Thursday, November 03, 2011

from The Discursive Situation of Poetry, by Robert Archambeau

Mary Biddinger and I had a great time putting The Monkey & the Wrench together. And one of the things that formed it, that gave to a landscape, was Robert Archambeau’s essay “The Discursive Situation in Poetry.” All the essays in the collection are strong, and we were met with excitement after excitement reading them. It’s a book we’re proud of from first to last.

Because the issues raised in the Archambeau piece are important to keep in mind, I want to circulate a bit of his essay, so I’m posting it. This is about 1/3 of the essay, the opening two sections, and the short final section. It misses a lot of the support for his major point, but it gives enough of the flavor of it for one to extrapolate, I think.

You’ll find the whole essay in The Monkey & the Wrench: Essays into Contemporary Poetics, Biddinger & Gallaher, eds. 2011. U of Akron.

from The Discursive Situation of Poetry, by Robert Archambeau

“Why do poets continue to write? Why keep playing if it’s such a mug’s game? Some, no doubt, simply fail to understand the situation.”
                                                                  —Sven Birkerts

The important point to notice, though, is this:
  Each poet knew for whom he had to write,
Because their life was still the same as his.
  As long as art remains a parasite
  On any class of persons it's alright;
The only thing it must be is attendant,
The only thing it mustn't, independent.
                                                        —W.H. Auden

Statistics confirm what many have long suspected: poetry is being read by an ever-smaller slice of the American reading public. Poets and critics who have intuited this have blamed many things, but for the most part they have blamed the rise of M.F.A. programs in creative writing. While they have made various recommendations on how to remedy the situation, these remedies are destined for failure or, at best, for very limited success, because the rise of MFA programs is merely a symptom of much larger and farther-reaching trends. These trends are unlikely to be reversed by the intervention of a few poets, critics, and arts-administrators. I’m not sure this is a bad thing. Or, in any event, I’m not sure it is worse than what a reversal of the decline in readership would entail. Let me explain.

Decades of Complaint

While we don’t have many instruments for measuring the place of poetry in American life, all our instruments agree: poetry has been dropping precipitously in popularity for some time. In 1992, the National Endowment for the Arts conducted a survey that concluded only 17.1% of those who read books had read any poetry in the previous year. A similar N.E.A. survey published in 2002 found that the figure had declined to 12.1%. The N.E.A. numbers for 2008 were grimmer still: only 8.3% of book readers had read any poetry in the survey period (Bain). The portion of readers who read any poetry at all has, it seems, been cut in half over sixteen years. Poetry boosters can’t help but be distressed by the trend.

Poets and poetry lovers have somewhat less faith in statistics and rather more faith in intuition and personal observation than the population at large. They’ve intuited this state of affairs for more than two decades, beginning long before the statistical trend became clear in all its stark, numerical reality.  As far back as 1983, Donald Hall sounded a warning note in his essay “Poetry and Ambition.” Although he did not blame the rise of the graduate creative writing programs for the loss of connection with an audience, he did feel that M.F.A. programs created certain formal similarity among poems. The programs produced “McPoets,” writing “McPoems” that were brief, interchangeable, and unambitious. His solution, delivered with tongue firmly in cheek, was to abolish M.F.A. programs entirely. “What a ringing slogan for a new Cato,” wrote Hall, “Iowa delenda est!” (Hall). Five years later Joseph Epstein picked up Hall’s standard, and carried it further. In the incendiary essay “Who Killed Poetry?” Epstein argued that the rise of writing poems led not only to diminishments of ambition and quality — it furthered the decline of poetry’s audience. The popular audience for poetry may have shrunk by the 1950s, argued Epstein, but at least the poets of midcentury were revered, and engaged with the larger intellectual world. By the late 1980s, though, poetry existed in “a vacuum.” And what was the nature of this vacuum? “I should say that it consists of this,” wrote Epstein, “it is scarcely read.” Indeed, he continues,

Contemporary poetry is no longer a part of the regular intellectual diet. People of general intellectual interests who feel that they ought to read or at least know about works on modern society or recent history or novels that attempt to convey something about the way we live now, no longer feel the same compunction about contemporary poetry.… It begins to seem, in fact, a sideline activity, a little as chiropractic or acupuncture is to mainstream medicine—odd, strange, but with a small cult of followers who swear by it. (Epstein)

The principle culprit in the sidelining of poetry was, for Epstein, the credentialing and employment of poets in graduate writing programs. “Whereas one tended to think of the modern poet as an artist,” argued Epstein, “one tends to think of the contemporary poet as a professional,” and, “like a true professional, he is insulated within the world of his fellow-professionals” (Epstein). The poet, instead of responding to the audience-driven world of the book market, responds only to his peers, with the effect that the audience simply melts away.

Après Epstein, le déluge. The 1990s saw a phalanx of poets and critics complaining about the decline of poetry’s audience, and linking this decline to the rise of M.F.A. programs. Dana Gioia fired the loudest shot when, in Can Poetry Matter? (published as an article in The Atlantic in 1991, republished in book form a year later). “American poetry now belongs to a subculture,” said Gioia, “no longer part of the mainstream of intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group” (1). While he allows that they have done so “unwittingly,” it is “the explosion of academic writing programs” that is to blame for this sad state of affairs, as far as Gioia is concerned (2). Gioia was by no means alone in this opinion. Vernon Shetley’s 1993 study After the Death of Poetry: Poet and Audience in Contemporary America tells us that poetry has “lost the attention not merely of common readers but of intellectuals” (3) – and that creative writing programs have contributed to this loss by cultivating “a disturbing complacency” and by “narrowing of the scope” of poetry (19). Bruce Bawer introduces his 1995 book of criticism Prophets and Professors by lamenting the professionalizing of poetry. He tells us that “those who read poetry — which, in our society, basically means poets” shy away from being too critical of the art, since “they conside[r] poetry so ailing and marginal a genre that criticism was… like kicking an invalid” (8). In the same year, Thomas Disch claimed in The Castle of Indolence that “for most readers… contemporary poetry might as well not exist.” The reason, he says, is

…that the workshops, which have a monopoly on the training of poets, encourage indolence, incompetence, smugness, and — most perniciously — that sense of victimization and special entitlement that poets now come to share with other artists who depend on government or institutional patronage to sustain their art, pay their salaries, and provide for their vacations. (5)

Blaming writing programs for the isolation of poetry extended beyond the fairly conservative literary preserves inhabited by the likes of Bawer, Disch, and Epstein. Charles Bernstein’s 1995 essay “Warning — Poetry Area: Publics Under Construction,” argues “it is bad for poetry, and for poets, to be nourished so disproportionately” by universities, adding that “the sort of poetry I care for has its natural habitat in the streets and offices and malls” (Bernstein).

By 1999, the chorus had grown so loud that Christopher Beach claimed we were “discussing the death of poetry to death” (19). Not that this stopped anyone. In 2006, Poetry Foundation President John Barr caused a stir with “American Poetry in the New Century,” an article in Poetry magazine in which he noted poetry’s “striking absence from the public dialogues of our day,” as a sign that we have a reading public “in whose mind poetry is missing and unmissed.” The problem, he asserts, stems from the writing programs. These produce poets who “write for one another,” producing “a poetry that is neither robust, resonant, nor… entertaining.” It cannot exist without “academic subsidies” and fails in the market, unable to sell in “commercial quantities” (Barr). While Barr surveys the terrain from the heights of the Poetry Foundation offices above Chicago, more recently the poet Daniel Nester has come to similar conclusions (albeit without the invocation of the values of the marketplace) from the depths of New York’s poetry scene. Nester has characterized that scene as the product of the writing programs. Looking around at poetry events, he says he’d see university cliques such as the “Group of People Who Went to Iowa” and those starting “Teaching Jobs Out West.” The scene was isolated from a larger engagement with society, with “a lack of connection to the reader” and readings attended only by “other aspiring poets” (Nester 2009). “It’s an unsustainable system,” he said when asked by an interviewer about his article. “Even the most niche of niche art forms has an audience. Not so with contemporary poetry” (Nester 2010).

