Banal & Obscure
Poetry, we are told, is not dead, though every few years some fed-up culture critic comes along to proclaim it so. How can it be dead when there are more practitioners of the art than ever before? Approximately a thousand volumes of poetry are published in America each year; there are hundreds of outlets for poetry in magazines both big and little; there are forty-two MFA programs in poetry in this country, and countless workshops. No, clearly it can’t be dead.
Then why is it so God-awful? And why do only a few literary renegades – outliers and reactionaries – admit that this is so? Respectable intellectuals and academics maintain, with a straight face, the pretense that poetry is a vital part of our culture. If the poet is no longer the unacknowledged legislator of the world, he is at least respected, paid a modicum of lip service. The problem is that hardly anyone actually reads his work. The educated general reader, of whom there are several million in this country, has quietly given up on the genre, leaving its perusal to the so-called Poetry Subculture: poets, aspiring poets, and educators.
How many college students could even name a contemporary poet, if pressed to do so? They might be able to come up with Maya Angelou, whose usefulness as a politically correct accessory to left-leaning politicians has made her something of a household name – but how many can recite even a line of one of her poems? In any case, she has recently died, robbing the country of its only living celebrity poet – unless you count Amiri Baraka, who also left us in 2014. During the Victorian era, the visage of Tennyson, the poet laureate, was the most recognizable in England after that of the queen herself; nowadays there is no living poet who would turn heads in the street – not the elder statesmen John Ashbery, Galway Kinnell or W.S. Merwin; not the glamour queen Jorie Graham. Even the late Mark Strand, a strikingly handsome man, did not have a famous face. The last poet with a recognizable face was Allen Ginsberg, and his celebrity almost certainly had more to do with his countercultural antics than with the quality of his verse. The American public just doesn’t care enough about poetry to pay close attention to its practitioners.
Yet the poetry industry, already glutted with more published poems per year than there are readers to read them, not to mention more prizes, fellowships, and residencies, still seeks to expand. Sixty years ago Randall Jarrell, a major critic as well as poet, could be brutally honest in his assessment of the state of the art. “The ‘worthless’ books,” he complained, “come in day after day, like the cries and truck sounds from the street, and there is nothing that anyone could think of that is good enough for them.” Poetry is a difficult art; many are called, but few are chosen. It is, Jarrell continued, “a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey in which there is for most of the players no tail, no donkey, not even a booby prize.”
Nowadays, no poet would think of calling the work of his peers “worthless” – at least not publicly. They all depend too much on other poets and would-be poets: as the bestowers of academic jobs, adjunct positions, fellowships; as paying students. The financial health of the Poetry Subculture depends on mutual backscratching. If you don’t encourage the hordes of young hopefuls willing to shell out the big bucks for MFAs and workshops, there won’t be enough paying jobs to support the growing legions of “professional” poets.
This uncritical inclusivity is what clogs the lines of communication, so that to find the few good poems that are published is no easier than locating the proverbial needle in the haystack. The principle is laid out in guest editor Dorianne Laux’s gushing introduction to the 2014 volume of Best New Poets, in which she expresses her joy at the sheer volume of poems she has been privileged to read in making her selection: “To have poems overflowing from boxes, poems on the couch, falling from the plush arm of the easy chair, set in neat piles on the flowered rug, a few petals peering between the stacks. To have all that, and be unable, or unwilling, to leave anything out.” Now, surely a few of those poems were worthless. Surely more than a few. More than a few of those that Laux eventually chose to include in the anthology are certainly worthless, as a quick perusal of the book demonstrates, though she has been properly attentive to the all-important criterion of “diversity.” One hardly needs to turn to the page in question to know that a poem entitled “An AppalAsian Finds Home in Bloomington, Indiana” will prove to be worthless, but in the event, it is even more so than you might guess:
I call myself an AppalAsian,
an Asian from Appalachia ...
After 5K brunch is a French Tickler,
a ham and cream cheese crepe,
mimosa with cherry. I victory-
dance in the basement stairwell
of Ballantine, breaking into song
upon hearing the word “lonely.”
This brief excerpt from a one-page poem encapsulates so many of the stupidities of the Poetry Subculture that one hardly knows where to begin.
First of all, the totally arbitrary line breaks: enjambment is supposed to have some purpose, but none is evident here. It brings us back to the old question of what makes something poetry; the simple expedient of breaking prose up into lines doesn’t turn prose into poetry. This is pure prose.
Second, the poet’s naïve belief that her “identity” will be of interest: the author makes it clear that she “identifies” as an Asian, as an Appalachian.
Third, the pop culture references (the French tickler and, elsewhere in the poem, Victoria’s Secret; the French tickler gets in an allusion to sex, also a plus, and masturbation is an especially popular topic in the current Poetry Subculture). These references are there so that the poet will get an easy, automatic laugh when she reads the piece aloud to an audience of her peers. Finally, there is the description of her meal. Up-and-coming poets seem always to be describing what they’ve eaten and drunk in excruciating detail. Could it be that they don’t have much else to write about? Their usual activities, attendance at creative writing workshops and readings, are even less promising sources of subject matter than their lunch menu.
There’s plenty of stuff like this in Best New Poets 2014 – “My Love Affair With Darth Vader,” “Gathering a Few Facts” ... Wait a minute, here’s a good poem! “Repeat Offenders” by Ellie Sawatzky. But what true poetry lover is ever going to find it, surrounded as it is by dreck like the AppalAsian poem? The Randall Jarrells of today, if there are any, are hardly going to waste their precious time dredging through such quantities of sludge on the off chance that they’ll find a gem.
