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Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Poetry Under Attack

Posted by Daniel Green on 04/27/05 at 12:02 AM

Contemporary poets have been taking quite a beating lately. First there’s Foetry.com, the self-appointed “American Poetry Watchdog” whose proprietor, Alan Cordle, has been “tracking the sycophants” and “naming names” in his ongoing battle against poetry contests he deems corrupt because many of them award their prizes to “inside” candidates, some of them former students of the contests’ judges. Among those on Foetry’s hit list are poets such as Jorie Graham, Charles Wright, and David Lehman, as well as contests such as the Iowa Poetry Prize and the Bakeless Prize. Cordle had announced that he was shutting down the website when he was outed as its mastermind, but he has now apparently decided to keep it going. (It turns out that his chief motivation was revenge on behalf of his wife: “I did this because I have been so saddened and angered over the years to see her enter these competitions, only to have prizes awarded to friends and students of judges.")

Graham has come under particularly withering criticism lately, and not just for her actions as a contest judge. In last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, David Orr questions her status as “Major Poet,” complaining of “fogginess” in her writing and concluding that perhaps Graham has been prematurely canonized: “So have we gotten a little ahead of ourselves in appointing our Major Poets? If we think such writers should embody their times, then maybe not: the haze at the center of Graham’s work neatly reflects the current confusion and fragmentation of American poetry. But if we think a Major Poet is meant to be more than this, then maybe we should be arguing over these matters more often—and more publicly. Because if the books the poetry world leaves in the laps of its slumbering audience are compromises rather than necessities, isn’t it likely that readers will wake only to rub their eyes, thumb a few pages, sigh and go right back to sleep again?”

Then there’s Camille Paglia’s new book, Break, Blow, Burn, an implicit attack on contemporary poets, who, according to Paglia, “ceased focusing long ago on production of the powerful, distinctive, self-contained poem. They have lost ambition and no longer believe they can or should speak for their era.” Even the most celebrated poets are producing work that is “laboured, affected and verbose, intended not to communicate with the general audience but to impress their fellow poets.” Paglia’s biggest problem with contemporary poetry seems to be that it is insufficiently emotive, not well enough attuned to the “sublime” and to the “interconnectedness of the universe.” “I value emotional expressiveness, musical phrasings, and choreographic assertion,” she writes, “the speaker’s theatrical self-positioning toward other persons or implacable external forces.”

In the 2005 StAnza lecture, given at Scotland’s Poetry Festival in March (thanks to Miriam Burstein for the link), Neil Astley blasts the British poetry establishment for its elitism and insularity. According to Astley:

. . .many of the facts touted by certain poetry critics are outright lies, and. . . many of their confidently asserted opinions are wilful misrepresentations. Their cynical language of spin and sophistry, of bile and guile, is symptomatic of a deeper problem. There is a huge gulf between the men who review contemporary poetry in the newspapers and cultural journals in Britain, and the majority of the people who actually read it; between the poetry insiders who do so much damage to poetry and the readers at grassroots level who are passionately interested in many kinds of poetry which too many of the critics aren’t capable of appreciating.

Like Paglia, Astley believes that contemporary poetry has lost touch with The People, most of whom don’t have any use for its highfalutin’ language and its postmodern tricks. His lecture is quite an astonishing outpouring of obviously accumulated bile.

David Yezzi’s “The Fortunes of Formalism“ is perhaps the most intelligent of these recent critiques. Yezzi doesn’t so much attack current poetry for what it does as wonder at what it no longer tries to do:

Surely, first-rate poems continue to be written today, in both meter and free verse. Still, in only a hundred years it would appear that both students of poetry and poets themselves are no longer masters of one of the essential elements of the art form [formal verse.] It’s as if our culture gave up study of the violin or artists no longer learned to draw (now too often the case). Recovery of these tools may take much longer than one might think. A poet cannot simply decide one day to write accomplished blank verse, for example, and expect that his unique stamp will appear on the form. The recent masters of blank verse and other traditional verse—Hecht, Wilbur, Edgar Bowers—spent a lifetime composing their signature music, finding within the language a rhythm distinctly their own, unmistakably, indelibly. If anything, poets and readers today have moved even further away from an appreciation of these gifts, and the tide shows no signs of reversing. For how many subsequent generations will the language of Shakespeare continue to be far too good?