As even this brief and incomplete survey of writers makes clear, American poets have noted the decline of the audience for poetry, and found it troubling. But when decriers of the decline make M.F.A. programs their whipping boy they misunderstand the role such programs play in the distancing of poet from audience. In fact, poetry’s decline of popularity predates the rise of writing programs, and such programs are properly seen as the latest episode in of a larger and long-enduring drama, a drama that began in the nineteenth century.

Bohemia Misunderstood

Both Dana Gioia and Joseph Epstein contrast the contemporary situation with what they imagine to be better times for poets: for Gioia, the golden age took place in the 1940s, while for Epstein it took place a decade later.

What strikes one most immediately about Gioia’s imagined halcyon days for poetry is the strange combination of market-driven values and the idea of bohemia. The whole apparatus of poetry in the 1940s was, in Gioia’s view, based on meeting consumer demand. In the 1940s, says Gioia, poets wrote with the idea of reaching a general readership, and “a poem that didn’t command the reader’s attention wasn’t considered much of a poem.” Editors of poetry journals looked to the market when determining their choices, picking not poems that met their own particular aesthetic standards, but choosing “verse that they felt would appeal to their particular audiences” (7). The problem since the professionalization of poetry has, for Gioia, been that “a poetry industry has been created to serve the interests of the producers and not the consumers” (10). Even critical judgment was bent to this end, as “the reviewers of fifty years ago knew that their primary loyalty must lie not with their fellow poets… but with the reader” (16). Such conditions continued only so long as poets remained outside of an organized profession, and a preponderance of them “centered their lives in urban bohemias” (12).

Gioia’s idea of a market-driven bohemia is, to put it mildly, singular. One can find nothing like it in the annals of the sociology of bohemian life and art. The standard view is that bohemia emerges in response to the marginalization of artists, poets, and other creative producers. Cesar Graña’s classic study Bohemian vs. Bourgeois, for example, finds the origin of bohemia in the economic dislocations following the destruction of the aristocracy in the French Revolution. These dislocations led to a migration into urban centers of a “large marginal population” of educated people formerly connected to, or dependent on the aristocracy. Here they worked in opposition to, or at best on the fringes of, the market-driven world of the bourgeoisie (39). Albert Parry argues in Garrets and Pretenders that bohemia can only exist when there is an overproduction of certain kinds of skills and talents in relation to market demand for those skills. Pierre Bourdieu has famously defined the world of artistic production, especially as it involves poetry or occurs under bohemian conditions, as “the economic world reversed” (29). “The literary or artistic field,” says Bourdieu, “is at all times the site of a struggle between the two principles of hierarchization: the heteronomous principle, favorable to those who dominate the field economically (e.g. ‘bourgeois art’) and the autonomous principle (e.g. ‘art for art’s sake’)” (41). The heteronomous principle — that art should serve a force outside itself, such as the market — is certainly the force Gioia saw at work prior to the rise of writing programs. But the heteromomous principle is not the dominant force at work in the poetic and bohemian worlds. In such conditions, says Bourdieu, “the economy of practices is based, as in a generalized game of ‘loser wins,’ on a systematic inversion of all ordinary economies” including that of the market, because “it excludes the pursuit of profit and does not guarantee any sort of correspondence between investments and monetary gains” (39).

Validation for the poet, under bohemian conditions, cannot come in any great measure from the support of the market. Indeed, as Parry and Graña point out, bohemia comes into existence because there is too much literary and artistic talent for the market to absorb. In the absence of market support, poets do not seek to command the attention of a large readership for a sense of their worth. Rather, they start to seek validation from one another, and from a literary community separate from the broad, commercially profitable marketplace of readers. As the sociologist Ephraim Mizruchi puts it, the establishment of bohemia depends upon conditions where “status opportunities contract or organizations fail to expand in time to absorb” artistic producers (39). Under such conditions, artistic producers such as poets worked “to establish and monitor what they alone determined to be the highest standards of artistic output” (15). That is, artistic producers in bohemia start to set their own standards for what counts as good or meaningful work.

Gioia’s notion that bohemia represented a market-driven world for poets is deeply at odds with the sociological consensus. In point of fact, bohemia represented a stage in literary development quite close to that which we have come to see in the (admittedly less colorful) world of M.F.A. professionalization: in both cases, poetic value is determined by a community of poets and critics, not by a market. One could follow Mizruchi and argue that the development of writing programs is little more than organizations finally expanding to absorb the artistic producers they could not absorb during the time of literary bohemia. The absorption involved little change in the notion of the validating principle of poetry. In both conditions it remained a matter of autonomy, or poets deciding for themselves what was of value, and ignoring the market forces Gioia imagines were dominant in what he takes to have been happier times.

Like Gioia, Joseph Epstein laments the failure of contemporary poetry to be governed by market forces. “Sometimes it seems as if there isn’t a poem written in this nation,” he writes, “that isn’t subsidized or underwritten by a grant either from a foundation or the government or a teaching salary or a fellowship of one kind or another” (Epstein). Unlike Gioia, he is too aware of the conditions and values of the pre-professionalized literary era he valorizes to claim that this was an era in which poets were broadly popular. Praising the modernists writing in the 1950s, Epstein tells us:

They published their work in magazines read only by hundreds; their names were not known by most members of the educated classes; their following, such as it was, had a cultish character. But beyond this nothing else seems comparable [to the world of the writing programs]. Propelling the modernist poets was a vision, and among some of them a program—a belief that the nature of life had changed fundamentally and that artists now had to change accordingly…. New, too, was their attitude toward the reader, whom they, perhaps first among any writers in history, chose in a radical way to disregard. They weren't out to épater. If what they wrote was uncompromisingly difficult, they did not see this as their problem. They wrote as they wrote…. Somehow, through the quality of their writing, the authority of the sacrifices they made for their art, the aura of adult seriousness conveyed in both work and life, the modernist poets won through.

The “somehow” is, one fears, a little desperate. Epstein dearly wants the poetry of the 1950s to have been central to the general culture of the time, but he is too well-informed and intellectually honest to omit mention of the evidence to the contrary. Unfortunately, he is not able to prevent himself from simply dismissing it with a wave of the hand.

Should we wish to provide evidence for the centrality of poetry to national culture in the 1950s, filling in the virtually blank space where Epstein gives us a vague “somehow” and an even vaguer “won through,” we would be a bit hard up. The only truly dramatic piece of evidence, one oft-cited by critics and journalists, would be T.S. Eliot’s appearance before several thousand people in Minnesota. This event, prominently misrepresented as a poetry reading in a baseball stadium in Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Eliot, was in fact a lecture held in the rather smaller confines of a university basketball arena. Few records of the event are available, but those we have tend to deflate any sense that the event represented anything like a massive popular interest in poetry in the 1950s. Consider the testimony of Theresa Enroth, an audience member for Eliot’s lecture writing to the New York Times in 1995 to disabuse readers of some inaccuracies in the paper’s representation of the event:

When Eliot appeared at the University of Minnesota in 1956, his performance had no similarity to what is generally meant by "poetry reading." He read his essay called "The Frontiers of Criticism." That the poet drew a big crowd probably had something to do with his having received the 1948 Nobel Prize in Literature.

