Let Poetry Die

Don’t Get Me Wrong

I love poetry; but as far as the public is concerned, poetry died with the modernists.

No poets ever filled their shoes. And though there remain a number of minor masters and one hit wonders, few passing pedestrians could name a poet from the last 50 to 60 years – let alone the same poet, let alone the title of a poem, let alone a first line. Even though I’ve never watched a single game of ice hockey from beginning to end, I know who Wayne Gretzky is. And even though I’ve never watched more than two holes of golf, I know  that Tiger Woods is not just a gifted philanderer, but a great golfer.

Ask anyone to name a novelist of the last half century and names will come tumbling.

How about JK Rowling?

Ask anyone to name a contemporary poet and you will be lucky to scrape by with John Ashbery, notwithstanding his much ballyhooed publication in  Library of America.  I know because I’ve asked friends, acquaintances and perfect strangers. Try it yourself. Harold Bloom made the comment that “since the death of Wallace Stevens in 1955, we have been in the Age of Ashbery.” And when you think about it, that’s about as back-handed a compliment as he could possibly make. If Ashbery is a virtual unknown among the larger public, what does that say about the generation scurrying around his ankles?

John Barr, President of the National Poetry Association, described much the same in his article, American Poetry in the New Century:

The need for something new is evident. Contemporary poetry’s striking absence from the public dialogues of our day, from the high school classroom, from bookstores, and from mainstream media, is evidence of a people in whose mind poetry is missing and unmissed. You can count on the fingers of one hand the bookstores in this country that are known for their poetry collections…

Or consider About.Com. The web site offers a TopPicks index that includes the  top ten contemporary novelists, but not a word about the top ten poets. Type <Top Ten> into Google and see how long you have to scroll before you find anything about contemporary poets or poems. (I finally quit scrolling.) Why? Because few people could name so much as one poet, let alone ten. And if ten were listed, who would recognize them?

The Need for Darwin

The recent death of Ruth Lilly got me started.

The event made me think of two things, Frank Deford’s Sports “Curmudgeon” and Darwin. Here’s how the Poetry Foundation expressed their gratitude to Lilly:

Thanks to Ms. Lilly’s munificence, the programs of the Poetry Foundation bring poems to 19 million Americans who would not otherwise read or hear them. From the annual $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize honoring a contemporary poet’s lifetime accomplishment, to five Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowships that go to aspiring poets, to ensuring Poetry magazine continues publishing in perpetuity, to a host of new programs and prizes established by the Poetry Foundation since receiving the bequest, Ruth Lilly’s legacy will allow millions of readers to discover the great magic of poetry for generations to come. ¶ “Poetry has no greater friend than Ruth Lilly,” said Poetry Foundation John Barr.

Lilly’s generosity is praiseworthy but… but… what if she had generously donated such wealth to the NFL, Pixar, or Random House? Why bother, many would ask, they’re already successful. The Poetry Foundation, on the other hand, was headed toward irrelevance, at best, and oblivion at worst. Lilly’s contribution (and contributions) to the Poetry Foundation are the only reason it is what it is today. In other words, it’s not through any intrinsic or hard-earned merit that the Poetry Foundation is surviving and flourishing today, but because of a drug baron’s fantastic wealth.

The Poetry Foundation indirectly admitted as much. Without her, they tell us, 19 million Americans would not otherwise read or hear them. Without her, there would be no annual Poetry prize honoring contemporary poets. Without her, there would be no Poetry fellowships. Without her, millions wouldn’t be able to “discover the great magic of poetry for generations to come.”

Of course, the last assertion begs the question, if the magic of poetry is so great, why in God’s name did it need $200,000,000 dollars to rouse it from its death rattle? Apparently, it’s not the magic of poetry that will bring the thrill of poetry to millions of readers , but the magic of 200,000,000 dollars. Will the organization be made any better for the money? – remains to be seen. Would they have survived without it? – who knows… Did they deserve to survive? – maybe not.

The survival of the fittest has been thwarted.

On the other hand, this is precisely what the Poetry Foundation’s founder would have wanted. Wikipedia puts it this way:

Dana Goodyear, in an article in The New Yorker reporting and commenting on Poetry magazine and The Poetry Foundation, wrote that Barr’s essay was directly counter to the ideas of the magazine’s founder, Harriet Monroe, eight decades before. In a 1922 editorial, Monroe wrote about newspaper verse: “These syndicated rhymers, like the movie-producers, are learning that it pays to be good, [that one] gets by giving the people the emotions of virtue, simplicity and goodness, with this program paying at the box-office.” Monroe wanted to protect poets from the demands of popular taste, Goodyear wrote, while Barr wants to induce poets to appeal to the public. Goodyear acknowledged that popular interest in poetry has collapsed since the time of Monroe’s editorial.

In other words, Monroe wanted poets to write without consequence. And when any human being, let alone poets, can act without consequence, the dogs of mediocrity, narcissism and hedonism will be let loose. In the past, public reception was the choke collar that largely kept mediocrity at bay, but when poets were able to create their own audience (themselves) all those checks and balances evaporated.

It’s my own opinion that Monroe’s attitude is toxic and anathema to great art and poisonous to art in general. It’s a shame and the results are indisputable. When poets left their audience, their audience left them.

Monroe’s stance excluded the general public from the evolution of art, but as Walt Whitman wrote, great poetry isn’t possible without a great audience, and if the audience is excluded from the development of a given art from, then it will no longer reflect the audience’s own innate greatness. And that is precisely what has happened. The general public no longer turns to contemporary poetry because it ceases to find itself, its greatness, reflected in that poetry. The general public has been excluded.

So who’s to tell the poet if they’re poetry is good or bad? Poets themselves?

The fact that the Poetry Foundation continues to exist, not because of its intrinsic merit but because of a generous benefactor means that its aesthetic genetics (the attitudes, values and artistic principles) that were probably ripe for expiration, will now continue to exert an undeserved and unearned influence on poetry. John Bar’s own unwitting statement that Poetry “has no greater friend than Ruth Lilly” is a sad self-indictment. It should have millions of friends – none any more or less great than  the other.

It might have been better had the organization died a natural death.

Mob Rule

And it would be better if all poets were thrown to the dogs of public opinion.

Tremendous wisdom can be found in the myths and legends of our past. One of the most profound, in my opinion, is that of the Phoenix – both mortal and immortal. What the ancients knew (or some of  them), and which many moderns seem to have forgotten, is that without destruction, there can be no rebirth.

