In Which I Have Opinions About Poetry
A couple days ago, I read an article with the balls to say most contemporary writers working their way ‘up the ladder’ of establishment have been conditioned not to voice opinions in their work, to offend none, to always be thinking of how they might impress and flatter their masters. This statement alone set the tone for the rest of the article, which seems to call out the gravely disappointing mistakes committed by today’s most popular, well-respected and well-paid poets.
Mark Edmundson’s article, titled “Poetry Slam: Or, the Decline of American Verse,” makes no attempt to veil his disappointment in the most popular contemporary American poets, their reliance upon obscurity, their irresponsibility as community leaders, and the ease with which they “shut out the common reader” (62). He takes aim at poets I have always been taught were off-limits: Adrienne Rich, Paul Muldoon, Jorie Graham, Anne Carson, Robert Hass. My palms get hot and shaky when Edmundson claims, “I mean no severe criticism of Hass…” He then proceeds to explain why the narrowed, shrinking focus of American poetry (from Lowell and Whitman’s technique of addressing the American public at large to the new, more self-conscious method of ‘writing a moment’ in the poet’s personal life in hopes the reader will relate it to something meaningful and unmentioned) is to blame for Hass’ poem “Meditation at Lagunitas” seeming ‘timid’ and ‘small’.
Thing is, I agree with a lot of Edmundson’s complaints about contemporary American poetry. For the past few years (and I haven’t been at this for long), I’ve been underwhelmed by Poetry magazine and the ‘big wigs’ whose work I continue to pay money to read. I don’t adore a lot of poets the way I sometimes feel I should, and I see Edmundson’s point when he highlights poems that begin with clear, provocative images that lead into obscure, cerebral philosophizing or melody-making.
Edmundson points out that poets shouldn’t be ‘down the hall’ from literary theorists, those intellectuals in charge of establishing boundaries and limitations based on gender, race, and background for creative writers past and present. Again, he has a point. Theory, to me, is essential to exploration for some so I can’t write it off. I can say, however, that my creative work doesn’t seem to benefit much from theoretical study, so I’m simply not spending a hell of a lot of time on it during my time as a PhD student. For me, theory is a sort of fence-work I want to understand somehow without absorbing fully.
I agree with Edmundson’s claim that although Eliot may have been a ‘superb analytical critic’, good poems ‘don’t come from anywhere close to the front of the brain.’ He mentions the heart. I like that, even though I know by ‘heart’ he means ‘lower, more primitive brain functions’. (Read: we are all poets by nature.)
Another useful distinction Edmundson makes is the complete ‘package’ a good poet embodies: a talent for making music with words (or a talent for manipulating them), experience (or something to say), and ambition. That said, Edmundson ironically describes ambition as a kind of ‘courage’, a need to say what must be said, which isn’t quite what came into my mind right away. The less beautiful kind of ambition I’m usually exposed to, the kind that fuels a very loud internal engine screaming nothing but anythingtogetajobanythingtogetajobanythingtogetajob – it’s not as poetic as ‘courage’, but I agree with the way Edmundson identifies these qualities as necessary talents.
Like many academics though, Edmundson complains about the ‘MFA business,’ the greediness of universities and failure of American higher education which have produced to a glut of non-writers entering the field as professionals. I don’t mind that Edmundson essentially calls myself and all those writers I studied with wannabes, hacks, or flops, simply because we pursued an MFA at the wrong time and maybe some of us (I’m raising my hand) went on to chase PhDs. We need to hear that every now and then. I do, however, find it ironic when college professors make this claim, likely just minutes before rushing to class to share their thoughts on writing with so many of us who are eager to learn.
Also, and this is what I consider Edmundson’s most passionately argued point here, the personal ‘poem of the moment’ has lost all worth. He compares poems that address our nation in times of war and call us to action as citizens to pieces that reveal a poet remembering a past lover, seemingly for the sake of detail and remembrance. I can’t entirely agree with Edmundson and say these ‘smaller’ poems ‘don’t deliver’. Yes, they fail to literally instruct me on the moral navigation of our perilous times, but they also show me a window I didn’t know existed on a house I live in too. I believe the poet is the common reader, and to dismiss the ‘smaller scale’ poems would mean losing the beauty of Denise Duhamel, say, and the way we read her detailed, humorous, specific scene-centered poems and know we have somehow been in the exact same place and situation as her speaker. I would lose Maria Gillan’s humble, simply-crafted poems that make sure I know what it might have been like to grow up rattled by poverty in the 1940s.
I think I have to call a truce with this main claim of Edmundson’s. I get it – he’s sick of poets writing poems that are personal with a narrow focus and rely on obscurity. I learn nothing, feel nothing when poems devolve into seemingly spontaneous incomprehensibility. But I just turn the page. There are plenty of poets out there who make sense, who value the common reader and aren’t ashamed to say so in their work and in their lectures. Edmundson cries foul on many poets for giving up on the reader, but I’m still not convinced that poetry is quite as wicked and hopeless as he makes it out to be.