teach poetry when you've obviously read so little of it in the past forty years? Almost every example he uses was published in the '60s or '70s.

He sets out to do something noble, I suppose – it's a manifesto-like call for poetry that's more engaged and ambitious. He writes that "three qualities are necessary to write superb lyric poetry." The first is, essentially, talent: "she must be able to make music, command metaphors, compress sense." Second, "she must also have something to say." In other words, poetry should have identifiable content; one can't make art for art's sake. Finally: "Given these powers – the power of expression and the power to find a theme – the poet must still add ambition." I'm sort of sympathetic to the general idea here, and I've certainly approached student poetry with something like this rubric – that is to say, I've encouraged young writers to be more ambitious, to be less afraid of showing effort, of caring.

But the problem with setting up a rigid system that defines what poetry can be and do is that it inevitably gets used in an agenda-driven way to dismiss whatever poetry you don't happen to like. Mark Edmundson uses these three vague principles (skill/craft, paraphraseable and relevant content, plus ambition) to justify the poetry he does like and scorn the stuff he doesn't. The only working poets he does admire, as far as I can tell, are Tony Hoagland and Frederick Seidel; his agenda does not make room for John Ashbery or Anne Carson. I mean, anyone who's still pulling "That's not poetry" on Ashbery, how can you take that seriously? His attempted takedown of Anne Carson is so hopelessly inept I can't believe it got past the editors at Harper's:

I cannot do much with the lines that begin "Stanzas, Sexes, Seductions" (or many of her other lines, either):  
It's good to be neuter.
I want to have meaningless legs.
There are things unbearable.
One can evade them a long time.
Then you die. 
The poem is, I think, an attempt to imagine a posthuman identity. And surely it is distinctive in its voice. But it is so obscure, mannered and private that one (this one, at least) cannot follow its windings.

Really? How on earth is this excerpt obscure? Leaving aside the fact that it's ridiculous to use five lines as a representative slice of contemporary poetry, these lines are far less mannered than the Lowell lines he quotes favorably on the first page ("Pity the planet, all joy gone / from this sweet volcanic cone," etc.). At this point I can only come to the conclusion that this guy's tastes are completely arbitrary, but he seems to think the quality of poems he favors (such as, improbably, Ginsberg's "The Ballad of the Skeletons") is self-evident compared to those he doesn't – that list again random and improbable. He trashes Robert Hass's much anthologized "Meditation at Lagunitas" at some length. I was literally shaking my head in disbelief as I read this passage, in which he tries to convince us that this iconic poem, containing some of the most memorable first ("All the new thinking is about loss. / In this it resembles all the old thinking.") and last lines ("blackberry, blackberry, blackberry") of the 20th century is just okay but not worthy of being a "major poem." It's not one of my favorite poems by any stretch but I'm this close to making a "Leave Robert Hass alone!" video.

The real problem with the article is that Edmundson tries to argue for immediate, politically engaged poetry but has a very narrow-minded idea of what that might look like. (Difficult, conceptual poetry could have subversive political aims. And it's not like what Lowell wrote in the '70s ended war as we know it.) He wants poets to have the guts to write "universal truths" with conviction: "She must be willing to articulate the possibility that what is true for her is true for all." She must "seek to weave a comprehensive vision." I kept thinking, what universal truths? This guy's got no sense of relativism. And of all the poets writing today, he trots out Tony Hoagland and Frederick Seidel as exemplars of universal truth-saying? Their content is expensive motorcycles and what it's like when Dean Young talks about wine.

So, in sum:
Two very enthusiastic thumbs down.

UPDATE: For a much more thorough response to this piece, I recommend Julia Cohen's open letter to Mark Edmundson. Brief excerpt here so you know what you're in for:

There are two basic cause/effect accusations in “Poetry Slam” that are worthwhile to dissect to show the dubious connections and terrifying implications: 
#1 Because contemporary American poetry is too hermetic/convoluted/obscure/confusing it consequently “has too few resources to take on consequential events.”
#2 Because Contemporary American poets lack “ambition,” they do not “light up the world we hold in common,” i.e. they don’t reflect my own worldviews that make me feel like there is a singular “fundamental truth of human experience.” 
Unfortunately, what emerges in this article is a desire for singular type of poem. A poem that a) provides unique images that simultaneously relate to obvious cultural referents (“the TV show, the fashions, the Internet”), b) sublimates most poetic techniques to present direct arguments in the form of revelations c) that respond to “the events that began on September 11, 2001 and continue to this moment.” In sum, every poem should be a humanist poem of epiphany with blatant political/cultural references to post-9/11 living. Oh yes, this sounds like a great way to enliven all American poetry! 
While many wouldn’t bother, I want us to seriously consider these criticisms (as far as we can in a blog post) as well as confront the assumptions that they bring to the literary table. Ultimately, though, I want us to re-think the very questions being posed so that we can move past them to more productive conversations. While I’m not addressing all of the problems (some are too inane/insane to confront) in Edmundson’s article, by breaking down and reframing these 2 cause/effect arguments we can reorient ourselves as more culturally active citizens that embrace the multiplicity of contemporary poetry.

