Complaint of present days
is not the certain path to future praise

by Jeremy Axelrod

Every age’s poetry is bad, but each age disappoints its critics in its own way. If you follow the literary blogosphere, you know that Mark Edmundsen just weighed in on this age with a tweedily earnest essay in Harper’s, called “Poetry Slam, or The Decline of American Verse.” Perhaps it struck close to home for the editors, whose publication was once charged with a similar decline: “Every year,” lamented Randall Jarrell in 1950, “Harper’s Magazine sounds more like Life and the Saturday Evening Post.”

That remark is from “The Obscurity of the Poet,” one of Jarrell’s most famous essays. For Jarrell, Harper’s was not the only canary fainting in the mine. He believed that “newspapers and magazines and books and motion pictures and radio stations and television stations have destroyed, in a great many people, the capacity for understanding real poetry, real art of any kind”—the average joe in 1950 “cannot read the Divine Comedy, even if it should ever occur to him to try.”

What Jarrell worried we can’t read, Edmundsen worries we won’t write. Poets who “now get the balance of public attention and esteem,” he argues, “are casting unambitious spells.” Their poems “don’t slake a reader’s thirst for meanings that pass beyond the experience of the individual poet and light up the world we hold in common.” In other words, he’s asking: Where are the Big Poems, the Dantean journeys through the cosmos? Or at least a reaction to 9/11 like Whitman’s to the death of Lincoln, in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” or Auden’s to the outbreak of World War II, in “September 1st, 1939”?

Edmundson’s are “well-worn grievances,” as Ron Charles noted in The Washington Post. In fact, it’s a well-worn tradition even to grieve about their weariness. Let’s start with a positive note, then: The genre of erudite discontent is thriving. In the April issue of The New Criterion, David Yezzi remarked that “Poetry has become so docile, so domesticated, it’s like a spayed housecat lolling in a warm patch of sun.” His essay quotes Joshua Mehigan’s piece “Make Make it New New” in Poetry from one month earlier, in which Mehigan catalogs “Bland Statements of Profundity,” “mock-profundity,” and “hollow cleverness,” among other recent failures by contemporary poets to be daring and “obscure.”

Edmundsen’s beef (laid out in smart, eloquent prose) is also with the bland style and humble parameters of our more “celebrated” poets, defined essentially as those who frequent the glamorous few square inches of column space in The New Yorker. “Where are people now who have such hunger?” Edmundsen asks, thinking of Dante. He’s also thinking of Lowell, who in the 1960s wrote as if he “was looking at the world from outer space, like a graying weary seer” (which puts me in mind of an aged Superman, listening for sirens from atop the ozone layer). It’s worth noting that Lowell was not really a distant observer, as he very much had his feet on the ground: he marched against the Vietnam War and made speeches in protest, having already spent months in prison as a concientious objector to World War II, and he later helped Eugene McCarthy’s campaign for Democratic nomination for the presidency. Plus, while his poetry was steeped in history, Lowell rarely made current affairs his explicit subject. More commonly, a reader watches the spokes of New England spin around Lowell’s personal anguish.

J. K. Trotter, in The Atlantic, rightly points out that a critic’s radius of complaint ought to span wider than the orthodoxies of money-grubbing MFA programs or the particular style and tone favored by one magazine. To be fair, it’s understandable that Edmundsen would check  those venues for symptoms of the popular attitude toward poetry. Poets published by the big houses and, even more so, printed in The New YorkerThe New York Times Book ReviewThe New York Review of Books, and other high-circulation venues are the face of contemporary poetry for most of the reading public—with a little room left over for our generally shabby inaugural poets and the occasional guest on “The Colbert Report.” Nonetheless, it’s important to remember how many poets are writing out there, either in total obscurity or simply in a smaller community of admirers, small literary journals, or first-rate small presses. An easy example is Kay Ryan, who taught at a small community college in Kentfield, California, for decades and then gradually emerged from a pile of rejection slips to great acclaim (not to mention publication in The New Yorker).

In Slate, Katy Waldman addressed Edmundsen with oddly exultant outrage (“you big-time poetry troll”). While he wants “transcendent themes,” she argues, he fails to see the equally transcendent power of personal experiences and tangible subjects. For example, Edmundson fails to see how Robert Hass’s phrase “blackberry, blackberry, blackberry,” “at once parses the specific objects and adds them together, one, two, three, so that they form a bright totality, united by blackberry-ness.”