For a great many readers at that time, his voice defined the disillusionment and angst of the midcentury. In addition, Eliot's poetry and criticism were central to the study of poetry in many college English departments where the New Criticism held dominion. The department lions at the University of Minnesota included, successively, Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate. (Their friend John Crowe Ransom gave a poetry reading there — to a small crowd in the auditorium of the science museum.)

The cultural capital of the Nobel Prize, the novelty of the presence of a Nobel Laureate in a provincial city in the 1950s, and the incipient academicizing of poetry all seem to have played a role in the size of the audience, and the event was both atypical and unrepeatable, as the modesty of Ransom’s audience shows. The notion that Eliot attracted an audience disillusioned with the dominant values of the times also argues against the idea that poetry was connected to the central values of our society in the 1950s.

When, then, was poetry popular, and in sympathy with the values of a broad public? When and where was it viable in terms of the values of the market? Epstein actually does give an example of such a time and place, before getting bogged down in nostalgia for the poetry of his own youth in the 50s. “The crowds in London once stood on their toes to see Tennyson pass;” writes Epstein, “today a figure like Tennyson probably would not write poetry and might not even read it. Poetry has been shifted — has shifted itself? — off center stage” (Epstein). To understand our own discursive condition, we need to contrast it not with the 1940s or 50s, but with the mid-Victorian period, when much poetry truly did have popular appeal, market viability, and a deep affinity with the values of the reading public. Only by such a contrast can we understand the forces that got us from there to here.

[Skipping forward twelve or so pages.]-JG

Underdevelopment and the Last Professors

Short of a return to the social conditions of the mid-Victorian era, can there be a return to a discursive situation in which poetry matters to a broad public? One hopes not. When we consider the evidence, we find that, historically, the conditions under which poetry becomes widely popular are not conditions we should seek out. In addition to the singular mid-Victorian situation, we find poetry to be prominent in another kind of situation. Sadly, though, this is a situation of socio-political disenfranchisement. The great scholar of Irish literature Declan Kiberd explains:

A writer in a free state works with the easy assurance that literature is but one of the social institutions to project the values which the nation admires, others being the law, the government, the army, and so on. A writer in a colony knows that these values can be fully embodied only in the written word: hence the daunting seriousness with which literature is taken by subject peoples. This almost prophetic role of the artist is often linked to ‘underdeveloped’ societies. (118)

In colonies, and among people oppressed by their governments and unable to find expression in the institutional life of their countries, poetry takes on a great social importance. But just as we would not wish to return to mid-Victorian levels of literacy and social development just to see the rise of a new Tennyson, we would not wish to fall victim to colonization just to have our own Celtic Revival. Those of us who live with discursive conditions that keep poetry unpopular may count ourselves lucky.

None of this is to say that the present professionalized conditions will continue. Just as the poet as man of letters depended on specific historical contingencies, so too is the idea of the poet as a professional working in relative autonomy from the market. The oversupply of academically credentialed poets points toward a shifting of the center of gravity away from academe. Moreover, academe itself is facing increasing pressure to respond to the forces of the market. In Britain, this includes new government guidelines for departments to demonstrate the market utility of their activities. In the United States the situation remains milder, but, as Frank Donoghue argues in The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, the encroachment of market values on the previously semi-autonomous academic system is well under way, and is probably irreversible. Critics who long for changes in the relation of poets to the public and the market may take comfort in knowing that some sort of change is surely underway, although it will occur with or without any of the efforts at publicity and cross-marketing those critics may make.


At 11/03/2011 9:40 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

This is maybe my second least favorite conversation about poetry. I'm just not sure how anyone is arriving at the conclusion that an increasing number of MFA programs are the reason why people aren't reading poetry. I've seen this argument often, but never any real evidence. It's speculation, that is easily debunked by "correlation does not equal causation."

It also sounds like a "good old days" argument. Poetry USED to matter, it used to be good, it used to actually MEAN something, etc. I don't know what to say to this. If you go back far enough things were probably different, yes, but there is always precedent. Ted Berrigan's line, "Whatever is going to happen / is already happening" comes to mind.

There's also a flaw in this logic. If poets are the only ones who read poetry and MFA programs are on the rise, wouldn't we see readership increase, or at least not fall at such precipitous levels?

All of this is on the periphery of why this argument always baffles me. The reason I've never understood this position is that it seems to posit that this stuff only has value if there is an audience and that the greater the audience, the greater its value. How many people watch Jersey Shore again?

I hate making an argument like that, where someone puts two cultural artifacts side by side and you have to decide which one has more value. When it comes to the arts, popularity has no bearing on the value. Once we talk about it in terms of economics, we're no longer talking about the art.

Does anyone ever pair the levels of poetry readership against other audiences? Without doing any research, I suspect that audiences have shrunk no matter the genre. Why? For one, I think books, no matter the genre, have a hard time competing with music, video games, movies, technology, etc. All of those things have huge advertising campaigns supporting them. How much gets spent promoting a new book by a poet on average? How many kids spend a significant part of their formative years bombarded by commercials for the latest poetry movement? How many even encounter poetry in a classroom setting?

Another answer is literacy levels. Isn't the current generation growing up the first to be less literate than the previous in a long time? This is more of an argument for future decline than the current one.

At any rate, I look forward to reading the whole of this essay as I picked up a copy of The Monkey and The Wrench from the BPL last week.

At 11/03/2011 5:37 PM, Blogger Archambeau said...

I do not believe that an increasing number of MFA programs causes a decrease in interest in poetry. I don't claim that in the essay. I also don't claim there were a "good old days." There was a period when poetry had a more prominent place than it does now, but it was the result of conditions we would not want to replicate even if we could, which we can't.


All best,


At 11/03/2011 5:43 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Precisely, Bob, I was going to post to say the same thing, but just now got home (you beat me by SECONDS!). I think, though, looking at it, that Fuzz isn’t necessarily reacting to your essay, but perhaps also reacting to what you’re reacting to. At least I maybe think so.

I posted this bit from your essay precisely so that when I next get into such a discussion (I also very much agree with you) about Gioia, et al, I have a specific place to where I think the argument is made closely and persuasively, namely, this essay.

At 11/03/2011 5:45 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I meant to say above that I'd have a place I could direct them to when having such a discussion.

At 11/03/2011 6:31 PM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...


That was how I intended it, though I can see that I don't clarify that.

At 11/03/2011 8:23 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

This has to be the ultimate irony.

John Gallaher, who recently requested that a very popular (non-MFA) poet stop posting poetry on his blog has now posted an essay on his blog about why poetry is no longer popular. Um . . . because nobody gets to read it, maybe?


At 11/03/2011 8:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I originally supported John's wish to keep your poetry out of here, but if I'm forced to choose between your poems, your narcissistic persecution complex, and your crimes against logic, I may have to reconsider.

Can we please return to Archambeau's (interesting) essay?

(Hint: it's not about you, Gary.)


At 11/04/2011 3:14 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


That's what I thought. It's my second to least favorite topic as well, precisely because it allows for the type of comments Gary makes below (and then ones he made and then deleted).

This fallacy of readership that Gioia, and many others, make is superbly unpacked here by Archambeau. There never was that golden age these poets keep talking about, and if there was something close (maybe the mid 1800s), it's not something we'd really wish to go back to.

It should be an argument that is quickly over. If what Gioia (et al) are correct, then the things they propose should solve the problem, but, looking at the sales of their books, and their readership, this is not the case. Someone who doesn't read poetry is someone who doesn't read poetry. It doesn't much matter the flavor.