And yet Laux uses the forum provided by her introduction to urgently preach “the importance of supporting small magazines and presses.” But why should we support them? Why? Aren’t there other, more important causes that cry out for our aid, financial and otherwise? What about combating hunger? UNICEF? Oxfam? Literacy education? The fight against global warming, perhaps? Of all the arts, poetry is probably the cheapest to practice: it can be done anywhere, with no materials beyond a pencil and a yellow pad; poets, in other words, don’t need a great deal of material support. And so far as exposure in small magazines and presses goes, it seems clear that what we need is less of it, not more. If the output of small magazines and presses were suddenly cut down by ninety percent, the few genuinely good poets would make the cut and the stinkers would disappear. Or so one likes to think. It probably wouldn’t happen that way.
Work worth doing?
Why have we reached this impasse, in which our poets no longer address their natural audience? Has there been any poem in the last 30 years that speaks for our time as Pope’s “Essay on Man” did for his? Or Arnold’s “Dover Beach”? Or Auden’s “September 1, 1939”? Or even, to take it down a notch, Ginsberg’s “Howl”? The vast majority of what comes out of the poetry industry today is either banal or obscure. There is nothing wrong with a poem’s being difficult (if, that is, it is ultimately worth deciphering) but when difficulty turns to obscurity it is a grievous artistic failing. The Poetry Subculture doesn’t see it this way; why should it, when the justification for teaching poetry, a job on which almost all the better-known poets depend, lies in the fact that the work so often needs explaining? Many contemporary poets, like literary critics, behave as a priestly caste, the keepers of arcane and exclusive knowledge. When the general reader complains that he doesn’t understand contemporary poetry he is taken to task by the poet; obviously he is a philistine dolt, too lazy to do the necessary mental work. This is dangerous ground, and fallacious. When someone like myself, a Ph.D. in English literature from an Ivy League university with an informed interest in all literary matters, does not “get” a poem, this is a problem – unless, after all, the point of the exercise is to write only for the initiated.
The deliberate cultivation of difficulty in poetry dates back to the modern period, and was formulated most memorably by T.S. Eliot. In his famous essay “The Metaphysical Poets” (1921), he stated that “it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into meaning.” Like so many of Eliot’s ex cathedra utterances, this has been taken as gospel. Why? What have allusiveness and indirection to do with the expression of complexity? I can’t see the logic here; but it is undeniable that the increased difficulty in literature during the modernist period (Eliot’s Waste Land was published in 1922, as was Joyce’s Ulysses – just a year after Eliot’s “Metaphysical Poets”) was accompanied by the rise of “English” as a fit subject for academic study.
Since Eliot’s day, obscurity has been legitimized, mistaken for (or dignified as) difficulty, so much a part of the contemporary poetic furniture that one hardly notices it, or bothers with it. In the AppalAsian excerpt above, the poet places herself in “the basement staircase/of Ballantine” without seeming to care that “Ballantine” will mean absolutely nothing to her readers. (I googled it: it is a classroom and administration building at the University of Indiana.) Is this deliberate obscurity, Eliotic “difficulty,” or just laziness? Is the reader being taken into consideration at all?
Modernism at fault
Philip Larkin knew which way the wind was blowing back in the 1950s, and blamed it squarely on what he called “the aberration of modernism that blighted all the arts.” The modernist project, he asserted, had broken the timeless contract between writer and reader, the very basic premise that a work of literature should give us pleasure. Shakespeare, he pointed out, had to please a paying audience, and “if we speculate what his plays would have been like if he hadn’t had to please them, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that they wouldn’t have been as good.” When the poet, subsidized by foundations or universities, has only to please himself and a few peers the rest of us are likely to lose interest, and “we seem to be producing a new kind of bad poetry,” Larkin complained; “not the old kind that tries to move the reader and fails, but one that does not even try ... The reader, in fact, seems no longer present in the poet’s mind as he used to be, as someone who must understand and enjoy the finished product if it is to be a success at all.”
In a 2012 article in The New York Times, writer Steve Almond suggested that the enormous proliferation of creative writing workshops and degrees might be connected with the decline of psychoanalysis and talk therapy in general: that writing, in fact, acts as the kind of therapeutic outlet that is missing in most people’s lives. “A generation ago ... if you wanted to spend several hours a week baring your soul to a stranger who was professionally obligated to listen and react, you went into therapy. Today you join a writing workshop.” He turns out to have been right on the money: recent studies conducted at Duke and Stanford universities have shown that students who are encouraged to write about their personal stories tended to be happier and academically more successful than those who do not, while married couples who explored their problems through writing were able to significantly improve marital happiness.
This is all very well, and if more people writing makes for a happier world I’m all for it. But does it follow that the readership must expand along with the burgeoning number of writers? Because people have a yen to write, are we, potential readers, obliged to devote our increasingly limited time and attention to them? Opening The Best American Poetry 2014 at random, I come across this banality, from “No Doubt About It (I Gotta Get Another Hat)” by Le Hinton:
in my head it was Vincent (not Boris)
who narrated the Who family fun
during Grinch-time in December
but then he clocked in for Sears
selling Rembrandts (not Lady Kenmores)
(clarity at 14)
why is he
I met Santa
(who fingered a pocketful of poems)
on the corner of Saint Paul + No(wH)ere
four times or maybe three
he passed out to the crowd
a smile full of antlers
(Bullwinkle not Rudolph)
I know why Chris
is in Christmas
The contract between the writer and this reader has been broken, all right. If “No Doubt About It” is one of the best American poems of the year, then the idea of perusing the output of more obscure presses and periodicals is unthinkable.
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