The reason the Phoenix appeals to us is not because it is immortal (mythology is rife with immortal beings) but because it can recreate itself. The Phoenix’s song of death and rebirth  transfixes us. Immortality can never hold the same gift and promise of rebirth and renewal.

And it’s precisely this cycle of death and rebirth that poetry has lost.

When poets were required to make their living by writing for the public there was a give and take – a kind of death and rebirth in every public appraisal of their effort. Artists disputed but also encompassed their audience’s demands and tastes. There was a balance, perhaps imperfect but a balance nonetheless. The interaction produced our greatest works of art. Conversely, careers sometimes sputtered, poets starved and some had to quit writing altogether. But that’s the way it should be. This is how art thrives.

The best thing that could happen to poetry is to drive it out of the universities with burning pitch forks. Starve the lavish grants. Strangle them all in a barrel of water. Cast them out. The current culture, in which poetry is written for and supported by poets has created a kind of state-sanctioned poetry that  resists innovation. When and if poetry is ever made to answer to the broader public, then we may begin to see some great poetry again – the greatness that is the collaboration between audience and artist.

As John Barr wrote:

[Contemporary poets] operate on a network of academic postings and prizes that reinforce the status quo. They are sustained by a system of fellowships, grants, and other subsidies that absolve recipients of the responsibility to write books that a reader who is not a specialist might enjoy, might even buy.

There has always been criticism directed at the National Endowment for the Arts, for it’s use of our tax money to support artists who would probably (and otherwise) be in the unemployment line. And maybe I’m beginning to have some sympathy with that point of view. If poets and artists can’t make a living by writing poetry or producing art, then maybe they shouldn’t be writing poetry.

Let the fittest survive.

And, yes, I hold myself to that standard. I live it everyday.

Let Poetry Die

So that it can be reborn, make poets work for their bread and butter by being poets. As it is, the state of poetry is dispiriting. The public is right to ignore it.

Some quotes from the web:

  • I asked the newsroom to name a living American poet. A room full of people who write for a living could only come up with Maya Angelou. The Book Club ~ The News Herald
  • …the reason why you cannot recite poems from the last fifty years with ease is not because there haven’t been any good ones but because of the system of education: it has both ceased to renew the curricular literary canon and at the same time devalued the teaching of english… a comment at Melville House Publishing


160 responses

  1. I share your sentiment. Personally, I’ve try to avoid any sort of literature that has been written within the last 80 years, give or take. I just don’t find the beauty of older writers in contemporary works.

    As far as poetry goes, I think the problem lies in the goal of poets. I believe the words of Basil from “The Portrait of Dorian Gray” best describe the situation: An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them. We live in an age when men treat art as if it were meant to be a form of autobiography. We have lost the abstract sense of beauty.

    Now as to what should the proper goal of poets be? I’m unsure, but if the philosopher is a lover of wisdom, perhaps the poet is a lover of beauty.

    • I just don’t find the beauty of older writers in contemporary works.

      And you won’t for a variety of reasons. The first reason, in my experience, is that modern poets aren’t up to it. The second reason, and it’s often a rationalization used to deny the first reason, is that the techniques of those older writers are considered antiquated or backward looking – never mind that free verse is as old as prose.

      We live in an age when men treat art as if it were meant to be a form of autobiography. We have lost the abstract sense of beauty.

      Although, you know, I think it’s possible to communicate the universal through the personal (the Chinese poets did so for thousands of years). I think what you’re sensing is a lack of talent. Let’s face it, in any given century, the genre of poetry had, perhaps, one genius alongside a handful of lasting talents. At present, poetry is awash with mediocrity. Can you imagine if the same percentage of people had written and published poetry in the 16th and 17th and 18th centuries? The results would be just as unmemorable.

      Now as to what should the proper goal of poets be?

      To make a living by writing poetry.

    • Yes, I entirely agree that it is possible to communicate the universal through the personal; though, it would seem to me that contemporary poets have forgotten the word ‘transcendence.’ Perhaps lack in talent–I cannot deny this, but I think the main issue revolves around understanding beauty; that is, once one comes to understanding how beauty operates in reality, then they will want to mimic it, or rather, craft it in their own hands, if you will.

      And I agree again that the proper goal of poets should be to make a living by writing poetry, as this implies quality work; but, my cynical side suggests that such a poet will just keep tossing out poems–Hoping some will stick to the wall. :/

      Though if anything, and this is more personal–If other than the audience, how can one decide if a poet is of good quality? That is, can a poet find out if they are worthy at all? Or is it best to just throw oneself out there and judge from the results?

    • though, it would seem to me that contemporary poets have forgotten the word ‘transcendence.

      I agree, but words like transcendence and beauty are so slippery – so subjective – that I hesitate to use them as a starting point for any kind of criticism or argument.

      but, my cynical side suggests that such a poet will just keep tossing out poems–Hoping some will stick to the wall. :/

      Absolutely, but they’ll have to do it during their free time, where they’re not earning a living.

      More to the point, here’s what I wrote elsewhere, while discussing this post: In truth, if my proposals were adopted tomorrow, I don’t know that we would see better poets or poetry, but I know we would see far fewer. And the public wouldn’t have to listen to lectures on their mass stupidity – or be told which poets were great and which weren’t by a self-appointed clique of poets who could barely buy Wonder Bread on the income of their “art”.

      I think, in the short and long run, there would be a considerable reappraisal of this last generation’s accomplishments and failures.

      If other than the audience, how can one decide if a poet is of good quality? That is, can a poet find out if they are worthy at all? Or is it best to just throw oneself out there and judge from the results?

      That’s a truly interesting question, and worth a post. The short answer is this: Artist’s of all stripes are notoriously bad at determining the value of their own work. It’s a curious thing that someone can be devastatingly astute when critiquing others, yet be blind to their own limitations. Dan Schneider, over at Cosmoetica, is a poster child for this sort of thing.

      If other than the audience, how can one decide if a poet is of good quality?

      My provisional answer is this: There is no other way. Only time and the work’s reception (the audience) can be the final arbiter of poetry’s value.

      That is, can a poet find out if they are worthy at all?