MFA programs, I personally believe, might be one of the last places where poetry is actually alive and creating an audience. This might be a sad commentary on our culture, but certainly NOT a reason to knock MFA programs. And if one knocks MFA programs on ideological grounds (the "they're all so modern and 'post-avant'" argument), one should do a better job actually looking at what is done there. Most of the MFA programs I've seen (going by raw numbers) are anything but "post-avant".

People love to throw stones at MFA programs because the real problems are large and cultural and conducted by flashing bright lights and the march of least resistance.

At 11/04/2011 7:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that Gioia and Epstein are dead wrong about the 1940’s-50’s as a ‘golden age’ of poetry; but they’re not alone; William Logan (and many others, including those who revile William Logan) believe High Modernism was a ‘golden age’ (1912—1930, roughly) and so forth. Now Archambeau mentions the Victorians, or the mid-1800s and he’s right: the 19th century is a much better candidate for a ‘golden age’ of poetry than the 20th century. Thank you, Bob. A woman could make a living as a poet in the 19th century. The Victorians get a bad rap, but they didn’t give us WW I, II, Full-scale Genocide, etc. Tennyson may seem quaint next to Pound, but I’ll take the former, any day. But where I disagree with Bob is his (ironically) Modernist notion that poetry somehow must exist against the market, that non-market/non-status quo is the essence of literary expression. Not only can this not be proved, it’s the persistence in this very idea that makes poetry unpopular and useless to people at large in the first place. Shakespeare’s final couplet of Sonnet #21: “Let them say more that like of hearsay well:/I will not praise that purpose not to sell.” The following subjects will make poetry popular again: Love, procreation, cinematic liveliness, romance, immortality, goodness, beauty, truth, buying and selling, rhythm, rhyme, fine excess, graceful forms, unity of expression, coherent content. All of these pretty much disappeared with Modernism’s ‘revolution,’ the ‘golden age’ that never was. The ineffectiveness of the MFA to make poetry broadly popular is easy to understand: the MFA student is not a traditional student; they do not study Shakespeare (or history, or philosophy) but feverishly anti-populist Modernist tendencies.

Thomas Brady, Scarriet

At 11/04/2011 8:08 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hi Tom,

I disagree with you on a few points. My biggest divergence with you is when you talk about content itself as a defining factor in popularity. You probably mean style, rather than the content itself, as a factor? I mean, Garrison Keillor (and others) have anthologies chock full of these themes, and they are not best sellers. They sell better than other anthologies, but they’re still not making it to the prime time talk shows. The great themes you mention are just as present in the poetry you dismiss as it is in other poetry. (The examples are many, but I’ll just mention Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy, as an overt example, where the content is proclaimed outright.) And on the flip side, if your position were to be accurate, then your own poetry, and other contemporary poetry you admire, I would expect, would be popular, and, by and large, it is no more popular than other poetry.

The second big disagreement I have with you here is when you say that MFA students do not study Shakespeare or history or philosophy. In my graduate study, I had to take two courses in Shakespeare, one in Chaucer, on in the Victorian period, one from the Romantic period, and one on Ben Johnson and his circle. Also, to get to graduate school, I had to have an undergraduate degree. Mine was in broadcast journalism. In my curriculum, I had to take several history courses, as well as biology, philosophy, and psychology. I expect it is little different for other people with graduate degrees in creative writing.

At 11/04/2011 9:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


The audience for poetry has been chased away and it will take time to get it back. There's a whole web of issues relating to poetry's lack of popularity. I'm caught in this web like everyone else. My speculations obviously will not translate into instant acclaim if I just write a certain poem, but that fact doesn't make my speculaitons invalid.

I've read Bang's "Elegy" and Keillor's anthologies. Bang doesn't write the great poetry I'm talking about. I never said it was easy! Great poetry is going to be rare! But cultivating badness is definitely a problem. I realize this is a huge subject not easily conveyed. Keillor's tastes are a little hammy, but he sells better than most.

Better criticism is needed, too. It's going to take more than random books of 'good poems.'

Shakespeare's Sonnets are probably famous because of Shakespeare's plays, and many misread the Sonnets, so I understand how it works: the goal isn't just empty-headed popularity, I get it. But that doesn't mean we should give up on the ideal, or falsely posit that popularity must be bad.

Really? Two course just on Shakespeare? You didn't get a normal MFA in your graduate study, then, did you? That's doesn't sound like Creative Writing to me.


At 11/04/2011 9:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nick Flynn on poetry from an interview: "It's a limited readership. But people are interested. It seems there is definitely a need for it and people are interested. It's outside the economy. And that's what makes it powerful. Someone said every piece of paper has an indeterminate value. You can print money on it, a deed on it, a will on it. But as soon as you put a poem on it, it's worth less than what it was before. I think that's its strength. Poetry has to exist in order to push the language and push the psychic culture in places that it doesn't want to go. Or it doesn't know it could go. That's its role. It isn't a mass medium."

Of course, capitalism doesn't care about aesthetic or political value, it's powered by commodification of goods and services--money and profitability--based on a workable system of market supply and demand, fueled by marketing. But, nothing really exists "outside the economy"--even if something is given for "free"-- everything has to be funded somehow from somewhere. What doesn't fit into this economy is ratted out and exterminated, OR is relegated to a fetishized market like poetry is in MFA programs. There poetry and poetry careers are commodified by intellectuals and administrators on aesthetic, political and market-based grounds. Hell, at least it's got that. Maybe it's a survival instinct and necessary for development. It's a question of where and how it's commodified--in academia or the "masses." That's no more poetry's downfall than Berklee School of Music is the downfall of jazz, a marginal genre of popular music at best. These things can exist within the cottage industry of academics and also simultaneously in the independent DIY world.

Maybe there's power in poetry's unpopularity and "resistance" to the whims of the market. But it also breeds elitism which leads to alienation which can lead to a breakdown in communication. Sure, most are alienated by poetry because it simply can't compete as a commodity with other popular mediums (film, video, music, etc.) and most could give a crap about the fine points of poetics (perhaps weird and boring for many); there's little understanding or appreciation thus no demand. Is the answer to go populist and more common denominator, ignoring the fact that this sacrifices aesthetic considerations?

Maybe this relates to the argument of the free market as the best egalitarian vehicle (though I think that's dubious at best), as poetry may be on high aesthetically in the classroom, it lacks immediate mass cultural and political significance.

Be happy there's at least little colonies of beekeepers making honey for themselves.

--Chris D.

At 11/04/2011 10:14 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I’m fine with whatever plans and strategies people have to “save” poetry. More power to them. And I hope it works. I’m pleased to see the PBS News Hour devote time to poetry, for instance. Jeffrey Brown really cares, and I admire and support that. He has very “accessible” poets on there, reading very content-available work.

What I don’t support is people throwing rocks at stuff I like. I see no reason for that. This isn’t Highlander. There doesn’t have to be just one. And there isn’t.

Gioia’s essay and book came out, what twenty years ago now? See that’s the thing. There are people out there doing what he prescribes. Have been for a long time, and it doesn’t do much that I can see to popularize poetry.

I think the decline of a poetry readership is larger than aesthetics. It’s both access (not, accessibility, access, as in where and how poetry is made available to people), early education in the primary grades, and the fact that all poetry is difficult poetry. That idea that only “experimental” poetry is difficult is fallacious. Shakespeare, Donne, whatever one might hold up as the best poetry, is difficult. And it’s growing more difficult as people go further and further away from language in the way that poets use language, both as that which refers and as that which calls attention to itself (though rhyme, disjunction, et al).

But I’m with Chris. Although these times are terrible for a general readership of poetry, there are several poets who mean the world to me, and I’m deeply moved by them. I will continue to do what little I can to continue to talk about those poets as genuinely and honestly as I feel about them. Maybe that will do nothing for the general population, but that’s OK. It means the world to me.

