Thursday, April 24, 2008

What's Wrong with American Poetry? Day 1

The current issue of Center, with its symposium on the line, continues to interest me. I found myself arguing quite a bit with what a few of the respondents were writing. I found myself really wanting to talk with the piece Paisley Rekdal wrote, for instance. Rekdal conceptualizes things in ways I don’t, and it gets me all oppositional. Good. I like the energy of feeling oppositional.

Things feel pretty quiet out there right now. Maybe its time for something a little oppositional. So, toward that end, I’m wondering what people are thinking these days about what’s right and what’s wrong in and with American Poetry. Are these valid questions? I think so. At least as thought experiments.

Today I’m starting to look around for what irritates people the most, and what they value the most, in current American poetry.

I found a fun, old thing from August Kleinzahler, writing against Good Poems, ed. by Garrison Keillor:

Most people have neither the sensitivity, inclination, or training to look or listen meaningfully, nor has the culture encouraged them to, except with the abstract suggestion that such things are good for you. Multivitamins are good for you. Exercise, fresh air, and sex are good for you. Fruit and vegetables are good for you. Poetry is not.

Especially most of what Garrison Keillor reads on his Writer’s Almanac, which, as a rule, isn’t poetry at all but prose arbitrarily broken into lines masquerading as poetry. The typical Keillor selection tends to be anecdotal, wistful: more often than not a middle-aged creative writing instructor catching a whiff of mortality in the countryside—watching the geese head south, getting lost in the woods, this sort of thing.

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And then I tossed “What’s wrong with American Poetry?” into google, and out came an article by Cristina Nehring, writing against the 2007 Best American Essays (which I haven’t read). Although not about poetry, it does start with a bit of poetry, and I’ve heard this same sentiment from some poets over the years, so here’s an excerpt from “What’s Wrong With the American Essay” (just switch "poetry" with "essay"):


His gaze has been so worn by the procession
Of bars that he no longer sees.

—“The Panther,” Rainer Maria Rilke


The essay is in a bad way. It’s not because essayists have gotten stupider. It’s not because they’ve gotten sloppier. And it is certainly not because they’ve become less anthologized. More anthologies are published now than there have been in decades, indeed in centuries. The Best American Essays series, which began in 1986, has reached 20 volumes. The problem is that these series rot in basements—when they make it as far as that. I’ve found the run of American Essays in the basement of my local library, where they’ll sit—with zero date stamps—until released gratis one fine Sunday morning to a used bookstore that, in turn, will sell them for a buck to a college student who’ll place them next to his dorm bed and dump them in an end-of-semester clean-out. That is the fate of the essay today.

Is it our fault? Are we, as readers, responsible for the decline of the American essay? Have we become lazier, less interested, less educated? Attention spans, to be sure, have shortened. Gone are the days when people pored over periodicals at languorous length during transatlantic crossings. But this is not the reason why essay collections gather dust and why essayists so often count themselves “second-class citizens” (in the words of E.B. White). If the genre is neglected in our day it is first and foremost because its authors have lost their nerve. It is because essayists—and their editors, their anthologists and the taste-makers on whom they depend—have lost the courage to address large subjects in a large way.



Today’s essayists need to be emboldened, and to embolden one another, to move away from timid autobiographical anecdote and to embrace—as their predecessors did—big theories, useful verities, daring pronouncements. We need to destigmatize generalization, aphorism and what used to be called wisdom. We must rehabilitate the notion of truth—however provisional it might be. As long as persons with intellectual aspirations are counted idiots for attempting to formulate a wider point, they will not do so, and even if they dared, most editors would not publish them and most critics would not praise them. Take the case of Laura Kipnis and her recent volume, “The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability.” While there is a great deal for which this book can be faulted, it has been attacked not for the dearth of its author’s talent so much as for the breadth of her ambition. It is the size of her topics that gives her highbrow critics pause: “What is dirt?” Kipnis asks, in a book in which she attempts to explore “the female psyche.” Her New York Times reviewer responds disdainfully, “Which raises the question: Who is Laura Kipnis?” In other words, how dare she ask such questions? Well, Seneca would have said, how dare she not? Life is short. “Assume authority. ... It is a disgraceful thing that a man should derive wisdom solely from his notebook. ... Utter yourself something that may be handed to posterity.” This is what Kipnis tries to do, and she should be saluted for it, not mocked. Her shortcomings lie elsewhere. But the territory she marks out for herself and the boldness with which she sprints into it are cause for gratitude. It is what all essayists should do.

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I’ll keep looking. This is fun.

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