      Can they find out if they’re “worthy”? Yes, though that depends on how we interpret “worthy”. Can they “find out” if they’ve written something worthy of the ages? No – not without a little time. Geniuses, in their own day, while usually being recognized, weren’t always considered the best among their peers or contemporary audiences – but a little time was usually enough to sort things out. If Keats had lived another 20 years, I think he would have been universally recognized for the genius that he was.

      Or is it best to just throw oneself out there and judge from the results?

      That’s best, in my opinion.

      Get it out there, somehow. After that it’s survival of the fittest.

      You can be sure that a lot of poets and artists would be flung from their pedestals if they weren’t protected from public opinion.

  2. Awesome essay. I loved it :) People don’t like poetry anymore because everything is accepted as poetry. You talk like a drugged out hippy about your grandmothers blue hair without even rhyming and it’s considered poetry. So when you say that you’re a poet; people think of ”those” poems and link that to you in their minds without even reading what you’ve written. People do want poetry though. That’s where you’re wrong….. they just don’t want crap. And since crap’s the norm, they shun the whole thing all together to spare their eyes and fragile minds the pain of obnoxiousness. It’s understandable. But sad. Seek and ye shall find, right? People are too lazy to seek anymore though, things have to first be twittered to them, and then read off the screen to them by a pushover of a friend as they eat cheetoes. The truth is; if you really believe in your self and your written words… you have to find people and shove it down their throats. Once it’s in their proverbial stomach and they stop thrashing around, lol; they’ll thank you :D

    • People do want poetry though. That’s where you’re wrong…..

      I agree, if by people we mean the general public. They buy plenty of it. They’re just not buying the poetry of the last 60 years.

      People are too lazy to seek anymore though

      I’m not so sure. They have no trouble looking up Keats, or Silverstein, or Shakespeare, Frost, Cummings, or WC Williams. A family friend of ours, who reads very little poetry, was able to locate Williams’ famous This is just to say without too much trouble.

      And I don’t think you have to shove anything down their throats unless its patently mediocre. That said, the audience is the tried and true scapegoat. How many modern poets and artists blame the audience for their own mediocrity?

    • I completely disagree with all of this. You are wrong. Poetry is an art and should not live to expectations of the past. People still love poetry, they just don’t want to read bull crap and listen to rap music. You can’t generalize the modern group of society as haters or critics of poetry. There are always good poets out there, perhaps hidden from your extreme lack of proper criticism. You need to keep in mind that art is art, that poetry is art and like the Phoenix, like Jesus it will never really die.

    • Anonymous, at no point did I write that poetry was not an art. If expecting poetry (or any art) to survive on its merit is an “expectation of the past”, then I’m okay with that. I’m in agreement with you that people don’t want to read “bull crap”. The fact that most among the general public cannot name a single modern poet speaks for itself. As for whether there are any good poets out there, the Poetry Foundation happily informs you that there are hundreds of them. I’m sure you will have no trouble naming them.

  3. This essay makes me want to think more carefully about why I write poetry and for whom. I have had a nagging sense that modern poets exist in a world of their own making and I want no part of that. But, how to write with courage and joy for a world that is not currently engaged with poetry is daunting to consider.

    I am thinking of a former post of yours where you expressed frustration about poets not being willing to embrace greatness (they downplay the possibility of being great, a notion you found exhausting). This post helps me to better understand your frustration. Perhaps poets minimize their potential greatness because (sensitive as they may be)they are afraid of the disappointment they will certainly experience on the road to greatness.

    Our society espouses a kind of easy believism in regard to our own greatness (just believe you are great and you will be…that is what I feared you might be saying in the former post). Of course, we all have potential for greatness in one realm or another and poets have potential for greatness in poetry. But there is this growing voice in the culture that says if you can’t achieve something with relative ease, then it isn’t worth it.

    This is not just a problem for writers, but for readers too. Neither have been trained to focus and diligenntly pursue greatness as a means for grasping truth and beauty, but as a means for self advancement and self fulfillment.

    The true poet, as a modern prophet of sorts, has to face into the steady wind of a society who generally views them as a quaint fool or misguided idiot. It takes a good bit of confidence that one’s purposes go beyond oneself to press on into that storm, as a writer and/or as a reader.

    Thanks for offering your thoughts with courage.

    • I have had a nagging sense that modern poets exist in a world of their own making

      That’s a good way to put it. The only poet who might make a living by writing poetry for the general public is Mary Oliver, but I don’t know. I also tried to find information on John Ashbery, found none, and can only speculate. My hunch is that while Ashbery makes a living off poetry, he doesn’t do so by selling his poetry to the general public – but by all the monetary advancements his reputation affords him. In my own neck of the woods, Oliver’s books far outnumber Ashbery’s (based on local bookstores) and sell much better. Based on that slim reckoning, one might suppose that in the North East US, at least, Oliver is a better poet (as far as the public is concerned) and could live from the proceeds of her poetry – Ashbery could not.

      Perhaps poets minimize their potential greatness because (sensitive as they may be)they are afraid of the disappointment they will certainly experience on the road to greatness.

      There’s that, but I think there’s a darker reason. The quote-unquote “successful” poets all, as far as I know, live in that “world of their own making” which depends on a sort of state sponsored (read academia and connections therein) collusion. Poets who know poets, in these circles, invite the same poets to judge and submit to the same contests, to teach at the same courses, to publish in the same journals, etc… It just wouldn’t do, in that kind of mutually dependent network, to go touting your superiority as a poet. Poets are as vain and egotistical as artists in any profession. I suspect that retribution would be swift.

      In China, the most famous fairy tale is the one about the monkey filled tree. One day, one of the monkeys decides he’s interested in seeing the world beyond. All the other monkeys warn him against such ambition. Ignoring them, he climbs to the topmost branch and peers over the tree line – whereat he’s promptly shot by a hunter.

      It’s so much easier to be a “respected” poet.

      just believe you are great and you will be…that is what I feared you might be saying in the former post

      No, I don’t believe that for a second. What irritated me so much were the spineless responses to David Orr’s article on (G)reatness. He asked a simple question: Where’s the ambition?

      The answer from poets, without exception, was a kind of bland posturing – indisputably proving Orr’s point.

      This is not just a problem for writers, but for readers too. Neither have been trained to focus and diligently pursue greatness as a means for grasping truth and beaut

      That’s where I disagree. I think the public has no difficulty, whatsoever, knowing great poetry when they read it. I wrote about that in another post “It’s not me, it’s you“. The trouble is not with readers, it’s with poets who lack talent. Poets need to stop scapegoating the public for their own mediocrity.