As for the Shakespeare (and the rest of the canon), I stayed in grad school awhile, in two different studio/academic programs housed in English departments. The lit faculty made sure we took a number of their courses (in both programs). There are strictly studio programs out there, but I think they are in the minority. Most people who go to graduate creative writing programs, I feel comfortable generalizing, get quite a bit of lit history.

At 11/04/2011 10:19 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

The reason why this is my second least favorite conversation about poetry is because of how easily and often it gets leveraged to have my absolute least favorite conversation: X type of poetry is bad and this type is better. Alas, that seems to be where we are at now.

You can't prove any of this. You can't definitively say this poem/poet is better/worse than any other. We can talk about successes and failures, but that is only useful when giving book recommendations or writing book reviews.

What these petty poetry wars reveal is the need to denigrate others based on aesthetics. It happens on every side, and this type of conversation will only keep it going. I have some questions: is it useful? Does it make your poetry better? Does it make more people read books of poetry?


If you have a prescription for what will make poetry "good" again (as if it ever stops being so), why not write those poems? It seems like an incredible waste of energy to sit around yammering on about what's wrong with poetry today, especially when your argument is a thinly veiled justification for why your books aren't selling (it's those guys over there giving poetry a bad name, that's why no one wants my book).

The reason poetry does not occupy a popular position in the world is cultural. The problems are too numerous to list or explain in a single comment, but they have everything to do with literacy levels, the value of critical thinking, and competing forms of entertainment.

At 11/04/2011 10:19 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

The word verification for my last post? Chess.

At 11/04/2011 10:24 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I agree with you right down the line, as our nearly mirror image comment will attest. There can be a conversation about poetry in general, poetry culturally, that can be had profitably in regards to these issues, but as you say—and as I agree—the reasons poetry is marginalized lie outside poetry.

This, from David Orr's Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry, kind of sums it up for me:

“What poets have faced for almost half a century, though, is a chasm between their art and the broader culture that’s nearly as profound as the divide between land and sea, or sea and air. This is what Randall Jarrell had in mind when he said that ‘if we were in the habit of reading poets their obscurity would not matter; and, once we are out of the habit, their clarity does not help.’”

At 11/04/2011 12:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Just a few scattered remarks in way of response:

That sounds like a terrific program you were in. Even Harvard students don't take two Shakespeare courses. I would guess, however, that 'low-residency' creative writing-only type programs are on the rise, not programs like the one you were in. The 'Creative Writing' model is replacing 'Study of the Classics' model everywhere, is it not? Isn't flattery the new tool of literature? Don't go to school to study the greats; go to school to study yourself. I know Socrates said "Know thyself," but he didn't mean 'know thyself' only through one's own poems. I don't think one can write great poems unless one is a first-rate philosopher. And I don't mean a credentialed philosopher. A philosopher.

Gioia suggested poets read other poets at their readings, as Dylan Thomas used to do when he'd read Yeats, Auden, and only a few poems of his own. Are poets doing that? Is there a Dylan Thomas out there, or are poets still just mumbling their own poems at readings?

As for Chris's remarks, I'm not surprised, somehow, that this discussion will keep moving away from criteria of what poems actually are (such as I listed) and towards this notion that poetry is meant to be heroically 'outside of the economy.' Poetry as the enemy of capitalism. I get the 'sour grapes' appeal of this, but following this logic, as a poet you also have to see the painter as your enemy, too, since art is more of a commodity, since it's not reproducible the way poetry is, etc. Soon you'll be the lonely poet, enemy to all.


At 11/04/2011 12:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

" I don't think one can write great poems unless one is a first-rate philosopher."

OK, I'll bite. Can you name even one poet who's a first-rate philosopher? Or I should say, who the philosophers would consider a first rate philosopher? Or vice-versa?

I'm not disagreeing with your broader point that good writers should be well educated. But my most un-scientific sampling suggests this is not a major problem facing poetry. The half-dozen or so poetry MFAs I know went to programs that were mostly studio-oriented, but they are nevertheless wickedly well educated, well-read, worldy folks. Maybe this had something to do with them getting into the programs in the first place … I don't know.


At 11/04/2011 4:03 PM, Blogger adams24 said...

Poet:Philosopher: maybe G Stein; maybe H Mullen; maybe Melvin Tolson. But yah likely not either of that dynamite triage!

Oh maybe E. D.!

At 11/04/2011 4:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gertrude Stein...only if you think William James was a first-rate philosopher; Stein was James' student at Harvard. James was more a psychologist---brought it into academia, in fact.

I should define first-rate philosopher: having a fully-developed, coherent world view, in which that world view guides particular aesthetic decisions for the better.

I can easily list poets who were first-rate philosophers: Homer, Plato, Petrach, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Blake, Shelley, Keats, Byron, Poe, Whitman, Dickinson, Stevens, T.S. Eliot, Auden, Larkin. Billy Collins is a wit; I don't know that he's a philosopher.

A philosopher does not a poet make, but a great poet must have philosophical rigor---what the philosophy is does not matter, it just has to be broad, coherent and rigorous. Some think they are being philosophical when they are only being political or psychological, or worse, fashionably manifesto-ist.

You might call this reading poetry vertically. The poem of the great poet hints at something larger towering above it, or, if you wish, great roots expanding beneath it.

Reading poetry horizontaly means one needs to read more in order to 'get' the poem. The worst sort of poem has horizontal qualities, because even the worst poem has further facts and reasons attached to it. This is why 'scholarship' can breed around bad poetry as well as the good.

Tom Brady

At 11/04/2011 5:34 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

"Can you name even one poet who's a first-rate philosopher? Or I should say, who the philosophers would consider a first rate philosopher?"

Lao tzu

At 11/04/2011 6:00 PM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

T.S. Eliot? Really? If we're talking about Eliot that produced Prufrock, maybe, but The Waste Land? That's in the running for the of the most hermetic poems in the English language. It is one of those poems that require what you've called horizontal reading, and it's the thing that he's most famous for.

At 11/04/2011 6:49 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

Poet-philosophers: Goethe and Friedrich Schiller. Novalis. Emerson and Thoreau. Matthew Arnold. Empson, I.A. Richards, Santayana. Rabindranath Tagore. And, of course, Howard the Duck.

"Do you know why the government makes us stand in lines? Because if we came at it all at once, we could take it."--Howard the Duck

At 11/04/2011 8:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tom: I agree with you on your list of what could make poetry more popular. I enjoy those characteristics you mentioned in poetry, but certainly not everyone would consider those, even if well done, necessarily representative of a raise in aesthetic quality. It could, however, very possibly boost sales and by extension expand that particular poetry's appeal. Popularity doesn't mean something is automatically illegitimate, but it doesn't mean its legitimate either, except within the market concept. Business and aesthetics--I don't mind keeping them different things.

So I was disagreeing with the comments by Nick Flynn that I quoted, as an example of a poet framing poetry's value by its position and posture as "a force outside itself." Really, I'm criticizing the "heteronomous" view, which personally doesn't resonate with me so much. We might disagree on some poetics, but I agree that the more interesting conversation is about criteria and what poetry actually is. But, John's original post seemed to me to also relate to the issue of poets lamenting poetry's declining popularity, plus perhaps how it is now more relegated to a fetishized market within academia, which seems to me to be more an issue of where poetry is and what poetry does--its degree of impact within culture at large. So, I don't think the quality of poetry itself derives anything special from representing, say, an anti-capitalist stance. of course, that alone doesn't make it good or better, and actually I don't really buy the idea that poetry or any other commodity can even truly exist "outside of the economy" in the first place.

Anyway, like jazz music, its quality isn't necessarily in its obscurity, but if it were to be more popular, it wouldn't necessarily be any better... and I'd have to wait in a longer line to get tickets to the show.