38 comments:

  1. I haven't / prob. won't read the article but I'm intrigued by the dissonance between the message (drearily predictable) and the examples (random in the extreme). And yes, "Meditation at Lagunitas" is an odd poem to pick on; though I've always found it, and most of the rest of Hass, irritating -- the pseudo-profundity, the slightly pedagogical tone, the new-aginess -- after all it has that wonderful opening. (A friend who's at UVA confirms that the man is a fuckwit in person.)

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    1. The examples he uses to "prove" his points are truly, truly baffling. And laughable. Bafflable.

      Yeah Hass isn't my thing per se but nobody's giving me eight pages in Harper's to say "Hass isn't really my thing you know."

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  2. I read this article earlier today after seeing all kinds of responses to it on FB and elsewhere, and your response is the smartest one of all.

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    1. Hey, thanks! Any recommended reading (outside of FB)?

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    2. Seth Abramson's piece is worth taking a look at and having an opinion on: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/seth-abramson/why-is-contemporary-ameri_b_3474969.html

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  3. I don't know . . . I can't disagree with your points, but this is making me wonder: what are the great poems written by poets around my age, including Hass . . . is Meditation at Laguwhatsit the best poem by a poet of my generation? I'm trying to think of others that would qualify as great—what are the other ones? "Meditation" doesn't seem as great (to me anyway) as Ashbery's Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror (or maybe a halfdozen others by him) or as overwhelmingly significant as Plath's best, or O'Hara's, it's no Poem beginning with a Line by Pindar (Duncan) or Howl (or however many others by Ginsberg), and perhaps other masterpieces from the generation older than mine and Hass's, not to mention the earlier one than them (Lowell, Bishop, Berryman) . . . maybe I'm wrong (I usually am) . . .

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    1. Well, as I've said before, I like your poems much (much, much) better than Seidel's. Ashbery and Anne Carson seem to me to be evidently among the few geniuses who are living and writing poetry today. I'd certainly take Berryman over Hass any day, but I'd take Ashbery over Ginsberg too. I just find this guy's tastes inscrutable and unjustifiable by his own standards.

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    2. well, leave me out of the question, please . . . but which Carson poem (not book, but poem) is in the same league as Ashbery's Self Portrait or O'Hara's The Day Lady Died or Plath's Daddy and Lady Lazarus or Duncan's Line from Pindar, or Ginsberg's Howl, etc . . . which individual poems by poets in my gen (whatever its timeframe is: Strand and Simic born late 1930s, Tate 1943, Hass ?, Carson ?) equal the greatest poems by those from the previous, the Ashbery gen— which poem by Hass or Carson or Gluck or Olds or whoever else is in my generation, which poems are the greatest? Meditation at Lagunitas, and then what? I can't defend Edmundson, but maybe his point is that if that Hass poem is perceived as being the best, the greatest poem of my generation, how does it compare to the best poems from the previous two generations— how does it compare to Lowell's best poem? The conflict is that you and others want Edmundson et al to read (and write about) poetry, and he wants to read (and think about) the best poems, the unique standalone great poems.

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    3. OK I've been thinking about this. I think Carson tends to me known for book-length "projects" which are sort of hybrid-y, not just single "poems," but how about "The Glass Essay"? Something I've been meaning to re-read to help me with some stuff I'm working on.

      But I find it's hard to measure poems written now or 30 years ago with the same standards as those written 50 or 100 years ago. The "in the same league" question becomes about perceived quality, culturally agreed upon quality, rather than something inherent in the poems themselves, and older poems have had longer to dig in. The playing ground isn't even.

      That said there are definitely poems by people roughly in your generation that have been as important to me, as a poet, as Ashbery or Plath. For some reason Tess Gallagher was very important to me in college, as well as Alice Fulton, Marie Howe, C.D. Wright.

      There's a Jon Woodward poem that I really, truly think is as good as Berryman or Stevens or what have you.

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    4. "But I find it's hard to measure poems written now or 30 years ago with the same standards as those written 50 or 100 years ago."

