The Problem with American Poetry
There are two declarations you're likely to hear in an assessment of the state of American poetry. One proclaims its vibrancy, the other its unpopularity. One says there is more poetry being written and published today than at any other time in history; the other that poetry doesn't sell. Unfortunately, I don't think either is useful in assessing the state of American poetry, not because they appear mutually exclusive -- they aren't -- but because, after a little examination, neither one says anything important about the state of American poetry.
I have no doubt that there is more poetry being published today than ever before, but I don't think that actually says anything about poetry. There's just more writing in general being published than every before. Through traditional publishing trying to increase sales by producing more titles, to self-published authors getting their books ISBNed, printed, shipped and sold by on-demand presses, to literary magazines both online and physical, to chapbooks printed at home, the written word is being made public faster than the public can actually read it. Furthermore, with texting, tweeting, blogging, and posting on social networking sites our society is drowning in the written word. The costs (in terms of money, time, and energy) of making the written word public, whether physically, digitally, or both, are now so low that anybody with any inclination to publish anything can. It is now easier than ever to publish a poem. Should we be surprised more poetry is being published?
It's also true that poetry doesn't sell. The poetry section, even at an independent bookstore in a poetry-appreciating community, will be dwarfed by most other sections, and even more so if you only consider books by living poets. People don't buy poetry the way they buy fiction, or history, or psychology, or cookbooks, or Sudoku. But sales don't necessarily say anything about the quality of what is written or the impact that work has on society. Millions of people bought The Da Vinci Code, but how many of them were changed by it? How many had a new perspective on the human endeavor? What has The Da Vinci Code done but make Dan Brown rich? I've heard it said that the lack of sales protects poetry as an art form, insulating it from the crass commercialism skewing the production of more remunerative genres, but that's not the point I'm making for two reasons: poetry for sale is subject to the same crass commercialism as everything else just on a smaller scale, and sales say nothing about the impact of a work. The Da Vinci Code may have sold more copies than all the editions of Leaves of Grass combined, but its impact on our culture doesn't compare. Saying poetry doesn't sell only says poetry doesn't sell.
Unfortunately, without a meaningful, descriptive, empirical (or at least reasonably demonstrable) fact about poetry as an entity, I can only assess its state by assessing what is actually being written. This raises problems. Though there are currents that I think are generating terrible poetry (the transition from introspection to self-centeredness; the belief that a nature scene, any nature scene, is inherently evocative of the meaning and emotional impact of nature; the practice of popping atypical images here and there in poems to appropriate some scent of surrealism or avant garde experimentation; and the assumption that breaking a sentence into lines automatically imbues it, no matter how boring the sentence is, with poetic significance) and there are poets who, I believe, are writing great poetry (Paul Guest, Brian Turner, Karyna McGlynn, James Tate, Sherman Alexie, Kevin Young, G. C. Waldrep, and Anne Carson), I want to avoid muttering about what could be pet peeves (though I think I've got a legitimate critical case for every current noted -- though I would, wouldn't I) and fawning over my favorites (they're all awesome though), by thinking about our poetry in its historical context.
Poetry, more than any other genre, is written for the coming society. Blake and Baudelaire. Whitman and Dickinson. The Puritan poetry of Anne Bradstreet. The Cavalier sumptuousness of Robert Herrick. Those virgins making much of time. Those raisins in the sun. Whether creating a spiritual and emotional connection to the empirical world as the Romantics did, inventing a lexicon of racial social justice as Harlem Renaissance poets did, or attacking our sense of sense as the Dadas did, poetry has provided the literary base, either by destroying previous structures or creating new lexicons and mythologies, for the next society. And given how central to American identity the idea (or myth) of self-creation is, this role for poetry might be more important here than anywhere else.