--Chris D.

At 11/04/2011 9:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would think that in order to be a first-rate philosopher you'd have to at least 1) write philosophy, and 2) futher the discipline in some significant way.

I don't think you'll see Whitman and Dickinson anthologized in any philosphy volumes. Ever. Stevens has been discussed by philosophers, but always went out of his way subvert any attemps to categorize him as a philosopher or theorist. if Billy Collins ever gets called a philosopher, I'm checking out of this planet.



At 11/04/2011 9:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that confluence of philosophical thinking and poetry is interesting. But also that it's optional. I believe a lot of good poetry and art in general comes from subversion of the kind of rationality and internal consistency that is the lifeblood of philosophy.


At 11/05/2011 4:14 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

Coherence, consistency, rationality--how western that sounds. How Greek. What about Nietzsche and Emerson? What about Zen? Whitman, listed here as a poet-philosopher, wasn't always coherent or consistent or logical.

But of course we must be coherent, consistent, and logical.

At 11/05/2011 6:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


T.S. Eliot in 'The Sacred Wood' certainly aspires to philosophical rigor. I agree with you 'The Waste Land' is a 'horizontal' work, though. Yes! Exactly! As a twenty-something grad student, post-grad student, with the whole world before him, Eliot was at the height of his powers. He declined as personal issues became overwhelming and he gradually went over to Pound's dark side. The young Eliot of 'Prufrock' and the early essays was in fact the poet of philosophical integrity. Eliot let himself slide into modernistic mysticism, however. Think of the clever way he defended 'free verse' by saying it didn't really exist. This was a sign the apple of Eliot's genius had a tendency to ripen too quickly and rot. Because free verse does exist (the philosopher can't run away from problems) and the rigor of philosophy fails one in saying free verse doesn't. Here is where Eliot went over to the 'freedom' of Emerson, and said goodbye to the rigor of Poe; Eliot finally 'went over' to Emerson and one can see this explicitly in Eliot's 1949 'From Poe to Valery' where Eliot excoriates EAP. It was probably winning the Nobel that gave Eliot the courage to take on Poe, a writer who had secretly fed Eliot's genius during the 'Sacred Wood' period.

A writer like Dickinson who 'wrote no philosophy' can still intimate a philosophical world in their work; it doesn't matter that the philosophy isn't written down, as long as it exists in the poet's mind. Of course it is better that it written down. But sometimes the poetry says it better. Plato was a poet, essentially, and Shakespeare's Sonnet sequence is a re-writing of The Phaedrus, essentially. It's not difficult to be a philosopher, but unfortunately the temptations not to be one are many.

Tom Brady

At 11/05/2011 10:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"T.S. Eliot in 'The Sacred Wood' certainly aspires to philosophical rigor."

Well, sure. So do I. But I don't know any philosophers who would call me a "first rate philosopher."

(I aspire to poetic rigor too. Heh.)


At 11/05/2011 10:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe we're getting caught up in the semantics here? By "first rate philosopher" I am applying standards like what we might assume from the phrase "first rate poet." Someone who has made a significant historical contribution. Maybe you just mean someone who thinks well?

I would still bet that counter-examples abound, but at least you could show a large population of philosopher-poets, if that's the criteria.


At 11/05/2011 10:34 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

A general conversation about the way poetry and philosophy work toward and away from each other is one thing, and a fine, categorical thing, but I think that this conversation as it is being pitched by Tom is not going to go anywhere, because he's using this as some sort of test to rank poets, and doing so is always going to be subjective. William Bronk? Michael Palmer? Jorie Graham? These poets all use overt philosophy and philosophty-making in their poetry, though I doubt Tom would agree. In the end, it's going to be back at taste and aesthetic affiliation.

Here's a blog that might be of interest on this:

At 11/05/2011 11:36 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

I aspire to rigor mortis—that is, I aspire to expire.

I aspire to say hello
to the rigor mortis of E.A. Poe,
and expediting the realization
of that Confessional aspiration
would no doubt prove
a sound career move…

Seriously, though, Eliot’s defense of vers libre shouldn’t be regarded as an insidious Modernist corrosion or erosion of tradition, since what we usually mean by free verse—replacing metrical rhythm with speech rhythm—harks back to ancient Hebrew poetry, the King James Bible, Milton, Blake, Goethe, Whitman, and Matthew Arnold. And I think Eliot was right that free verse doesn’t really exist, though I’m not expunging the term from my lexicon. There’s just a variety of prosodies, really; some entail counting syllables, some don’t. A Tzara-like cut-up has a prosody, just not a metrical one. Besides, whatever prosody you use, the result will probably be either iambic or roughly iambic—if you’re writing in English. It’ll either sound like shit, or it won’t. I mean, you either have an ear or you don’t. Writing in traditional prosodies can improve your ear, but a lot of other options are available to suit whatever subjects and effects you’re interested in.

At 11/05/2011 2:37 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

Paul said:

"Maybe we're getting caught up in the semantics here? By "first rate philosopher" I am applying standards like what we might assume from the phrase "first rate poet." Someone who has made a significant historical contribution."

“History is written by the victors.”

- Winston Churchill

At 11/05/2011 2:37 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

I like to think of poetry as though it was a visit to the Zoo. So many beautiful and unusual creatures. I enjoy them all. Is a tiger more beautiful than and elephant, a Boa constrictor than a Macaw, a giraffe than a Galapagos tortoise, a lion than an elk? I love to watch the monkeys and the meerkats, the seals and the zebras.

Every animal is as unique and special and beautiful in its own way as any other, even spiders and snails.

Such is poetry.

At 11/05/2011 5:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Milton, Goethe and Blake are famous for their 'free verse?'

'Speech rhythm' is a red herring. Metrical rhythm and speech rhythm co-exist in the development of language! (Why are ancient languages more spondaic?)

"replacing metrical rhythm with speech rhythm" is oxymoronic, since rhythm partakes of time, of measurement; hence any so-called 'speech rhythm' would naturally aim for exactly what 'metrical rhythm' or any kind of 'rhythm' would aim for: a musical effect based on measurement; and if it did not aim for a musical effect based on measurement, it would be something else, and not 'rhythm.'

'Free verse,' by definition, lacks a 'musical effect based on measurement.'

If you cannot hear the difference between blank verse and prose, but you insist the latter contains 'speech rhythm' and thus it doesn't matter that you can't hear the difference between blank verse and prose---because 'speech rhythm' makes the issue moot, well, we can only say that your ear needs to be more philosophical!


Jorie Graham is a philosopher, and I would say when her poetry is interesting, more than anything, this is why. But when her poetry is annoying, this is why, also.


At 11/05/2011 6:57 PM, Blogger David Grove said...


Yeah, Poetical Sketches, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and Samson Agonistes contain well-known examples of free verse. I can't read German (love Wagner,tho), but I've read that Goethe wrote some free verse. It influenced Arnold, who's of course famous for the free verse of "Dover Beach."

Free verse is often defined as poetry based on cadence instead of meter, and cadence can be defined as the rising and falling rhythm of speech--the regular recurrence of stressed and unstressed syllables in speech when such patterns as anaphora, parallel structure, and balance of contrasts are imposed on it. You know, you begin each line with "Tonight I want to," and that sets up a rhythm because the stressed and unstressed syllables fall in the same places over and over. That's all I meant by "speech rhythm."

Having scanned some Shakespeare, Milton, The Prelude, Frost, etc., I hope I can hear the difference between blank verse and prose. A lot of my own poetry approximates blank verse. Naturally I think the difference between prose and blank verse matters. No doubt my ear should be more philosophical, however. I'll cut it off and send it on a walk through the Lyceum.