      —"measure" continues to be a major problem here: because anthologies aren't going to become obsolete, are they? (maybe they are) . . . if Carson's "best" work is ladled out over a book's or several books' length, every anthologist is going to excerpt their own particular segment from that material, but every anthologist is going to include "Meditation at Lagunitas" . . . the plethora of which is fine if you can afford to buy every anthology or all of Carson's books, but if you don't have much money (if for example you live in a country whose rulers have created an income disparity where the upper one percent of families own 99 percent of the wealth) and if for some unaccountable reason you wanted to read contemporary poetry or modern poetry and all you could afford to buy or have spare time to read is one anthology, one "best of" anthology, then what "measure" (to twist your term) of Carson's best work could possibly be represented in that anthology alongside "normal-length" poems by Hass and Ashbery et al . . .

      I've complained about this before, but where, WHERE is the massmarket paperback sized anthology of modern or contemporary USA poetry priced at 9.99, the same size paperback/the same price as those on the supermarket rack shelf, why the fuck do poetry books cost so much, why the fuck doesn't the Poetry Foundation or the Academy of American Poets subsidize two or three pocket-sized paperback massmarket anthologies and distribute them free or at minimal cost to schools and organizations and coffeeshops everywhere?

      "The "in the same league" question becomes about perceived quality, culturally agreed upon quality, rather than something inherent in the poems themselves . . . "

      —No, it's not quality, I would say, but quantity: how much poetry can be purchased and or read by most readers? BAP exists for just this reason. Economy of time and money. Most readers, including me, don't want to read and in fact can't read all the poetry published in 2012, which is why in September we'll be buying The Best American Poetry 2013.

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    5. The internet provides some alternative to this situation, though, since there are so many poems one can read online.

      Anne Carson does have plenty of short, anthologize-able poems. The equivalent situation in fiction, I guess, is that it's easier to anthologize a short story than a novel, but many fiction writers who do both are better at novels. Still, you can get a good sense of her work from shorter poems, like her 'Short Talks.'

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    6. or better yet only issue the anthologies via ereaders and ipads and tablets etc, so they can be frequently re-edited digitally, though the same problem arises: assuming readers can access an unlimited number of poems, how many of those poems can they also process? The e-anthology is infinitely expandable but a semester isn't, nor is a student's brain— nor is any reader's leisure time.

      or better yet wait a decade or two and have every poem ever printed zapped into your brain via that modem the NSA has planted in your wrist: it'll only take about 1.3 seconds to transfer every word of them.

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    7. Ah, yes, once we have external brain drives and vastly improved processing power, anthologies won't really be necessary!

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    8. P.S. It's 7 years old already but I think there are some really great poems in the Legitimate Dangers anthology. There's a certain saminess to the voices when you get them all together (same is true for the A. Poulin anthology with all those blackberry poems), but nonetheless some super standout poems, poem-size poems by people like Olena K. Davis, Matthew Rohrer, David Berman, Srikanth Reddy, Joyelle McSweeney....

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    9. the availability of inexpensive books of poetry was the only way I could ever have begun to read and write poetry, because I was raised in an orphanage with no family, no money, no access to educational opportunities, no real access to books and libraries. There was no internet in 1958 when I started trying to read poetry, all I had were cheap paperback anthologies. I had no money to go to school, I worked as a low-paid menial and day laborer for decades. I lived in rooming-houses till I was in my mid-thirties. I didn't have a phone until I was like 35 years old. Books of poetry you take out of the library have to be returned in two weeks: but you have to live with the poetry book in your hand for months, it's not like a novel you can take back in two weeks. And now ah yes, the internet: are you sure that poor people in this country really have easily available access to the web and the poetry on it, that they have the access and the time to read it. Is it really that easy for them.

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    10. I didn't mean to imply that the internet could completely replace books. I agree with you. But I also don't think poetry is moving in a completely un-anthologize-able direction. See Legitimate Dangers. I think many working poets are writing great stand-alone poems.

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    11. "working poets" . . . and how many "working people" have access to those working poets writing great poems. "See Legitimate Dangers," you tell me: see it how? is it in the library in the small town where I live? I don't think so. I don't have money to buy a lot of books, I live on social security checks. But when you say "See Legitimate Dangers" you're not really speaking to me personally, but to your readers. I'm sorry to bother you. I won't make any further comments here.

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    12. You can make as many comments here as you want! I welcome it.

      Legitimate Dangers is on Sarabande so I wouldn't think it would be incredibly hard to find at a library, but I'm not sure. But if we're talking about you, specifically, rather than theoretical other people, you do have access to the internet, so I could point you to specific poems or poets if you were interested.

