The Promise of American Poetry

Poetry now is more reflective of the makeup, tensions, desires, and needs of a broader swath of Americans than ever before.

Photo by Adobe Stock/okalinichenko.

The future pulls us forward. Crawling becomes walking, becomes riding a bike, becomes flying to Paris, if you’re lucky. The desire for love, if you’re even luckier, becomes love. Broken hearted musings in a notebook can turn into a career in poetry, thank god. It’s snowing right now, which has me throwing my thoughts ahead to spring.

But we’re also buried alive with little losses along the way. The slowed step that becomes the bad hip and no more running. The word I can’t retrieve that turns into the sentence that refuses to form. Maybe the worst part of death is that I see it coming. To stay truly alive the whole time I’m alive gets harder as I go.

I write this because I’m dying as a poet. My books don’t sell as well or get reviewed as much as they used to. A lot of this drop-off likely has to do with age, as the fate of the majority of gray hairs, in whatever field, is to witness our obsolescence. Not always, of course, but older poets (and artists generally) tend to be washed away by aesthetic and thematic waves coming up behind us, changes we’re often unaware of or uninterested in, having moved on from that exciting but demanding phase when we eagerly cultivate a sense of the zeitgeist. Even if a poet’s work hasn’t settled into a rut, the present belongs far more to the young, who tend to see and push against their predecessors’ tendencies, their failures and tics, and actively pursue new styles, different content. The common progression for poets as we age—and this is for the very very lucky—is foreground, background, in the ground.

The good news for me is I’ve done well. I’ll forever count myself among the lucky dogs that anyone has ever wanted to read my poems, let alone to the degree they have. I see some other successful poets going through the same thing and hope they feel as grateful as I do for the ride they’ve had, a ride that’s not over, just evolving in ways it should have long ago.

Which is to say I’m a straight white guy and the face of poetry is finally changing. The hottest book of the past few years is by a black woman. The hottest book of the past year is by a black man, followed closely by a book of poems by a Latina. The hottest book of the moment is by a gay man born in Vietnam. From winners of major literary prizes in recent years to Amazon’s “Customers Who Bought This Book Also Bought” section, the books that come up least often are by straight white men of any age. The faces of poetry have changed.

9/26/2019 3:47:52 PM

A few years ago I was reading The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker. I was a big Baker fan back when he had put out “U and I” and “The Mezzanine." Anyway, I stumbled across this online interview with Baker over at the Poetry Foundation website. Here’s one of the questions and answers: "JN: Paul Chowder says there’s too much poetry being written. “NB: It’s a feeling of simple unmanageability. So many poems every year. And the fearful onslaught of this much production, combined with the knowledge that you can’t possibly know where to find the gems, can be overwhelming. Hidden away in these tens of thousands of poems—that form a cresting wave that’s eternally tumbling over you—are the ones that will be in the anthologies of the future. They’re there but . . . but where? You need some time off—you’re splashing around. You need to find a rock and sit still for a bit." This is, however, a wildly optimistic view of the current poetry scene. Perhaps closer to the truth is Brian Nolan’s heteronym, Myles of the Little Ponies. But if Nolan’s description is accurate, is his conclusion correct? "Having considered the matter in – of course – all its aspects, I have decided that there is no excuse for poetry. Poetry gives no adequate return in money, is expensive to print by reason of the waste of space occasioned by its form, and nearly always promulgates illusory concepts of life. But a better case for the banning of all poetry is the simple fact that most of it is bad. Nobody is going to manufacture a thousand tons of jam in the expectation that five tons may be eatable. Furthermore, poetry has the effect on the negligible handful who read it of stimulating them to write poetry themselves. One poem, if widely disseminated, will breed perhaps a thousand inferior copies." Well, if Brian Nolan is right, then poetry is an enormously wasteful enterprise, and should be consigned to those arts whose time has come and gone, and only seen, if at all, by the smallest coteries: the knapping of flint, for example. Alternatively, it may be that, unlike jam, all the bad poetry that is constantly being written is somehow necessary for the production of good poetry. It is true in certain other fields of endeavor that the labor is enormous, with the product that much more valuable and esteemed. For example, a gold mine would be considered major, quite rich in fact, if it produced 5 grams of gold per ton of rock. That’s five grams of gold for every 907,185 grams of non-gold, or a yield of approximately 0.00055%. If each gram of gold represents one good poem, then that good poem is the product of 39,437 bad poems. This might seem wildly pessimistic, but is it? If we were to analyze, say, all the poems in Poetry Magazine from 1918 through 1938, and honestly only count the truly verifiably good poems, would the ratio of 1:39,437 might be a harsh? Further, how wrong would our estimate be? Would it be wrong by significant margin of error? Any one of us might write a poem that can be read ninety years later and still be enjoyed without hedging, that is, without making allowances for changing tastes, outmoded techniques, and the unexamined prejudices and biases of times. But the truth is almost none of us will write such a poem. For most of us, all the poems we write during our entire lives—if extant at all—will be considered quaint, of the period, and ridiculous, nine decades later. Sadly, almost all the poems written today should be considered lucky to be objects of ridicule in 90 years, because almost all of the poems written today will be forgotten, as if they had never been existed, 90 years from today. Consequently, it is a great comfort to browse Volume XIII (1918) of Poetry Magazine. Here is a list of the names of poets published in this volume: 1. Richard Aldington 2. Mary Aldis 3. A. Alondra 4. Florence Ayscough 5. John Bakeless 6. Lysiane Bernhardt 7. Helen Louise Birch 8. Morris Bishop 9. Louise Morey Bowman 10. Baker Brownell 11. Howard Buck 12. Witter Bynner 13. Alice Corbin 14. C. Cunningham 15. Louise Driscoll 16. Isabel Howe Fiske 17. Hortense Flexner 18. Ruth Gaines 19. Louise Ayres Garnett 20. Richard Butler Glaenszer 21. Julia Wickham Greenwood 22. Allene Gregory 23. Marion Ethel Hamilton 24. Shirley Harvey 25. Cloyd Head 26. Helen Hoyt 27. Margaret Judson 28. D. H. Lawrence 29. Agnes Lee 30. Amy Lowell 31. Robert M. McAlmon 32. Max Michelson 33. Harriet Monroe 34. Antoinette De Coursey Patterson 35. Ezra Pound 36. John Cowper Powys 37. Arthur D. Rees 38. Lola Ridge 39. Eloise Robinson 40. Carl Sandburg 41. Lew R. Sarett 42. Marjorie Allen Seiffert 43. Frances Shaw 44. Charles L. Sherwood 45. Florence D. Snelling 46. Howard Crawford Stearns 47. Iris Tree 48. Anna Spencer Twitchell 49. B. K. Van Slyke 50. G. O. Warren 51. William Carlos Williams 52. William Butler Yeats Feel free to make your own list of (1) names you recognize, (2) poets of whom you have read one of their poems, (3) poets of whom you have read many of their poems, read them without condescension, and admired them, and (4) poets still considered by society at large to be still worth reading today, with many poems that could be considered in the public realm of art. The best news about this list is that if your name was Louise in 1918, you had a 1 in 13 chance of being published in Poetry. This would be your claim to immortality. Also reassuring, but ignoble, is that almost all the poets (90%) you envy (gnaw, gnaw, gnaw) for having been published in Poetry will be swept away in the same flood of time that carries you to oblivion. But this view, venal as it is, is itself wildly optimistic. If recent and expensive surveys (and is there anything better to spend money on than surveys? There is not.), then no one will be reading poetry ninety years hence, because no one will be reading anything. This puts your miserable little self-published chapbook on par with any of the books issued by major publishing houses, or well respected publishing house, or small presses, or nanopresses. All that is published melts into air! Conclusion: Let us rededicate ourselves to this pursuit, for we are brothers and sisters of the ephemeral.