At 11/05/2011 8:16 PM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

I think we're making pretty artificial distinctions between verse and prose. What we're really talking about is long lines versus short lines and whether or not we fear the right margin and cling to the left.

Metrical poetry does have a certain sound structure, but the best poems complicate or resist the natural cadence of those forms.

Or, to put it more eloquently:

“Verse is everywhere in language where there is rhythm, everywhere, except on posters and page four of the newspapers. In the genre which we call prose there is verse of every conceivable rhythm, some of it admirable. But in reality there is no prose, there is the alphabet, and then there are verse forms, more or less rigid, more or less diffuse. In every attempt at style there is versification.”


At 11/05/2011 9:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David & Fuzz,

Again, rhythm is rhythm, whether it is 'speech' or 'cadence' or 'forms rigid or diffuse' (Mallarme). All of these terms you are introducing are what I mean by a metrical understanding; the attempt to divide the issue between a 'narrow metrics' on one hand and a more 'diffuse' speech/prose/cadenced rhythm on the other hand is a false one; 'rhythm' is just that---'rhythm,' and metrics covers every 'rhythm' imaginable, and if it isn't rhythmical, it isn't metrical. As far as rhythm goes, meter is a wider category than speech or prose; speech or prose that happens to be rhythmical is, for that very reason, metrical. The notion that an Alexander Pope is less aware of diffuse rhythms because he writes verse than your average writer of prose is, is pure folly, but this is exactly where your arguments lead. You are trying to create two categories where there is only one: rhythm. And oh, by the way, did you catch the exquisite cadence of what I just wrote?

And isn't Marriage of Heaven and Hell a series of aphorisms? Aphorisms, when they are strong, tend to be metrical fragments. Just as splotches of color can suggest a painting, a metrical fragment can surely suggest a verse-poem, and there is pleasure in that. But because an object can exist in a fragment does not mean further and further fragmentation of that object can be said to define that object. In that case, you do an injustice to both the fragment and the object.

Tom B.

At 11/06/2011 4:12 AM, Blogger David Grove said...


If I understand you, you're saying the distinction between verse based on meter and verse based on cadence is illusory because both kinds are rhythmical, and meter covers every kind of rhythm. Okay. But what about units and counting? In metrical verse the unit is the foot, and lines are determined by counting the number of feet--or syllables--per line. You need the same, or nearly the same, number of those in every line. In cadence-based verse, on the other hand, the unit may be a line or paragraph or strophe, rhythmic but often highly variable in its number of syllables and stresses. Therefore, the rhythms of metered verse are said to be stricter than those of free verse. The difference between the two kinds of verse is the level of strictness. But again, I don't think there really is free verse. If it's verse, it has a prosody, metrical or un-; if it has a prosody, it's governed by rules; if it's governed by rules, it ain't free. There's only good verse, bad verse, and chaos. (Sorry if I misquoted Eliot a little.)

At 11/06/2011 4:20 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

And yeah, The Broom-Jumping of Paradise and Perdition has aphorisms, but it also has this:

Rintrah roars & shakes his fires in the burden'd air;
Hungry clouds swag on the deep.

Once meek, and in a perilous path,
The just man kept his course along
The vale of death.
Roses are planted where thorns grow,
And on the barren heath
Sing the honey bees.

Then the perilous path was planted:
And a river and a spring
On every cliff and tomb:
And on the bleached bones
Red clay brought forth.

Till the villain left the paths of ease,
To walk in perilous paths, and drive
The just man into barren climes.

Now the sneaking serpent walks
In mild humility,
And the just man rages in the wilds
Where lions roam.

Rintrah roars & shakes his fires in the burden'd air;
Hungry clouds swag on the deep.

At 11/06/2011 2:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


The metrical is not stricter than the cadenced. Metrical rhythm is our friend; it is not a pair of handcuffs. Nor is the candenced rhythm that which slips it off our hands.

Again, you are trying to posit a freer rhythm; but for rhythm to exist, it can't be free---which is why Eliot says free verse does not exist.

The idea that a 'freer rhythm' exists outside of metrical verse is a complete red herring. Combinations of the metrical foot can aproximate any rhythm.

And the instant any sort of rhythm is detected, it is not free, and this is precisely the argument against your "two kinds of verse."

If we agree, with Eliot, that "chaos" is whatever lies outside any sort of rhythmical identity, then Eliot agrees with me, for that leaves "good and bad verse" which has rhythm, but which is not "bad" or "good" because it has more or less rhythm.
As I said before, rhythm is rhythm, and evolution does not mean less of it.

By the way, you don't have to have the same number of feet in lines of metrical verse, nor the same kinds of feet in lines of metrical verse. Who told you that? By the way, those lines of Blake scan pretty well.


At 11/06/2011 3:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In (most) music you've got an underlying pulse. Then you may also have lines layered on top, like a melody line, which, if repeated, typically has a longer and less regular cycle than the pulse, and which expresses rhythm both trhough patterns of sound and silence and through relative stresses.

I think the pulse is analogous to conventional ideas of meter; the rhythms implied by melody are more analogous to "speech rhythms."

Even poetry we call metrical has both kinds of rhythm. I think it's more a case-by-case question (sometimes a line-by-line question) of which type of rhythm gets more emphasis.

Can anyone name some contemporary poets who play with meter / rhythm in itneresting ways? Crystal Curry comes to my mind. There must be many others.


At 11/06/2011 5:23 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

Paul, James Merrill and Richard Wilbur are masters of meter, rhyme, and stanzaic structure. But maybe you knew that; maybe you wanted younger practitioners of that kind of poetry. If so, sorry; I don’t know much about up-&-coming formalists.

Uh, Brady, you’re putting handcuffs in my mouth. (Not surprisingly, since in one of your Scarriet posts you misrepresented me by claiming that I see narrative as a “restriction.” Like handcuffs?) I wrote nothing to suggest that I feel antipathy toward meter. You’re tilting at a windmill to defend the honor of your metrical Dulcinea. Writing in meter, like satisfying other formal requirements, suggests ideas you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. Meter doesn’t trammel; it inspires. I know that.

As for the Blake, iambs predominate, and the 4th stanza is pretty much iambic tetrameter with a couple anapests substituted. However, most free verse is predominately iambic or iambic-cum-anapestic (“A Noiseless, Patient Spider,” for example, would fit that description, I believe), and there’s no fixed number of iambs per line. If it continually approximated—without ever quite conforming to—an overall accentual-syllabic meter like iambic tetrameter, we’d be justified in calling this passage iambic tetrameter. However, the line lengths oscillate too much. Therefore, I’d call these lines a kind of free verse Eliot describes, the kind that at once suggests and skillfully evades a simple form.

At 11/06/2011 5:24 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 11/06/2011 6:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


There does not have to be a "fixed" number of feet per line in verse.

There's nothing magical about 'speech rhythm.'

Metrical rhythm is speech rhythm---it is a rhythm derived from speech.

I hear a lot of trochaic rhythm, as well as iambic and a little anapestic in the Blake. It's certainly not 'free,' but it's 'creative.'

RINtrah ROARS & SHAKES his FIRES in the BURden'd AIR;

Once MEEK, and in a PERilous PATH,
ROSes are PLANTed where THORNS GROW,
And ON the BARren HEATH

THEN the PERilous PATH was PLANted:
And a RIVer and a SPRING
On EVery CLIFF and TOMB:
Red CLAY brought FORTH.

TILL the VILlain LEFT the PATHS of EASE,
To WALK in PERilous PATHS, and DRIVE

In MILD humILity,
And the JUST MAN RAGes in the WILDS
Where LIons ROAM.