      Thanks for offering your thoughts with courage.

      And thanks for having the courage to put your own poetry before the world.

  4. Pingback: Poetry News For January 18, 2010 | Poetry Hut Blog

  5. It has been interesting to read the essays and comments related to this subject. I am in the process of determining the best venue to publish my poetry. I have just recently started a poetry blog, in an attempt to work through the maze of the best way to put my words out there – somewhere, because I, like numerous others, feel that I have a message to share.

    I have had no formal training in what constitutes good poetry, but all my life, have been able to write “something”. I always knew that my poetry did not fit into categories that befit “a great poet”, as may be currently defined, but feel that I have a message to share. When I launched the blog, I added a page to discuss Poetry Style, and Function. The page can be accessed at http://blog.mypecantree.com. The purpose of this segment is to suggest that the form of poetry today is changing and to question whether the traditional aspects of “poetry” is changing.

    I do not hide behind interpretation to say what I am feeling or how I see the world, the follies of living, and the pain associated with choices and the hand we may have been individually dealt. I am most concerned with how “my voice” may help someone else.

    Glad to see this discussion.

    Celestine McMullen Allen

  6. Pingback: from ‘let poetry die’ » mygorgeoussomewhere.org

  7. “[F]ew passing pedestrians could name a poet from the last 50 to 60 years – let alone the same poet, let alone the title of a poem, let alone a first line. Even though I’ve never watched a single game of ice hockey from beginning to end, I know who Wayne Gretzky is.”

    This is easily the most infuriatingly specious argument I’ve ever seen. You should be embarrassed. “Knowing who [celebrity’s name here] is” is irrelevant to any art—poetry, painting, dance, whatever. Surely you don’t mean to suggest that being known by a public saturated with corporate journalism means something—do you?

    • Surely you don’t mean to suggest that being known by a public saturated with corporate journalism means something—do you?

      And your retort would not be specious?

      Look, I can walk to my local grocery store and just about every shopper in that store will be able to name a favorite author or authors. Many of them will name the same individuals. Why? Because these authors write works that the public is interested in reading. These authors “live off” their writing.

      These authors are celebrities.

      And what’s embarrassing is that you think art is “above” celebrity. Let me give you some history, Joseph. Shakespeare was a celebrity. His plays could and did empty half or more of London. Jonson was a celebrity. So were Beaumont and Fletcher. Donne was a celebrity. Mozart was a celebrity. Prague begged him to relocate shortly before he died. Haydn begged Mozart to follow him to London (where he had a standing invitation with money on the table). Haydn himself was a celebrity. His fans dressed like him. Tennyson was a celebrity. Thousands lined the streets to glimpse Longfellow. Whitman was a celebrity. Picasso was a celebrity. The Beatles were celebrities – Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones, Robert Frost, Hemingway, Faulkner. Art? You don’t think Andy Warhol was a celebrity? And Ballet? Are you seriously going to tell me Barishnikov isn’t a celebrity? Who doesn’t know the name Barishnikov?

      The history of art is largely the history of famous men and women – and famous in their own day.

      The fact that there isn’t a single poet writing in the last half century with any sort of widespread name recognition says something.

      Think about it.

    • It’s interesting that you mention only celebrities who subsequent generations agreed were also great artists. How about the vastly greater number of celebrities who, though famous and honored in their own times, were rather quickly forgotten by later generations?

      And what exactly do you mean by celebrity anyway? Shakespeare’s plays were popular, yes, but in Elizabethan England authorship of plays wasn’t a cause for celebrity; in fact, Shakespeare was virtually unknown as an author until after his death: nearly all of his work that saw print in his lifetime was published without his name attached. It wasn’t until the actor David Garrick took up the cause that Shakespeare did finally achieve fame—in the 1740s!

      Shakespeare may be just a slip of your tongue, though. You claim that “the history of art is largely the history of famous men and women—and famous in their own day.” To which I say: Prove it. And just saying so doesn’t prove it—just as saying “who doesn’t know the name Barishnikov” qualifies as proof that everyone does know it. Have you ever watched Jay Leno interview people on the street? I suggest you try it with the name “Barishnikov.”

      On the other hand, you claim that “there isn’t a single poet writing in the last half century with any sort of widespread name recognition,” as if Allen Ginsberg were an unknown, when according to a recent report on NPR, Howl and Other Poems “is in its 53rd printing, with 965,000 copies in print.” I guess it’s too late to tell the producers of the new movie about Ginsberg, starring James Franco, that there’s no audience for it because Ginsberg has no name recognition!

      But my real objection to your stance is that you offer no proof whatsoever that contemporary popularity necessarily equates to artistic quality. Are you really saying that Warhol’s fame makes him a better artist than his contemporary Larry Rivers? Or that Dickinson is inferior to Whitman because she died virtually unknown? Or the that most popular poet of the 1960s, Rod McKuen, is superior to James Wright or Denise Levertov or your fellow Vermonter Bob Arnold?

      No, unfortunately your “argument” is really a bundle of unsupported attitudes and unexamined prejudices. Gimme a break.

    • How about the vastly greater number of celebrities who, though famous and honored in their own times, were rather quickly forgotten by later generations?

      What about them?

      And what exactly do you mean by celebrity anyway?

      The same as in the dictionary. How are you defining it?

      in fact, Shakespeare was virtually unknown as an author until after his death

      That’s sheer rubbish Joseph. It sounds like you’ve been reading too much Oxford conspiracy theorists (or else you just don’t know much about Elizabethan literature). Shakespeare was very much the celebrity in his day and was a very well-known poet, especially for Venus and Adonis, which was altogether too well read as far as Oxford Dons were concerned. The poem was considered borderline pornography. The poet’s war, which embroiled Jonson, Marston, Decker, Webster, and eventually Shakespeare, was ended by Shakespeare. You might want to read Bednarz’s book “The Poet’s War“, and maybe you will get a sense for just how established Shakespeare’s reputiation was. But, really, all you have to do is read a biography.

      nearly all of his work that saw print in his lifetime was published without his name attached.

      You really do sound like an Oxfordian. This was hardly unique to Shakespeare and is meaningless in reference to Shakespeare’s fame. If you want to understand how the print industry functioned in Elizabethan times, I recommend Ben Jonson and Possessive Authorship. The textual companion to Middleton’s complete works is also fascinating.