I am myself a connoisseur of the experimental, in both poetry and fiction, and it seems to me that most of the criticisms I have cited fall into the general category of anti-aestheticism, a disdain for art and writing that is too “difficult,” too far removed from the concerns of ordinary people. But Yezzi’s essay is different. He doesn’t favor formal verse--rhyme and meter--because according to some schoolbook version of literary history it’s the way poetry is supposed to be. He seems to think there are still untapped aesthetic possibilties in such verse, that it is something all poets should know how to do even if they finally leave it behind. I don’t know if he is correct or not (and I must say I find the suggestion that poetic form of this kind is hard-wired into the human body and brain totally unpersuasive), but Yezzi does seem to be advocating formal verse as a possible addition to current practice in poetry, not as a substitute for a practice that is otherwise judged to be simply wrong-headed.

(And yes, the essay was published in The New Criterion, which has been known to print some pretty wrong-headed and overly politicized literary/cultural criticism of its own. I usually don’t read it. But even a periodical like TNC might sometimes (accidentally? ) succeed in printing something worth considering.)


I’m sympathetic in principle to the idea that old-fashioned techniques should be an addition to the modern toolkit.  But if the best one can do today in a “formal” vein is Hecht, Wilbur, or Bowers, I can’t see that it’s worth the effort.  No disparagement of their skill, labor, etc. is intended, but is there anyone out there who aspires to write like that?

(I’d never heard of Bowers, but this is terrible.)

By on 04/27/05 at 05:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

There was a stink about this kind of thing 10-15 years ago when Allen Ginsberg et al were accused of running an old-boy network where they funneled grants to their friends. Tom Clark may have been the accuser.

Ginsberg-type poets were plenty populist, though, in a hippyish sort of way. That wouldn’t make the New Criterion people happy, of course—aren’t we really looking at two different criticisms. One, the separation from common concerns, and two, the rejection of tradition as defined by conservatives?

By John Emerson on 04/27/05 at 07:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This actually goes to some of the objections to this site.  I don’t think it’s something radically new to say that, as poets from Pope to Bukowski have, “poetry” as a field is made up largely of also-rans and wannabes, many quite nasty, playing little games to further their own agendas.  To some extent, dropping by this site now and then, I get the impression that the soi disant poets here are numbered among also-rans and wannabes as well, asking such ponderous questions as what an MFA might tell a PhD in order to improve his or her poetry. 

Web sites directed at writers trying to get published are pretty much unanimou in saying writing contests are a waste of time—entry fees are better spent on beer.  (Unless, of course, you’ve got an in, as discussed above.) I’m not sure what else there is to say.  Writing contests are aften included with scam agents as things the aspiring writer needs to identify and avoid.  With all that good advice, the best thing to do is take it.

By John Bruce on 04/27/05 at 12:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I agree that most writing contests are, at the least, “dodgy.” Many are outright scams. My only real objection to Foetry is what I called in a post on my own blog its “scorched earth” tactics. A more intelligent discussion could be had about the wisdom (or not) of entering these contests.

By Daniel Green on 04/27/05 at 01:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A more intelligent discussion could be had about the wisdom (or not) of entering these contests

But I imagine if the discussion had been all civilized and no scorch it wouldn’t have made the NYT.

By Kieran on 04/27/05 at 09:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well the issue with the poetry contests, that foetry as far as I know doesn’t really address, (concentrating more on fraudulent judging etc) is that many of them are not ‘contests’ at all. They are fronts for vanity publishing outfits who tell everyone who submits that they are a ‘winner’ and then charge them for a hardbound poetry anthology in which their poems are included. I knew someone who had gone for this, I don’t know if this person even realised that it was a scam. I mean, if vanity publishing is all you’re after, that’s fine. But giving people the impression that this is real ‘publication’ or a stepping stone to a career in poetry is misleading at best.

By Katrina Gulliver on 04/28/05 at 06:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

No disparagement of their skill, labor, etc. is intended, but is there anyone out there who aspires to write like that?

Good god, I’d give my right arm to write like Hecht or Wilbur.  Have things really gotten to the point that people just casually assume everyone’s on board with “formalism sucks”?

By language hat on 04/28/05 at 11:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

For those of you who did not link through, the particular poem which Vance Maverick so flippantly dismisses as (needlessly formal and) terrible begins:

How shall a generation know its story
If it will know no other?


Somebody here is an ironic genius but perhaps it’s just the universe.

(Full disclosure: I don’t like the poem much either. But I too wish I could write like that. It’s the old joke: “I wish I had enough money to buy an elephant.” “What are you talking about? You live in an efficiency apartment!” “I didn’t say I wanted an elephant, just the money.")