The early (European) American poets very directly saw themselves as writing the godly nation that would be an example to the world. The Transcendentalists wrote the new American Individual; the intellectually, politically, and spiritually vibrant common man drawing his beliefs, not from the dusty books of past (i.e. European) experts, but from his own observation and contemplation of the world, while Dickinson was creating a poetic lexicon unfettered by the constraints of accepted grammar. The Beats tried to burn down our burgeoning neo-Victorian materialist society and replace it with one of hyper-Buddhism. Even the Slam poets saw themselves as razers of racist, sexist, corporate society and builders of a world whose economics drew from universal principles of justice. One could even argue the Confessional Poets were building a new introspective individual capable of deeply considering the phenomena of his or her existence. Whether or not the hoped for world came to pass, poets were always on the horizon.
As a reviewer for Bookslut for over five years, the magazine buyer for an independent bookstore with a sweet discount there (which means I read a lot of lit mags and get my books cheap), and, in general, a reader and writer of poetry (which means more lit mags, more cheap books, and conversations with the poets and poetry readers who come into the store) I've read a ton of contemporary poetry, and though there are poets writing emotionally compelling, philosophically sophisticated, and intellectually stimulating poems about this world, no one is writing about the next. This vital drive for the destruction of the old and the creation of the new is absent.
Maybe our poets are suffering an exhaustion similar to our political activists. (I was in New York City with thousands of other people protesting the coming war in Iraq, in conjunction with millions of other people around the world. The war happened anyway and I had to wonder “If this doesn't work, what does?” Still haven't figured it out.) Maybe so much has happened in American poetry, so quickly, that today's poets are still grappling with the achievements of yesterday's poets. (We've got a good handle on Whitman, but I don't know if anybody has really explored all the possibilities implied by Dickinson's grammar.) Or maybe we're just in a lull. Not every generation can, or has, produced the next society. Maybe, for whatever reason; our education structure, the economics of publishing, the prevalence of advertising, the dominance of entertainment, even our best poetic imaginations don't have what is needed to imagine and invent what's next.
One might argue that if it's a problem of imagination, it's a problem of imagination, and we'll just have to wait for the poet or poets with the resources (whatever those are) to make the leap, but I think there are problems with how contemporary American poetry operates contributing to this stagnation. Though there are factors beyond the control of poets, their publishers, and readers such as; how poetry is taught in school, the general denigration of intellectualism, and the commercialization of mass communication, I think there are three problems, with tangible solutions, that the poetry community can address that might encourage visionaries.
First, the ease of publication plus the general erosion of the private sphere of life has created a glut of published therapy poems, works that, though useful in processing the particular emotions of the poet, contribute nothing whatsoever to the general progress of the human endeavor. If you've just kind of wandered around the internet for poetry, you've probably read the kind of work that I'm talking about, and if you've ever attended an open mic poetry reading you've certainly heard the kind of work I'm talking about. My complaint is not that the poetry is being written (frankly, I think a lot of money could be saved if people used poetry instead of Prozac) but that it is being published when there is already so much published poetry and so few poetry readers. All poets should subject their work to some kind of critical editorial process before making their work public. This doesn't just mean submitting work to lit mags and publishers, but getting somebody else's critique first before publishing in any form; traditional publishing, personal blog, open mic reading, or whatever. There will still be bad poetry in public, but far less of it, and when the poetry gets there, readers can be sure that at least one other person, besides the poet, believes the work is worth our attention.
Second is the insularity of the poetry community. I don't mean any intentional gate-keeping (though it happens), but the natural self-perpetuating cycle of publication generated by a small range of tastes making all the decisions. A certain range of poetry is dominant and when people encounter poetry outside of school for the first time they're likely to encounter it within this range; if it connects with them, they get into poetry, start writing it, editing it, and publishing it, ensuring poetry from that certain range remains dominant; if it doesn't (and odds are it won't) they won't get into poetry and won't influence what poetry is published. This is not to say that poetry is the only genre subject to this cycle of taste (I'm looking at you, contemporary literary realist fiction), or that these cycles are impossible to break (Bukowski, for a recent example) but that they inhibit the necessary radical imagination for poets to make the new world. This cycle can be, at least partially, broken if the major poetry publishing literary magazines turned over the curating of their poetry section once a year to an avowed poetry hater. There are plenty of intellectual readers of literature who do not read poetry and I think it would, at the every least, be an interesting experiment to see what they would consider the best poetry being written. Is there a chance they'd hold their noses and choose the same kind of poetry as the poetry editors? Of course, but if that is the case at least we would have some kind of independent confirmation that this really is a limitation of quality and not taste (or courage).