      It wasn’t until the actor David Garrick took up the cause that Shakespeare did finally achieve fame—in the 1740s!

      Again, this has nothing to do with Shakespeare’s reputation during his own lifetime. And no, Shakespeare wasn’t a slip of the tongue.

      You claim that “the history of art is largely the history of famous men and women—and famous in their own day.” To which I say: Prove it

      Let’s take music as an example:

      Lassus, Palestrina, Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Corelli, Purcell, Bach, Telemann, Handel, CPE Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Hummel, Cherubini, Clementi, Chopin, Weber, Mendelssohn, Spohr, Berlioz, Charpentier, Schumann, Brahms, etc., etc., etc…

      The proof is in all those names.

      And just saying so doesn’t prove it—just as saying “who doesn’t know the name Barishnikov” qualifies as proof that everyone does know it.

      Joseph, Barishnikov is a celebrity. Period. End of discussion. The fact that he is a celebrity flatly undercuts your assertion that “Knowing who [celebrity’s name here] is” is irrelevant to any art—poetry, painting, dance…”

      On the other hand, you claim that “there isn’t a single poet writing in the last half century with any sort of widespread name recognition,” as if Allen Ginsberg were an unknown…

      If there were one poet who I would expect to be at the tip of people’s tongue, it would be Ginsberg. But nobody I have ever asked thought to name him. Did you see the quote that I added at the end of the post? Let me print it again:

      I asked the newsroom to name a living American poet. A room full of people who write for a living could only come up with Maya Angelou. The Book Club ~ The News Herald

      It’s hard to argue with evidence. But hey… I hope the Ginsberg film is a success. I’m sure news of it will continue to boost sales – just as “Bright Star” boosted sales of Keats’ poetry.

      [Edit: The newsroom was asked about a living poet, so we’ll have to consider this a reflection on living poets, rather than Ginsberg. Mea Culpa.]

      But my real objection to your stance is that you offer no proof whatsoever that contemporary popularity necessarily equates to artistic quality…

      Where did I write that?

      Are you really saying that Warhol’s fame makes him a better artist than his contemporary Larry Rivers?

      Where did I write that?

      I said that Andy Warhol was a celebrity. Period.

      Or that Dickinson is inferior to Whitman because she died virtually unknown?

      Whitman was a tireless self-promoter and ceaselessly courted the public. Dickinson made no effort to court the public. When Dickinson’s poetry finally was available to the public, her poetry (even in its bastardized form) was readily sought after. One can only speculate as to what Dickinson might have achieved had she courted the public. As it is, it’s absurd to conclude that she was rejected by the public when she never sought the public’s recognition.

      Or the that most popular poet of the 1960s, Rod McKuen, is superior to James Wright or Denise Levertov or your fellow Vermonter Bob Arnold?

      Where did I write that?

      No, unfortunately your “argument” is really a bundle of unsupported attitudes and unexamined prejudices. Gimme a break.

      I absolutely agree. I did not support my attitudes and I did not, in the space of the post, examine my prejudices. That wasn’t the point. The point was to provoke discussions of the same, not just my own, but of everyones.

      Frankly, I had no idea this post was going to be as widely read as it was.

      I don’t run a big operation here.

    • Cool it. Remember that celebrities – at least in the case of Wayne Gretzgy and Tiger Woods – are famous because of their expertise and acheivements. I’ll give you the fact that celebrity culture can be pretty hollow, but not in the case of these examples.

      I think that’s where the author was going. Sylvia Plath and Robert Frost were indeed famous, but it wasn’t because their daddies owned a hotel chain or they were seen in a sex tape. They were breakthrough virtuoso’s and earned their fame. You should not mistake the worst of celebrity culture for the issue at hand.

    • //at least in the case of Wayne Gretzgy and Tiger Woods – are famous because of their expertise and acheivements.//

      Yes, thank you, that’s where I was going. I think a lot of reputations (if not most or all) among contemporary poets are utterly unearned.

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  10. “The general public no longer turns to contemporary poetry because it ceases to find itself, its greatness, reflected in that poetry. The general public has been excluded.”

    I am the general public. I’m not a poet or writer of any kind. I’m a reader. I like words and the way they sound when skilled people put them together to make something beautiful. I haven’t read poetry extensively. I can only name one or two modern poets. One of them is Christian Wiman. I immediately subscribed to Poetry after reading the Long Home because I found myself reflected in it. I can’t comment on the state of Poetry, but I can assure you that there are seekers. Take heart.

    • Thanks Tracy! I just looked him up and found a couple of Wiman’s poems (still available as of Jan 20, 2010).

      I hope more visitors, like yourself, recommend contemporary poets. It’s only by word of mouth, from readers like yourself, that the rest of the reading public will find the poets worth finding.

  11. Perhaps, I’m cheating by posting this cross-posting this comment here and where I saw the link to this essay, which I really enjoyed, by the way.

    I’ve always loved reading and writing poetry, but have for a long time been bothered by the way poetry seems to be part of an overly insular world. Poetry by poets for poets is too much a closed loop, which is why I like the way blogs and online poetry journals have the potential to open it up and make it more accessible and available to those whose priority may not be poetry, but who might enjoy reading it.

    I don’t know that I could name very many contemporary poets who only publish in fancy print journals, but I can think of a lot of blogging poets who may not be trying to make a living through their poetry, but whose work I admire, respect and enjoy. They probably reach a fairly large audience online too.

  12. I posted a list given to me by author Jeff Gordinier of contemporary poetry books to help interested readers get started: http://booksurvival.blogspot.com/2009/12/contemporary-poetry-starter-kits.html

    But beyond this, I strongly disagree with your post and actually find your direction troubling. I am not ready to throw any artist, including poets, to the dogs of capitalism and scream out “sink or swim!” Your belief that poets should be able to survive on their writing is just unrealistic, and I don’t believe it will lead to creative innovation as much as money chasing. Mary Oliver does make enough from her poetry and happens to have a huge following – trust me. She isn’t chasing a buck, but instead there’s a confluence of interests that happen to meet in her words. In the 1990s, something similar happened with Maya Angelou. Smart publishing houses publish these poets and use the revenue from them to support others. There should also be support from foundations and universities. Your interest in dismissing the whole non-profit model is deeply troubling for the arts, leaving art created by artists either struggling more than ever, trying to find something that sells sells sells, or living off massive inheritances that lets them not worry about an income. Art created by the wealthy – we’ve had that before, and I’m not too interested in perpetuating that exclusively now.