By pierre on 04/28/05 at 12:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I didn’t take Daniel’s comment as “formalism sucks.” More like “formalism ain’t what it used to be.”

By on 04/28/05 at 02:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Anyone who thinks Hecht and Wilbur are somehow lightweights compared with the “real” poets of our time has no grasp of poetry, as far as I’m concerned.

By language hat on 04/28/05 at 03:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I assume the hat was referring to a nasty comment posted in response to Daniel’s post, not to Daniel’s post itself.

In any case, what’s at issue here is not, as far as I can tell, formalism, which I take to be the view that poetry ought to be written exclusively or primarily in (traditional) forms.

Rather, What Daniel is interested in, I take it, is whether knowledge (and teaching and writing and study) of the forms is very important, and why.  And one can certainly think that that is so while believing neither that poems in formal verse generally “suck” nor that poems not in formal verse generally “suck,” etc.

By Zehou on 04/28/05 at 03:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Just for the record: I do not think Hecht and Wilbur are lightweights.

By Daniel Green on 04/28/05 at 04:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

How about, Hecht & Wilbur suffer in comparison to early Auden & early Lowell?

By on 04/28/05 at 04:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In any retrospective of 20th Century poetry, Wilbur and Hecht will undoubtedly be considered minor poets next to the likes of Auden and Lowell.  But so what?  That doesn’t mean their poetry is unworthy of appreciaton or that one shouldn’t aspire to reach their formal skills.  Anyone aspiring to reach the level of Auden or Lowell is pretty much doomed.

By on 04/28/05 at 05:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Is “suffer” really the right word?  Also, what really is the purpose of the “comparison?”

By Zehou on 04/28/05 at 05:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I could care less who wins poetry contests or who gets published because of who they know.  These arguments have been going on forever.  Patrons, to paraphrase Johnson, not only support wretches with insolence, but also poets with money.  Boo hoo, I didn’t win the prize.  Does that mean the runner-ups and also-rans are in some way unpoetic?  Nonsense.  If you want to write poetry, do it.  If you want to be recognized by an infinitesmal corps of poetry judges, then start shmoozing.  But it won’t make you a better poet.
I agree with Yezzi’s argument in New Criterion (after reading it, a friend lamented to me, “Why is it only the conservative journals like NC that praise formal verse?") and I wish
more people wanted to read poets like Wilbur.  But I don’t worry about it.  I have a hard time believing my future grandchildren will even know what poetry is: Grandpa, is it something like song lyrics?  My question is, shouldn’t the phrase “formal poetry” be redundant?

By Edward Pettit on 04/28/05 at 06:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"My question is, shouldn’t the phrase “formal poetry” be redundant?”

No more redundant than any other members of a broad class of related descriptive terms ("tonal music,” “representational art,” etc.).  Nor is it any more puzzling, right?

By Zehou on 04/28/05 at 06:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"If you want to write poetry, do it.  If you want to be recognized by an infinitesmal corps of poetry judges, then start shmoozing.”

There is, of course, a third option:  submit your work to competitions with judges you admire, both for the quality of their work and the quality of their (fairly acquired) reputations. 

(E.g., if an editor (friend, acquaintance, or stranger) once went above and beyond the call of duty to give you honest, helpful feedback on a poem he or she rejected for publication, then when that person is selected to judge a major prize competition, that might be a competition worth submitting to.)

By Zehou on 04/28/05 at 07:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think the most serious criticism of poetry contests is not simply that they are riddled with cronyism or nepotism.  Rather, it is that these contests work as financial scams that trick 100s of people into paying entry fees each year that are actually used to subsidize publications by the dishonestly chosen winners.

By on 04/28/05 at 07:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I apologize for expressing myself sloppily.  Like Blah, I was trying to say that Wilbur and Hecht look minor next to masters of earlier generations, such as Auden.  (Still more so, of course, next to Dante etc.) And this despite their evident labor and talent in the difficult skill of formal verse.  So is it really plausible to demand that contemporary poets write formally, when the best result they can hope for is to be quietly belated?

It’s precisely because I love the poetry of earlier centuries that I’m generally disappointed by modern “formal” efforts (since Yeats or so).  Rather than Wilbur, I’d turn either back to the classics or to a more adventurous (if not necessarily more talented) modern such as Charles Olson.

(My art background, for what it’s worth, is in “contemporary classical” composition, which has struggled hard with the same problem.)