Bright juicy totalities aside, I’m interested in how Waldman evinces the very sensibility Edmundsen rails against: “God is dead, anyway,” Waldman says, “or at least unshakeable truths are. A declamatory poetry may have worked well in Milton’s time, on the comet-tail of the Enlightenment, but these days ambition has to manifest itself differently.” This is poorly formulated, since Milton was enormously influential on the Enlightenment, not a mere “comet-tail” to it, and Paradise Lost was not the last gasp of a quaint “declamatory” age. Still, it reflects the attitude that Edmundsen is calling out. As he wrote, “Any modern poet who thinks of himself as creating a full-scale map of experience would be dismissed as hubristic and probably out of his mind.” To wit, Waldman’s parting shot to Edmundsen is: “you crazy person.” Edmundsen wrote an essay suggesting that the literary world deters poets from presuming to comment broadly on their age, and then an editor at Slate criticized him for presuming to comment broadly on his age.

Back in 1999, James Wood and Dana Gioia exchanged a really entertaining series of letters on similar matters in Slate. Ostensibly, they reviewed new volumes of poetry by big names: Philip Levine, W. S. Merwin, Virginia Hamilton Adair, John Hollander, and Charles Wright. Mainly, though, they noted the talent and intelligence of these poets (aside from Adair) and then criticized their unambitious blandness as typical of contemporary poetry—“a linguistic thoughtlessness,” wrote Wood, “that produces flat, stony prose which is then optimistically carved into lines and called verse.”

Though Edmundsen is tamer than Wood and Gioia, his complaints match theirs. Let’s invite Edmundsen in on the exchange (what good company he now keeps!). First, here’s James Wood on Philip Levine and W. S. Merwin:

[They] use a language that might benefit from a little extravagance. But then, extravagance—or call it solemnity, gravity—of occasion, of diction, of thought, is painfully absent from all four of the poets I am discussing … these poets suffer by living in an anti-Romantic hollow, when the lyric occasion is no longer a noble and high thing, (let alone a public thing) but has been banalized and domesticated.

Now here’s Edmundsen on Merwin:

There’s too little at stake. We’re sitting in on a small-time game … Most of our poets now speak a deeply internal language not unlike Merwin’s. They tend to be oblique, equivocal, painfully self-questioning.

When contemporary poets go big, Edmundsen adds later, “they tend to lapse into opacity and evasion.” Compare all this with James Wood, on Charles Wright:

The poet has a vaguely abstract thought, often about God. He is unwilling to explain this thought for us; we must savor its opacity. Then, about halfway through the poem, the poet announces that his mind is weary from ratiocination, and that we must instead take consolation in the textures and tactilities of life—the dogwood, the recent rain, the light. At the end of the poem, he then brings back the abstraction, with a slight guilty apology.

Opacity, self-diffusion, domesticity, and aimless musing—the whole gang is here. What do we make of complaints like these, ten years on, or fifty, or more? The criticisms in Slate hold up better than most of the poetry, and I think the same will be true, to varying degrees, of the points made by Yezzi, Mehigan, and Edmundsen.

Yet it’s hard to tell, in any given era, whether the method or the material is dying out—the way we express ourselves as opposed to the kinds of things we want to express. Do we have fewer decent plays and more great episodes of The Wire (a good trade)? Or is it less Molière and more Everybody Loves Raymond? It’s especially easy to lament that we celebrate the wrong poetry these days because so much totally forgettable stuff is crowned with plastic laurels: hundreds of small prizes, aimless residencies, vatic blurbs, Facebook “likes.” Chapbooks appear almost as quickly as supermarkets can cube the cheese and sell the wine for their celebrations. All this inflates the currency of our praise, however much it may democratize poetry; it emphasizes promotion, not posterity.

As for Jarrell’s concerns, at least we can say that David Foster Wallace’s essays for Harper’s forty years later (during the 1990s) reminded no one of the Saturday Evening Post. And only about ten years ago, Adam Kirsch declared in Slate “a golden age of Dante translation,” though I don’t think Kirsch expects we’ll have a new Divine Comedy anytime soon.

The trouble is, I prefer Wood (1999) to Edmundsen (2013), and on the subject of poetry, I prefer Jarrell (1950) to Wood. Wood is our leading fiction critic, and he would be even if his prose style were less handsome, but Jarrell was one of the great poet-critics of his century. One of the strengths of his criticism is how far he pushes beyond his immediate gripes with this trend or that neglible volume of poetry. He was, as Clive James put it, “as illuminating in praise as he was in attack.” That’s how a critic of our age should be inclined.

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