    I share your concern, but not your ideas for solutions.

    • But beyond this, I strongly disagree with your post and actually find your direction troubling. I am not ready to throw any artist, including poets, to the dogs of capitalism and scream out “sink or swim!”

      You’re not alone.

      I sense that it’s a philosophical matter. You come down on Monroe’s side and I find that equally troubling. The problem is in choosing which artists and which poets deserve the funds. As it is, it’s not a meritocracy. Grant givers, the various poets and critics who decide the various contests (deciding which poems are published and which books are circulated), and the Academic Institutions all have a dismal track record when it comes to public reception. All that it’s produced is an elitist attitude that summarily dismisses the populace.

      There are plenty of artistic avenues in which artists sink or swim according to their ability to “reach” the populace.

      Your belief that poets should be able to survive on their writing is just unrealistic

      Not it’s not. I didn’t say whether any poets would succeed.
      Frankly, I don’t give a damn. Our difference comes down to this: You seem to believe that poets (among other artists) are entitled to a merit-free living. I don’t. I think you would see a much healthier literature if poets had to earn their place by responding to public interest and demand. It’s not perfect, but that comes far closer to a meritocracy than the aristocratic system of inside patronage that we presently have.

      and I don’t believe it will lead to creative innovation as much as money chasing.

      If you’ve ever lived in a communist country, the first thing you realize is that “money chasing” has nothing to do with money. Instead of money, the smart entrepreneurs are quick to recognize the new currency – crony-ism, ideology, party orthodoxy, political cliques and cabals and, in short, political power. Those smart enough to accrue the new currency live just as opulently as their western counterparts.

      I’ve got news for you, Brian, the money chasing goes on, except that poets aren’t chasing money. They’re chasing the currency of grants, the politics and aesthetics prevalent in various contests (examples can be given), the endorsement of poets who reign over MFAs and the academics who seat Department Chairs.

      I’d rather see poets chase real money.

      Besides that, as I have to keep reminding people, the early history of poetry (and by that I mean the Elizabethans) is the history of that ugly term “money chasing”. The period produced some of the most beautiful poetry of the English language.

      Mary Oliver does make enough from her poetry and happens to have a huge following – trust me. She isn’t chasing a buck, but instead there’s a confluence of interests that happen to meet in her words.

      Yes, that confluence of interests is called talent and public reception. The argument that poets should “chase money” is secondary. I’d love it if the reading public were given the opportunity to decide which poets really deserved to be recognized. Although, in a sense, it’s already happened. They have decided that an entire generation of poets aren’t worth a damn.

      There should also be support from foundations and universities.

      If you believe Universities and Foundations should continue supporting artists, then kick the poets and artists out of the decision making process. Find some other means for deciding who merits support and who doesn’t. I don’t want to be ideological about this. My main goal, I guess, is to put merit back in poetry.

      Your interest in dismissing the whole non-profit model is deeply troubling for the arts

      You bet it is. Artists and poets would actually have to make a living from their work. Horrors. You and I both know how that would end. You say it’s undeserved. I’m not so sure.

      The entitlement programs aren’t going anywhere, but I’d love to see the artists and poets kicked out of the decision making process.

      …leaving art created by artists either struggling more than ever, trying to find something that sells sells sells, or living off massive inheritances that lets them not worry about an income.

      Maybe they’re struggling for a reason? And what’s wrong with creating art or poetry that sells?

      Art created by the wealthy – we’ve had that before

      For example?

  13. Lots to read through here (again). But it seems to me that while the idea of poets surviving in a grant-free marketplace conflates two entirely different things: The notion that grants are not themselves a marketplace (and therefore, they should be dismissed out-of-hand) and that poetry should only result from economic struggle.

    Sounds a bit like the argument of those who advocate against teacher raises: Keep them poor and only the pure at heart will be attracted to the position.

    And I understand your reluctance to engage in a debate hinging upon some subjective terms like “beauty” and so forth but you are already in that pool by insisting that the equally subjective “fittest” and “greatness” be the standards.

    There are far better and more effective ways to get better poetry than to take the Poetry Foundation (and Ruth Lilly) to task for spending her money to remind people of the beauty (yup!) of poetry, particularly since such a big amount of their work involves distributing the very kind of poetry (the non-grant producing kind, from years ago) that you advocate is “great” and “fit.”

    • The notion that grants are not themselves a marketplace

      No, actually, I argued that point in the comment immediately preceding yours. They are indeed a marketplace, as are all the contests and jostling for academic positions. It’s all its own form of money chasing. But very little of it (if any) is subject to the marketplace of the general public. Who awards grants and who picks contest winners? – by in large, insiders – other poets and editors (many of whom are, themselves, poets).

      poetry should only result from economic struggle

      Why not? Think of all those writers, journalists and novelists who manage it. Stop treating poets like shrinking violets.

      Sounds a bit like the argument of those who advocate against teacher raises: Keep them poor and only the pure at heart will be attracted to the position.

      Maybe a bit, but it’s not the same.

      And I understand your reluctance to engage in a debate hinging upon some subjective terms like “beauty” and so forth but you are already in that pool by insisting that the equally subjective “fittest” and “greatness” be the standards.

      No I’m not in that pool. Nowhere near it. I’m not suggesting how (in what manner or style) poets should write, nor am I attempting to define it. I’m suggesting that the broader reading public should have a role in defining it. Why? Because I don’t trust or believe the opinions of other poets and poetry’s aficionados (which includes editors and critics). They all, almost to a person, define greatness in their own image. Let definitions of fittest and greatest be defined by the wisdom of the public.

      There are far better and more effective ways to get better poetry than to take the Poetry Foundation (and Ruth Lilly) to task

      For example?

      such a big amount of their work involves distributing the very kind of poetry (the non-grant producing kind, from years ago) that you advocate is “great” and “fit.”

      Again, it bears repeating: what I advocate is irrelevant. If the Poetry Foundation is advocating poetry that I would define as great and fit , it’s only because such poetry has sustained the interest of the general public.