8/11/2019 10:31:30 AM

Oh my. I'm guessing this writer would subscribe to the nostrum that he "opposes discrimination in all its forms," and yet didn't bat any eye when Attorney General Eric Holder championed state governments that checked the skin color of their citizens, and if that skin color was black, held those black-skinned citizens to a different standard, a lower standard, in state contracting, state hiring and state university admissions. That really is the most vile racism of our time. Sadly, he has a confused understanding of "equality." Equality in our nation refers to equal natural rights of life, liberty and property as included in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Interestingly, he refers to the Iliad in the heart of his essay. While I certainly detect what appears to be "self awareness" of the wider world on the part of this writer, I dare say that if he really gave a damn about his profession, he would have turned his considerable talents (and maybe he has in another essay) to our hideous Schools of Teacher Education, which are relentlessly focused on "process" rather than "knowledge content," including that of the great works of Homer. (See E. D. Hirsch Jr.'s book "The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them.") Namely, if we had Schools of Teacher Education that equipped teachers to focus on actual literacy, I dare say the appreciation of poetry would go up amongst the general public, not down. Instead, the writer, succumbing to the "tyranny of the moment," has engaged in mental self-flagellation exposing once again the insidious ignorance, racism and sexism of the progressive chattering class.

8/10/2019 5:57:12 PM

I, too, as a 'straight white guy,' have been coming to grips with the case Bob Hicok makes so well. In preparation for the Melville Bi-Centennial I've just been reading an essay on Moby Dick by D.H. Lawrence. Melville wrote his masterpiece in the run-up to the Civil War, but life aboard a whaler was another sort of society. The shrewd Mr. Lawrence makes these observations: "This Pequod, ship of the American soul. America! Then such a crew. Renegades, castaways, cannibals: Ishmael, Quakers. America! Three giant harpooners to spear the great white whale. 1. Queequeg, the South Sea Islander, all tattooed, big and powerful. 2. Tashtego, the Red Indian of the sea-coast, where the Indian meets the sea. 3. Daggoo, the huge black negro. There you have them, three savage races, under the American flag, the maniac captain, with their great keen harpoons, ready to spear the white whale. Many races, many peoples, many nations, under the Stars and Stripes. Beaten with many stripes." And, in brief, his conclusion: "Doom! Doom! Doom! Something seems to whisper it in the dark trees of America. Doom! Of what? We are doomed. And the doom is in America. The doom of our white day." The prescient Melville & Lawrence were ahead of the curve. What we see being played out in the world of poetry we may also see writ large in society as reactionary pushback from the white nationalist and--worse yet--the white supremacist movements, as they struggle to hold on to the mythical past. Now, as refugee migration ratchets up with the results of Climate Crisis, it's only bound to get worse. We'd all better buckle up. It's going to be a bumpy ride.

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