RINtrah ROARS & SHAKES his FIRES in the BURden'd AIR;


At 11/06/2011 7:41 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

There you go stuffing me with words again, Brady! What am I, a knockwurst skin? I never said verse has to have a fixed number of feet per line and only one kind of foot in the line. The Blake piece is verse, and the number of feet per line varies, and as you say, there are anapests and trochees in there as well as iambs. What I said—well, what I should have said, if I didn’t quite—is that in order for a poem to have a normative meter, a certain foot and a certain number of those feet per line must predominate. Your normative meter can be anapestic tetrameter—e.g., “The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold”—but you can, like, invert an anapest to make a dactyl, or depart from the norm in other ways to evade monotony. I don't see a normative meter in this piece.

Speech rhythm, however, is definitely magical. I wear it around my neck like tannis root.

I think my scansion was identical to yours, so at least we agree on that.

“Mr. Brady, you WERE the caretaker here.”

At 11/07/2011 7:09 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...


I'm not sure how you read Mallarme's quote and arrived that he's making any false distinctions. His position is pretty clear that speech rhythms exist everywhere, that any division between verse and prose is artificial.

At 11/07/2011 10:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry if I misquoted you, Grove. Certainly verse can have all sorts of line lengths in one poem and not be 'free verse.' I'm glad we agree on the Blake.

It looks I still need to convert Fuzz, however, so you'll pardon me while I turn my attention to him.


Metrical rhythm and speech rhythm are both identical because they are both 'speech-making rhythm.'

Mallarme wouldn't get it, anyway, though, because the French say SY-LA-BI-FI-CA-TION, not Sy-la-bi-fi-CA-tion. The French are at a severe disadvantage in the meter department. I wouldn't pay much attention to Mallarme, the eunuch in the bath house. A series of spondees has a 'rhythm,' if you like, but it's not a very interesting rhythm. The whole issue is 90% mathematics, but this is not necessarily a bad thing.


At 11/07/2011 11:27 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...


How are they at a disadvantage? The Alexandrine is their version of iambic pentameter and they have many times more rhyming words than English.

No conversion will be taking place so long as this conversation is nothing more than an excuse to shit on poets you don't like and promote those yo do.

At 11/07/2011 11:36 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

In other news, "the eunuch in the bath house" scans very well. "Bath" "house". What a nice double stress. Or triple, if you think of image. Or quadruple, if you allow for the implied narrative.

What were we talking about again?

So the meaning escapes.

The first white wall of the village . . .
The fruit-trees . . .

At 11/07/2011 12:56 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

The eunuch in the bath house, a solitary mister propped between trees and water. My maternal great grandmother's maiden name was Bakkus, probably a corruption of Backhaus, which is Anglo-Saxon for bake house. Some gingerbread would go not ill with this tea. If my great grandmother had drunk a lot of pennyroyal tea, my grandmother wouldn't have born, and I wouldn't be here. I'd be on a faraway island, fighting Gilligan and the professor for Ginger and Marianne. So long, Marianne, it's time that we began to laugh and cry and laugh and cry about it all again.


At 11/07/2011 3:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now David, you know what happened the last time you posted "Huh?" Be careful, please.

At 11/07/2011 3:24 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

Wha? Me don' hee-er so goot.

At 11/07/2011 4:21 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Now David, you know what happened the last time we brought Leonard Cohen into it.

At 11/07/2011 4:36 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

This party's too genteel. Guess I'll go home with my heart-on.

At 11/07/2011 4:39 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

It'll only drive you insane. You can't shake it or break it with your Motown. And you can't melt it down in the rain.

At 11/07/2011 4:50 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

It'll only drive you bonkers. You can't lop it or chop it with your psychobilly. And you can't overnight it to Yonkers.

At 11/07/2011 4:58 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

But that don't make it junk.

At 11/08/2011 7:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


The Alexandrine is measured by syllables, not stresses, or feet.

Rhyme is not necessary for rhythm; rhymes merely help establish rhythms, but rhymes are not necessary for rhythms in stressed language---see Milton.

Yes, French has more rhymes, and good for them, too, since 'syllable-counting' is not nearly as efficient a rhythmic method as 'stress-counting,' for obvious reasons---therefore the importance of rhymes to mark French alexandrines.


At 11/08/2011 8:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"What were we talking about, again?"


Where's Archambeau? He doesn't seem interested in discussing the response to his article here. I think he would help steer the discussion back to where we were: poetry's loss of popularity, the reasons, and whether it's good or bad.

Appreciation of verse, and understanding the differences between verse and prose surely has something to do with the matter at hand.

The red herring of 'speech rhythm' (as if it's something different from 'metrical rhythm') is a key point, I think.

A new point I just might make here: it's undeniable that expressiveness in speech is a wide field and goes way beyond the issues of verse, but the problem is how do we mark this expressiveness on the page?

And who owns this expressiveness? Music? etc If poetry can't own certain types of expressivenes which other modes can, and if 'verse' is what 'poetry' does best, well that's another consideration in poetry's popularity, or lack of it.


At 11/08/2011 8:16 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I’m not joining this conversation, not because it’s an unworthy conversation to have, but because I really don’t have much to add to the math. I’m fine with saying “metrical rhythm” or “speech rhythm”. They lead different places, but both places are interesting places to go to.

Just a post or three ago, there was a big pointy argument with Kent Johnson where he was saying there’s too much talk of form and not enough about content, and that’s the big problem of our time.

Of course, it doesn’t need to be either a form or content conversation. We can talk about both, and their attendants. And we can also talk about other things. Good sentences, perhaps. Or the decline of the dramatic monologue (or the blurring of the dramatic monologue with the “poetic I”), or whatever.

But I had this funny image of you and Kent Johnson in a room talking about poetry. Which of you could dislike the present more thoroughly? But of course, we all dislike it, I suppose. And we’re called upon to make the art we feel needs to be made in the face of it.

At 11/08/2011 8:41 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

"But of course, we all dislike it, I suppose. And we’re called upon to make the art we feel needs to be made in the face of it."


At 11/08/2011 10:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Too much math. I hear you. That's why in my previous comment I asked where Archambeau was, and made an attempt to sum up the matter and open another door. I guess I failed.

As for "hating the present," what is the present? Oh, there it is, oh no, it's gone.

Actually, saying 'speech rhythm' and 'metrical rhythm' are the same brings the past and the present together, doesn't it? Perhaps I feel 'the present' (since we can't put our finger on it) cannot stand alone?

As for Kent, yea, some people feel the need to fit into a conversation and others want to be the conversation. Either type is fine by me. Both have advantages.

You and I are in the middle of that spectrum, I think. It's the secret to having a successful blog. ;)

I appreciate your patience with me, and thanks for having me here.


At 11/08/2011 10:07 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

It's worth mentioning that the French have a lot of options for rhyming also because they accept as rhymes what we call identicals. (Probably because of those two glasses of wine they drink every day.)Rimbaud, for example, can rhyme "mystique" with "antique," but if I rhyme "Lear" with "bandolier," that's no good--unless it's light verse. If I found a plausible connection between those two words, you might find that amusing; but technically I've made an identical not a rhyme.

At 11/10/2011 7:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


What rhymes with identical?


At 11/10/2011 10:16 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

My pentacle
is identical
to the tentacle
I meant to cull.

At 11/10/2011 11:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's another new movement: CthulhuPo!

Someone notify the press?


At 11/10/2011 11:42 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

And here's where the manifesto will come from:

At 11/11/2011 5:37 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

Here's a fun watch on youtube: this geeky British girl nails a string of questions about Lovecraft on a British quiz show, and then she talks a little about her twisted goth tastes.


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