  14. I believe this to be extremely overstated. Have poets failed the public, or has the public failed poets (and, let’s be honest, this is an American problem)? Drama finds itself in the same situation. It has become a coterie art form…a clique, by default, searching for its claque. There is as much bad or inferior poetry as there is drama, but there is also much good being created, though there is no one to notice. Ask these same vox pop folk-on-the-street to name a playwright. You will probably get a number of answers for Mamet, a few for Shepherd, one or two for Albee, but that would be it (the British public, who have not forsaken the theatre, would have no problem naming names, even American). I give as an example an episode of “Jeopardy” this past week, where three obviously educated, literate people could answer only one of the questions (that on Ibsen), seeming to have a complete ignorance of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Lorraine Hansbury and August Wilson. All my friends in theatre (those given to watching “Jeopardy”) noticed this, and it was the primary topic of our conversation the following day. As one said, “it really is over.”

    • I believe this to be extremely overstated.

      : ) Yes, that’s very likely.

      Have poets failed the public, or has the public failed poets

      I come down on the latter. Based on the following evidence: The public hasn’t failed the poets whom they like.

      Drama finds itself in the same situation. It has become a coterie art form…a clique, by default, searching for its claque.

      That’s an interesting analogy. My own feeling is that theater/drama evolved into Hollywood. Just as every Elizabethan knew their playwrights, most Americans know their directors.

      Being a playwright is like being an Ahmish blacksmith or furniture maker.

      If a blacksmith (and his horseshoes) were to complain that the public had failed him, would we take him seriously?

      That said, there’s still a place for Ahmish blacksmiths and furniture makers – and there’s still a place for playwrights. Just adjust your expectations…

  15. Addendum: In my reply above I meant to say:

    I give as an example an episode of “Jeopardy” this past week, where three obviously educated, literate people could answer only one of the questions PERTAINING TO THEATRE (that on Ibsen),

  16. When I was in high school, I won a scholarship to a creative writing class at the Cornish School of Allied Arts in Seattle for a sonnet I had written. Three University of Washington professors were teaching about eight of us high school kids. In the course of that summer, I learned an important lesson: That I did not want to be like my instructors, trying desperately to get published in incestuous little poetry journals read only by people trying to get published in them. I studied journalism instead.

    Now I own a bookstore. We carry a fair amount of poetry, and sell a bit of it as well. I’ve tried an experiment selling single cardstock sheets with one poem and an illustration on it. Most poetry won’t sell in this form. Folk poetry by that most prolific author, anonymous, can. I have a sheet with ‘What the Blind Man Saw’ on it with a silly illustration that sells quite well.

    Contemplate this: What publication that still exists would print ‘Casey at the Bat,’ one of the few poems still known in popular culture? Few could name the author, and it’s not about the author, which is the point. Poetry started as an oral tradition, a way of remembering, a song with or without music. What oral tradition survives? Jokes, where authorship is usually unknown. Confessional poetry is nearly the opposite of any oral tradition.

    • Thank you, I like that very much, and have made those points less elegantly myself in the past. I think poetry has to sing, and you can break some rules and still have it sing (like a song lyric that scans without being iambic pentameter.) Prose with random line breaks just looks like someone had a lousy word processor. Of course, it’s easy to write a sonnet that obeys the rules but doesn’t sing; that’s just bad poetry. Free verse can touch the soul, but can it sing?

      By the way, have you read P.G. Wodehouse’s The Alarming Spread of Poetry? Wodehouse was among other things a librettist for musical comedies.

      http://www.readbookonline.net/readOnLine/14938/

  17. I find this essay interesting, but also profoundly myopic.

    America is not the world. In the UK a lot of people can name modern poets from the past half century. Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, John Betjamen, Philip Larkin, Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy all come fairly easily to mind.

    • I find this essay interesting, but also profoundly myopic.

      You wouldn’t believe how near-sited I am.

      But, yes, I can only speak from experience; though none of the poets you named were mentioned by anyone I have asked. It may be very different in England? Would be interested in hearing from more readers across the pond.

  18. If lyric is a form of poetry, then surely people could name Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Eminem. It is perhaps an oddity of our period that there works are not included as “poetry” by some.

    • When rhyme and meter are outlawed, only outlaws will have rhyme and meter.

      Actually, Leonard Cohen and Patti Smith started out as poets, and were encouraged to become musicians. Jim Morrison also wrote poetry before making his name as a singer. Perhaps popular poetry has simply moved from print to the recording industry, and gained accompaniment.

    • Perhaps popular poetry has simply moved from print to the recording industry, and gained accompaniment.

      Could be.

      That said, the best lyrics aren’t always the best poetry, and the best poetry doesn’t always make the best lyrics. They seem to require two different talents. Just my impression…

  19. Thank you. Thank you. What you have written is true for poetry, and is doubly true for fiction. The safe road of writing for your high school newspaper, to writing for the undergrad college literary ‘zine, to an MFA, to a junior faculty teaching position, is killing writing. Who is dying in the gutters anymore? If you are a poet and have balls you’re in a rock band. If you’re a storyteller and have balls (or a big flappy vagina) you’re in Hollywood. Apart from an intense fixation on Americana – “All the Pretty Horses” to “Plainsong” to “A RIver Runs Through It” – I am done with literature. My sister reviews literature for TNR. She gave me a bunch of books for Christmas and they just sound so dead. I read it all at college and in my twenties – but now: Give me J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown!!! There are certain ways to kill any writing skill – get published by the New Yorker, get an MFA, or tenure.

  20. I agree 100%. A prime example is the awful poet Paul Guest. He is a paint-by-the-numbers poet in which there is no innovation. He is an academic creation, and people talk him up, but his poetry is dull and forced. Start with him.

    • Johnny,

      Edgar ‘It takes a heap ‘o livin” Guest an academic creation? You’ve got to be joking. He’s been pilloried by academics for about a century. He was called the ‘people’s poet.’ He certainly wasn’t the critic’s poet. Back when there was a market for bad poets like him, poetry was still a healthy medium. Hell, if you could sell Edgar Guest you could sell a wrapped brick by claiming there was poetry in it. He was exactly the sort of poet the academics had contempt for — a commercially successful one. It’s like the difference between being a successful romance writer and writing stuff that will win the Nobel prize — except that there’s still money in writing romances. The market for bad poetry has dried up.

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  22. Well, you’ve been awakened from your slumber by a posting in Andrew Sullivan’s “the Daily Dish.” Enjoy the notoriety, it will be over in a day. Still, it’s got you a conversation with some people who would otherwise have remained blissfully unaware of your existence. Thanks a lot for messing with our bliss.

    As V.I. Lenin would say, What is to be Done? Do we form an Iambic insurgency, make non-negotiable dactylic demands?

