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:
Most poetry reviews could be rephrased as "I don't even like poetry."Two very enthusiastic thumbs down.
— Elisa Gabbert (@egabbert) February 27, 2013
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.