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    13. I've worked with a lot of poor people, a lot of them black. Lots of them have access to the internet at home, but lots of them don't, too. I think only about 30% of Americans below the poverty line have the internet at home, and if you're black you're much less likely to have it at home than if you're white. I've been in lots of small-town libraries and book stores, too; books of contemporary poetry--especially post-modern--tend to be scarcer than hen's teeth there. And I'm sure you've noticed that there are usually lots of black people using the computers in urban public libraries.

      Incidentally, Amazon has That Tiny Insane Voluptuousness for $39.99! If you're poor, that's prohibitive. Face it: if you're poor, you're fucked. You'll waste most of your life--maybe all of it--trying to clamber out of the hole you were born in up to the ground floor.

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    14. "If you're poor you're fucked" sounds about right.

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  4. "Their content is expensive motorcycles and what it's like when Dean Young talks about wine."

    For content, how can you top Ashbery? He says everything.

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    1. Agreed, and it's odd, because Edmunson goes on about how "today's poets" shy away from everyday stuff like TV, and Ashbery doesn't at all.

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  5. it reminds me of this anecdote, which I published on my blog a couple years ago:

    In the TLS (p.16, April 17/09), Hugo Williams relates how Ian Hamilton, in one of his USA pobiz-crawls, encountered, quote:

    a certain professor who had gone on about the work of Clayton Eshleman. "Just a tremendous poet", he said. Surprised by this, Ian asked for the title of a good poem by Eshleman. "Oh, I don't know", said the professor. "Taken as a whole, you see. Just a tremendous poet." Ian insisted on knowing the name of a single decent poem so he'd be able to understand what the professor was talking about. "Oh for God's sake", the man said. "What is this anthologist's approach to literature?"

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    "Taken as a whole" is the problem. I don't want to take Lowell or Carson or anybody else as a whole. Tell me what their best poems are, and I'll read them. And reread them if I think they're worth it.

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    1. or maybe that should be: tell me what X's best poems are and I'll read them, and if I like them maybe I'll read more poems by X—

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    2. For Carson, I'd say start with "The Glass Essay" or Autobiography of Red but they are long poems. However the first poem of hers that really struck me is one no one else ever talks about. It's called "Sumptuous Destitution" and it's from Men in the Off Hours.

      I once read a similar anecdote about Ashbery, something about him not having quoteable lines, at John Gallagher's blog: http://jjgallaher.blogspot.com/2011/09/nabobs-and-their-gewgaws.html

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    3. It’s possible to be a great poet without well-wrought urns for the anthologies. What if Shakespeare hadn’t written sonnets and Melville hadn’t written “The Maldive Shark” and the Shiloh requiem—which aren’t even his best poetry? Wouldn’t they be great poets in the plays and Moby Dick despite having no readily anthologizable pieces?

      Does anyone know of a poet who’s good in bulk but not in choice excerpts? I don’t. If a poet’s worth reading thoroughly, you can whet the reader’s appetite for her with snippets—even if she doesn’t really write poems, even if her so-called poems are just segments cut out of one infinite poem continually running through her mind.

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  6. One of the best push-backs so far has been David Biespiel's piece published on Friday, June 21. He writes for The Rumus. Here is the link: http://therumpus.net/2013/06/david-biespiels-poetry-wire-the-cynicism-of-mark-edmundson-or-poetry-is-still-not-dead/.

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    1. I just don't see how anyone can grant that the examples of GOOD poetry Edmundson uses even fit his own criteria. "Daddy" doesn't attempt to speak for EVERYONE any more than Sharon Olds' poems about her father do. And Ginsberg's skeleton poem betrays zero gift for lyric language. His lofty system crumbles apart when you look at the stuff he's actually championing.

      But anyway. Thank you for the link!

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  7. Who cares, quite frankly? There's more to poetry than just American poetry.

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    1. Not mention Anne Carson is not even American.

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    2. if she's not an American, what the fuck is she doing in BAP? American poets can't get published in the Best Canadian Poetry Anthology, but she's in ours . . .

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    4. and frankly, Franksauce, nobody in America cares about poetry which is not American poetry

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    5. "Who cares" is pretty weak as a rhetorical gesture here, obviously some people care.

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    6. Anne Carson is not the only Canadian poet to be co-opted by "American poetry" (looking at Christian Bök's and Steve McCaffery's presence in the 2nd edition of Paul Hoover's anthology). And I agree, there are only so few people who "care about poetry which is not American poetry." Which is why this kind of exercise ("contemporary American poetry is so bad/so good") strikes me as masturbatory and provincial (hence "Who cares?"). There is something nationalistic in this kind of rhetoric, insecure even. It's typically American to insist on the American-ness of a thing.

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  9. Oh, Elisa, I see you have a few trolls trying to braid your hair for you. And I see you need to help in handling them.

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    1. My trolls are such loyal readers though.

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