This post is a bit long this morning. Apologies. I owe it to the temperature (three degrees, with a bit of wind and a new dusting of snow) and the fact that everyone else in the house slept late.
The Huffington Post has been asking questions of poets and then posting the answers. You can google over there, if you haven’t already, to see some of them. There was an earlier set that I also commented on:
There are several bits in this new set that I found interesting:
“one way to be successful as a poet in American culture has been to carve out a niche, a particular ‘voice’ or style that is recognizable as a brand name, and to cultivate that niche for decades. . . . The attitudes and jargon of our consumer culture are perfidious, and poetry is not unaffected; hence, the cultivation of a "voice" as if it were a brand name, the isolation of the poetry-ego viewing others' experiences as material for one's sincere posturing, the round of networking and readings and mutual publications not unlike any social network with business connections.”
This reminded me immediately of the brochure I just received the other day advertizing the 2011 AWP conference in Washington DC, particularly these parts: First, “Browse through AWP’s Bookfair, featuring more than 500 literary presses, journals, editors, and publishers.” This intimates that the AWP Bookfair is an opportunity for writers to meet and perhaps to make deals with “editors” and “publishers.” This is, at the very least misleading, but it gets worse: “Network with your peers at dozens of parties, dances, off-site events, and literary receptions.” OK, maybe AWP has always had a bit of a “networking” creepy factor, but that’s not all it has going for it. I think of it less as a networking opportunity and more of a family reunion. Maybe they’re the same thing? Oh well. The brochure, at any rate, filled me with a kind of “Gnostic horror” (a phrase a friend used in an email to me recently that seems an appropriate reaction to many different situations in aesthetics and the life around literature).
But the larger point from the first quote from the HP thing, is this first one: “one way to be successful as a poet in American culture has been to carve out a niche, a particular ‘voice’ or style that is recognizable as a brand name, and to cultivate that niche for decades.” This really surprised me, using the highly negative connotations around brand name and branding for what is in essence one’s way of writing. What is it in William Carlos Williams or Elizabeth Bishop or Wallace Stevens, for instance, that makes their poetry their poetry? If one didn’t have some sort of recognizable through line in one’s poetry, then what is there to make a poet’s poetry the poetry of that poet? The best way I’ve heard this phrased is by Elisa Gabbert in an essay that will be coming out early next year in The Monkey and the Wrench: Essays in to Contemporary Poetry that I co-edited with Mary Biddinger: “If each of a poet’s poems were unlike the others in every way, there would be no reason to prefer some poets to others; one could only have favorite poems, not favorite poets.”
Maybe there is too much talk of “voice” and such in MFA programs these days? Maybe that’s what the poet is reacting to? The crass side of writing like yourself?
On the other hand, this brings up another issue that has been tapping at my shoulder recently: Is it necessary for a poet to change one’s way of doing things over time? Are the examples of John Ashbery and Rae Armantrout (and others: Dean Young, Mary Ruefle, Kay Ryan, etc etc), who haven’t changed their ways of doing things much at all over the years, examples of continued investigation or examples of poets who have failed to “develop”? I suppose such a conversation would need to proceed on a poet by poet basis, but you see my point. Is change (“development”: which always bothered me as a phrase pertaining to artists as it intimates that there’s some place to develop towards, and such things give me pause [more on that below]) to be sought?
Sure, why not? “Variety is the spice of life,” and all that, but must it be sought? Stevens said so, famously. Anyway, I continue to bat that one around without one side scoring much of an advantage, unless it’s to say, simply: Just write things. Let others decide if you’ve changed or developed or whatnot. (Yes, I just wrote “whatnot.”) The job of the artist is to be inquisitive and to make art. At other times I think that’s too easy a philosophy, that the more we understand ourselves, the better we can understand what we’re doing. And understanding what one is doing is a good thing for an artist. So there I am.
Another bit that interested me from another poet in the HP piece, pretty much on this same topic, is this better idea of what one can mean by voice: “One challenge for contemporary poets would be to discover a new kind of voice that could encompass or easily move between both the private and the public sphere, the individual and the group mind. I'm not sure exactly how it could be done. Whitman is one example, but I'm thinking of something less transcendent.” I second that. Yes, please. I want to find that poetry. It doesn’t matter who writes it (in my better moments this is how I think), but that it gets into the world. Examples of poets who might be in line for such a voice?
And then comes this, from yet another poet: “I'll risk restating the obvious by venturing that there's only one useful piece of advice for any young writer: write. Pay no attention to the state of American poetry, the death of the book, the legacy of Modernism, the bedbugs in your cheap apartment: ignore as much as you possibly can get away with and write. Resist the careerist temptations of PoBiz. Stay home and write a poem. There is no particular place to get to in Poetry Land, anyway. The point of the journey is the journey itself, the process of writing poetry, which hopefully you consider enriching and indispensable.”
