Whither Poetry?

The Condition of Poetry is a perennial subject, and for good reason: there’s a lot to say. So, prompted by Barney McClelland’s trenchant essay on the woolly confusion of poetry with self-expression, I thought I would mention, and where possible link to, a few more jeremiads on the topic.

We could begin with Plato’s notorious dissing of poets in The Republic, or we could leap forward to the 16th century and compare Philip Stubbes’ Anatomy of Abuses with Philip Sidney’s derivative but eloquent Apology for Poetry. Or we could start with Peacock’s mocking Four Ages of Poetry and Shelley’s reply in the brilliant though far less amusing Defense of Poesy. Or we could start with Edmund Wilson’s ‘Is Verse a Dying Technique?’ of 1934, or Joseph Epstein’s ‘Who Killed Poetry?’ in Dissent in 1988. I would have liked to begin with Epstein, but alas it’s not online, so instead I’ll start with Dana Gioia’s 1992 ‘Can Poetry Matter?’, which is.

Gioia argues that poetry has become damagingly narrow and insular. Poets used to live and survive in a variety of settings and by a variety of means, everything from banking, insurance or medicine to odd jobs and poverty in bohemian enclaves. They were read by a broad educated public, and they wrote about a range of subjects and ideas. But with the rise of creative writing programs there also rose a dreary mutual backscratching arrangement whereby poets produce journals and fat anthologies of each other’s work. The operating principle is inclusion rather than judgment and the result is an ocean of mediocre poetry in which the good poetry gets lost.

In art, of course, everyone agrees that quality and not quantity matters…But bureaucracies, by their very nature, have difficulty measuring something as intangible as literary quality. When institutions evaluate creative artists for employment or promotion, they still must find some seemingly objective means to do so. Poets serious about making careers in institutions understand that the criteria for success are primarily quantitative.

Philip Lopate wrote a brief essay in the New York Times Book Review in 1996, in which he said that he found nine out of ten poems he read disappointing.

I open the pages of a literate weekly, stopping at a poem barely longer than the traditional sonnet. The poet ”botanizes” for about eight lines — that is, acts as though it were some kind of miracle his clematis is in full bloom — then he mentions a phone call from his former wife and the twinge of retrospective guilt or regret her voice gave him. I think: That’s it? If a prose writer tried to get away with so unformed a vignette or so few ideas in a paragraph, he would be in trouble. Perhaps the chiseled language makes the poem worthwhile, I tell myself; but the language seems, on closer inspection, more cautious than eloquent.

And finally, Thomas Disch wrote a witty essay for the Hudson Review, ‘The Castle of Indolence,’ examining the smugness and sense of entitlement that writing workshops tend to foster.

Being accredited poets, they know themselves to be above reproach: their hearts are pure, and they wear them on their sleeves. For if the workshops have taught them nothing else (which is usually the case), they do know that if they have written what they really, really feel, it’s poetry, and as such, beyond odious comparisons.

There is too much of it, it’s not good enough, many of its practitioners mistake it for therapy or primal scream. Other than that, poetry is in good shape.

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