Third, our writing world has developed a fetish for craft that places greater emphasis on the hallmarks of composition present in the poem, than on the actual ideas expressed by the poem. The result is lit mags and collections filled with well-composed and intelligently structured poems that don't say anything about anything. I am not arguing for a radical sublimation of poetic technique (the great poetic visions were communicated to us through equally great poetic composition), but that there is an assumption that great craft is the determining factor of greatness. So you get poets, in well-metered lines and precise diction, just kind of telling you how they feel. I blame this insistence on craft on the proliferation of writing programs, as craft is all they have to offer. (I'm willing to be convinced otherwise.) I would ask poets to initially eschew MFA programs. Get a job, read, and write for a few years first. This is not to say MFA programs are valueless, but that it is important to find a vision before one hones the craft of communicating it. I'm not outright condemning MFA programs, either. There are many good poets (including some of my favorites) coming out of them (though coincidence does not imply causation), but I don't believe the institutions of today are capable of producing the visionaries of tomorrow.
Some might consider it unfair to saddle poetry with an immense social responsibility and then critique it for not meeting that immense social responsibility but I believe there is a particular and a general justification for doing so.
In particular, the dominant technique in economic and political rhetoric is the creation of semiconscious emotional connections through the juxtaposition of images. The beer commercial that gets people to buy tasteless watery beer, or the McDonald's commercial that gets children to believe fast food is some kind of treat, succeeds not through the strength of its arguments, but by juxtaposing the brand with images of people enjoying themselves. Most people don't know what a 500 horsepower engine is useful for, but the car commercials convince them they want one by showing the car in evocative environments; driving on a beautiful winding road or hauling concrete at a construction site. More and more, political discourse has adopted this technique of creating belief without argument. For example, the Bush administration convinced many Americans that Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attacks, not by saying it was (that would have been a lie) but by constantly juxtaposing the two terms.
The grammar of poetry allows it to create emotional and intellectual effects through the juxtaposition of usually distant ideas and images. In poetry, anything can be next to anything else. Analyzing these juxtapositions contributes to the power of reading poetry and that analysis is composed of understanding why the terms are not normally together. The poet juxtaposes and the reader separates. By teaching us how to spot surprising juxtapositions, how to discover sublimated implications in the juxtapositions, and how to separate the images, poetry provides skills we need to figure out which politicians actually support our beliefs and what products actually meet our needs and wants. We all know that Bud Lite doesn't automatically make parties more fun, but we buy it anyway. Reading poetry, alone, won't conquer this anti-rhetorical technique, but it could help, and because it could help, I think poets have a responsibility to do whatever it takes to push poetry to the forefront of the American reading consciousness.
In general, poetry has the potential to change society. I refuse to ask any less of it.
I read a lot of poetry, but I don't read all of it. I have no doubt that somewhere, perhaps in public view (perhaps you've been shouting their names at the screen), perhaps unpublished, people are writing the poetry I'm asking for. Furthermore, I can accept that other people have other goals for poetry, and that someone else assessing the state of American poetry might come to a completely different conclusion. (For example, those asking poetry to focus on churning through the emotional interior of the poet will conclude we're living in a golden age.) Even with those qualifications, I'm still going to say that American poetry is stagnant. Our poets are not tearing down the fetters of our imaginations so we can dream and then create the next American society. Nor are they inventing the lexicon that will define how the next generation of Americans will think, believe, and feel. Is it unfair to call stagnant what has simply not generated another Whitman? In sport, invention, science, governance, yes. But poetry does something else, and that something else is vital.