In a tongue-in-cheek essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeffrey H. Gray takes aim at present-day poetry commentary, which, in his opinion, tends to inflate an author’s importance. Critics once rationed accolades carefully; as he observes, even well-regarded poets like William Cullen Bryant have been labeled irrelevant and forgettable.
Today’s poets could use some tough love, according to Gray. “[I]n spite of the vast numbers writing," he observes, "we have no minor poets. Everyone today, like those above-average children of Lake Wobegon, is brilliant and sui generis.”
What’s changed in poetry criticism? In part, Gray sees shifting priorities, a move away from the language of a poem. Instead, reviewers focus on the poets themselves, particularly the ways that their voice should be considered unique. And unique becomes equated with important. If “everyone yesterday seemed dispensable,” he writes, “today no one is.”
He also blames the hyperbole on an increased output of work and argues that poets are better supported than they have been historically, and that even subpar poets can find publishing opportunities, grants, and residencies to lengthen their resumés and bolster their reputations.
In short, Gray longs for a critical climate in which all “poetry that is not magnificent” and where “satisfactory” is “good enough.”