By Vance Maverick on 04/28/05 at 07:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Contemporary poets are selling record albums. Wilbur and Hecht are museum pieces. (Is it possible this old saint in the forest hasn’t yet heard that God is dead?) They are flint knappers in an age of bronze, whose produce, like the flint knife for scarification, hangs on only in extremely limited ritual contexts, powerful though those may be.

Contemporary poets may or may not be Dante’s equal, but there is little question that the electric guitar players of the Renaissance fell far short of today’s standard.

By pierre on 04/28/05 at 08:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Blame Eno.

By on 04/28/05 at 10:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

An intelligent attack on twentieth-plus century poetry might be mildly interesting in a Man Nibbles Dog way. But Yezzi just dishes lazy and mendacious rot in a more civilized tone than Paglia.

Yezzi writes: “It’s as if our culture gave up study of the violin or artists no longer learned to draw....” Now, what is the instrument of a poet? Language, I’d say. The Petrarchan sonnet isn’t an instrument. It’s a form. A composer doesn’t make violins. A composer makes music which may be played by a violinist. Unless your favorite contemporary composers produce rural blues and opera serie, music is in the same state as poetry.

And study is not creation. Note the characteristic lack of proper names in Yezzi’s attack. When Yezzi bothers to specify bad ol’ crazy anarchists, he has to admit that they were enthusiastic scholars. (He doesn’t mention how much alive Pound’s and Eliot’s verse seems next to the conservative poets of their times—another typical bit of intellectual dishonesty.) Close study of the poetic tradition continues to be a characteristic of most of the non-conservative poets I prefer. Stephen Ratcliffe, for example, the most melodious of Language Poets, wrote a rigorous book-length study of a single Thomas Campion song.

Are there barbarians who call themselves “poets” despite not having put much work into it? Sure. Just like always. And, just like always, some of the lazy bastards occasionally write something worth reading.

Allen Tate is quoted: “... was not Baudelaire a master of the classical French Alexandrine as well as other kinds of formal verse?” Yes: the French Alexandrine. Now, I’m not about to say that English is the “most X” in a thread featuring Mr. Language Hat, but it does seem to have awfully few rhymes and awfully varied stress and pitch to build a poetic tradition exclusively on rhymes and meter.

And of course it hasn’t.

(I wonder why it is that Mr. Tate didn’t cite Edgar Allan Poe instead of Baudelaire? Could it be that he finds Poe more, well, embarrassing?)

Yezzi (being, I assume, a rhymer) pretends to divide the poetic world between rhymed (or, at a stretch, unrhymed iambic pentameter) verse and formless verse. In fact, experimental verse is, pretty much by definition, a matter of form. From a purely aesthetic point of view, one should instead divide the world between formalists (whether they use historically familiar arrangements of meters and end rhymes or count syllables against a Fibonacci series) and those who define “poetry” by its subject matter (a melancholy reflection on one’s suburban garden; a declaration of war against enemies who will never hear you).

Such a division would make no sense, because the poetry world is divided by something other than formalism. Yezzi’s conservatism has nothing to do with “form”. It has to do with expressing personal discomfort in authoritative tones. Yezzi wants to play the Matthew Arnold role and ban the bad influences of Shakespeare and Keats. But Yezzi is relunctant to assume the burden of learning or teaching ancient Greek, and so he puts Shakespeare and Keats (neither very good formalists) in the emptied icon niches.

Finally, if Yezzi truly regrets the slighting of contemporary traditionally rhymed verse, wouldn’t it have been a good deed to devote some pages of The New Criterion to the career of Marilyn Hacker, who struggled through a decade of dismissal before her first collection was published, and who’s assembled quite a coterie of young and rigid rhymers? Or to highlight some members of that community, whose work is not at all hard to find?

Well, obviously, it’s not likely that The New Criterion would’ve gone along with that plan. Not enough people are interested in poetry. Whereas griping about the decline of culture—that is, talking about why we can’t be bothered to learn something—is news that stays news.

By Ray Davis on 04/30/05 at 10:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Zagajewski’s topology of a phantom city" (pdf, via thepage.name) touches upon formal apprehensions, “marked by a disproportion between the high style and the low, between powerful expressions of the inner life and the ceaseless chatter of self-satisfied craftsmen.”

By on 04/30/05 at 11:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I am remiss in not having linked Zagajewski’s “Against Poetry" (pdf).

By on 05/14/05 at 10:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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