This is the bit that a friend of mine emailed to me yesterday asking my reaction. Well, on the one hand, my reaction is, sure, I agree. There are a few quibbles I might have with it: first, well, it’s important to pay attention closely to the world around you (the apartment, etc) as that will help you write about the world, but I don’t think the poet meant it that way. It was meant more in the way of not letting the things themselves keep you from writing about them. Same with this think called “PoBiz,” which, as I get older (I turn 46 in three weeks!), I’m finding harder to find. Sure, AWP is PoBiz, as we’re all supposed to go there and “network” (THAT’S STILL IRRITATING ME) but other than that, what is it? Who gets awards and such? Trying to get some awards as well? Good luck with that. But my second quibble is the way the poet conflates by proximity the last two sentences: “There is no particular place to get to in Poetry Land, anyway. The point of the journey is the journey itself, the process of writing poetry, which hopefully you consider enriching and indispensable.” Yes, of course. Artists make art. (Which is what I was just agreeing with above.) But, you know, that’s much easier to say when you’re Campbell McGrath, and you have a strong press and many friends to do the PoBiz thing for you, than if you’re Young Poet X, just starting out, looking for ways to publish. This is not meant as a slam against McGrath (OK, I’ve outed him as the author of this last quote, but you’ll have to go to HP to find the first two.), what he says IS true, it’s just that art must be marketed. Now I’m sounding crass. Time to check out.
Because all art is self-portrait.
Finally, I really liked Wayne Miller’s answer (disclaimer: he’s a close friend of mine) quite a bit. So here it is, in full. The question posed by HP was something along the lines of “Have poets betrayed the poetry of Modernism?” And “What bothers you and what makes you happy in contemporary American poetry?” Or something like that. I’ll let him take us home:
At any point in poetic history, one finds hand-wringing about the state of the art. These days, Tony Hoagland is concerned by the “skittery poem of our moment,” Ron Silliman complains about the pervasiveness of the “School of Quietude,” anzFray ightWray [JG: Sorry for inserting the Pig Latin there, but if I ever mention this person on my blog he gets a notice through google alerts and then comes and says mean things about me in the comment stream] worries about the chatty sociability—the lack of focused quietness—found in the “MFA generations,” Dorothea Lasky is bothered by too many poets writing “projects,” John Barr complains about the lack of safari-going among today's poets, Ange Mlinko decries the legacy of Lowell’s “tyranny of psychological verismo,” Michael Theune frets that “middle-ground poets” don't have clear evaluative criteria, Anis Shivani worries about the “mechanical” nature of our poetry, and numerous poets have asserted in response to Ashbery that “the emperor has no clothes.”
I say “these days” because we could also be in some other historical moment when, say, William Carlos Williams is complaining about T. S. Eliot’s “conforming to the excellencies of classroom English,” or M. L. Rosenthal is bothered by the “shameful” nature of Confessional poetry, or France is scandalized by Baudelaire's “incomprehensible” and “putrid” work, or Ezra Pound is attacking the influence of Walt Whitman, whose Leaves of Grass “is impossible to read [. . .] without swearing at the author almost continuously,” or the Acmeist poets are decrying the lack of craft in the work of the Russian Symbolists, or Dunstan Thompson is complaining of “the smugness, the sterility, the death-in-life which disgrace the literary journals of America” in that poetic nadir of 1940—the same year Auden published Another Time, E. E. Cummings published 50 Poems, Kenneth Fearing published his Collected Poems, and Kenneth Rexroth and Robert Hayden made their literary debuts.
The legacy of Modernism is alive and well—though, frankly, it's so broad as to be pretty much unbetrayable. After all, the Language poets and Philip Levine both envision their work as building on William Carlos Williams. Robert Bly thought “Deep Image” poetry was a return to true Imagism, yet Ron Silliman lumps Bly and James Wright with many of the “academic” and Confessional poets Bly excoriated in The Fifties.
All poetry lives somewhere on a spectrum between Classicism and Romanticism. If high Modernists such as Eliot, Pound, and Moore tilt toward the Classical side, and the Confessional and Beat poets inhabit the Romantic, then we've more or less marked the boundaries of the Modernist legacy. But that gives us quite an aesthetic and intellectual range to play around in.
Many American poets frustrated by 1980s post-Confessionalism—which leaned largely on personal narrative and ad misericordium for its effects—have turned back to the high Modernists, Objectivists, and New York School to balance out a poetic that was, in the end, too baldly Romantic. Sometimes this turn has produced new work that's mechanical, emotionally flat, or unparsable—but that doesn't negate the fact that this rebalancing is mostly a good move, one that's hardly a betrayal of Modernism. Indeed, it's a backward turn similar to Eliot's when he exalted the Metaphysical poets over the Victorians and Romantics.
There are a number of things that worry me about poetry today:
• Ignorance of poetic—and literary—history. I was once on a panel with a well-published poet who said she had little use for the Modernists because her work was about collage. It's just this sort of foreshortened view that leaves poets thinking either (a.) that all poetry must be built around reportage of personal epiphany, or (b.) that Dadaism is new.
• I worry when I hear writers say they're not interested in reading—or writing—“great poems.” I still subscribe to the quaint idea that poets write in the hope of producing a few great works—works that, assuming society doesn't collapse in one of its many possible conflagrations, people will continue to read a hundred years from now because those works will continue to be valuable. Call me an optimist.
• I fear that America's most visible and influential critical apparatuses have yet to notice how much American poetry has decentralized. Our next important poet could just as easily be living in Cleveland, Houston, Chico, Tucson, or Lincoln as (s)he could in New York or Boston. How long will it take the New York Times Book Review to pay attention?
• Childishness. I understand that poems written in the whiny idiom of a 15-year-old about Barbies and action figures and teenagery romance are, at their best, intended to approach seriousness through the back door. But, come on: we're adults. We don't need to apologize for having adult concerns. And if we haven't stumbled upon them by the time we're in our mid to late twenties, we should go looking for them. Call me stodgy.