    Or do we sit with our thumbs up our bums (which, admittedly, those among us with more Etruscan tastes might enjoy) and do nothing?

    Me, I’m going to sleep on it. And no, you may not speculate about what ‘it’ is.

    • Enjoy the notoriety, it will be over in a day.

      That’s what I thought last week.

      If I had any common sense I would enjoy the notoriety, but I don’t. Have a good night’s sleep.

    • Start collecting a massive gang of writers who pledge never to teach writing at an academic institution, never take a tenure-track job, would rather die smelly, unhappy, and fantastically unloved than have a 401k, healthcare benefits, a classroom of adoring students.

    • Start collecting a massive gang of writers who pledge never to teach writing at an academic institution, never take a tenure-track job, would rather die smelly, unhappy, and fantastically unloved than have a 401k, healthcare benefits, a classroom of adoring students.

      It’s never going to happen.

      In fact, I’m just shocked that nobody (to my knowledge) has commented on my “About Page” where (a while back) I wrote:

      I would love to teach poetry at the college level. It’s an ambition. I’m not sure how to go about achieving that but maybe this is a start.

      I think the only thing that saves me from breathtaking hypocrisy is that I’m not interested in institutionally publishing or pursuing any of those venues. I just want to teach poetry the way I write about it on my blog. It wouldn’t even have to be at a University or College. I love poetry and I want kids to really understand a tradition that isn’t being taught anymore – whether they choose to write in that tradition is immaterial to me.

  23. A poet shouldn’t be writing poems if he can’t make a living doing it?
    What an impoverishing notion.
    Guess that means I’ll have to give up writing poetry. Oh well, it’s only the thing I love doing most in the world.
    Have I misinterpreted the above essay? By “poets” do we include the amateurs out there who spend a few hours of their spare time each week trying to write something beautiful, and who might try their hand at getting a poem published in a university review now and again?
    Let all poetry flourish – the good, bad, and everything in between. The more people feel free to try their hand at it, the more likely our culture will produce some works that will last. I have the sense that what is strangling poetry more than anything is fear – fear of trying something new, and being rejected for it. Everyone starts to sound like everyone else.

    • Can you elaborate? (I sort of had a feeling the answer would be yes.)

      I’m encouraged by the number of poets self-publishing and putting their poetry on-line for the world to read.

      But there’s considerable contempt, if not hostility, directed at self-published poets and on-line poets. And my experience has been that most of this derision comes from poets and editors who are vested in the institutionalized venues I criticized. I can only speculate that their hostility is self-interested. Some of the better known poets have been quite successful in playing the game (and actually having to test their merit outside the system might not go too well). They’ve established themselves as tritons among minnows, so why spoil it?

      But my experience is that those vested interests are snuffing out a lot of voices who might otherwise explore different venues – like blogs. I would name names, but I don’t want to embarrass poets. They have told me, point blank, that they hide the fact that they’re self-published and they are reluctant to “stigmatize” their poetry by publishing it (themselves) on-line. So, they try to play the establishment game – publishing their poetry through “approved” venues.

      So, would I like to see the whole thing unraveled? You bet.

      I think it will happen over time. So… write your heart out. Then decide for yourself how to get readers to read it.

  24. Interesting thoughts, although your argument seems to be lifted from Jed Rasula’s _American Poetry Wax Museum_. He was on to the insular culture of university poets publishing, giving awards to, and giving sinecures to other university poets and their students 15 years ago.

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  26. I ended up here through Andrew Sullivan. I very much enjoyed the essay and the dialogue with the bloggers. Am looking forward to revisiting your website. Thanks.

  27. Your comment about playwrights evolving into Hollywood directors reminds me of the line about dinosaurs: they didn’t die, they became birds

    Couldn’t one easily argue that pop music has taken the place of popular poetry? Especially hip-hop? And since the function of the poet has been co-opted by the singer/ songwriter, little old ladies are justified in protecting their sentimental favorites from the market. Who knows maybe somebody will even say something worth remembering.

    Without patronage, an awful lot of high arts would die. Was Ginsberg high?

    If any one is just looking to off an art form, could we start
    with jazz?

    • //Couldn’t one easily argue that pop music has taken the place of popular poetry? Especially hip-hop? And since the function of the poet has been co-opted by the singer/ songwriter//

      Yes.

      I always think of the movie 8 Mile and Eminem. This is exactly the sort of verbal dueling that went on during the Elizabethan era (and later).

  28. This is an awesome post — congrats. For what it’s worth, the situation you describe in the poetry world also exists in the worlds of contemporary music, and perhaps to a lesser extent, visual art. Poets, artists and musicians should be poets, artists and musicians foremost — instead, they’re professors grubbing for tenure in a realm of strictly-enforced orthodoxy.

    • I had the same thought about contemporary music and the visual arts, but one can only afford so many enemies… : )

      In truth, I’m surprised that anyone cares what an unemployed Vermont carpenter (and unread poet) has to say. I must have hit a nerve.

  29. hi. i’m not from your society. but in general people- wherever they are- like to find someone who can express their pain, suffering, and their needs. Add to this some people try to escape from the ugly real life to a beautiful life that they wish to find in poetry. if the poets cannot present what people look for, surely, people will not be interesting in knowing about poetry or even read it. A poet is the tongue of the public and he should bare this in his mind. this is my point of view with all my respect for the others.

    • Hey Aaron, you know, rap has more in common with traditional poetry than contemporary free verse. Nuf said.

      But calling rap, poetry… I don’t know. Rap is more than just poetry. It puts together language and rhythm in a way that poetry just doesn’t. And rap is a performance too. Can you really take the personality, the performer, out of the song? I don’t know… Rap is something different – it’s poetry and something more.

  30. This article is heavily, heavily flawed.

    Today’s world is one of instant access to just about anything- this means it is extremely difficult for one artist, in any medium, to gain popularity. To do so, they usually cater to the Lowest Common Denominator.

    How quickly we forget how many of the “classic” poems we read were ballads! You want to find successful, mediocre poetry? Watch the Grammys! Any and all of those lyricists are successful poets. In fact, Bob Dylan is in Norton’s Anthology of Poetry, the standard high school text for the nationalized AP Literature course.

    You think it’s a positive thing that people can name Dan Brown and JK Rowling as the great novelists? They are not great novelists, they are page-turners. They are good at entertaining, most certainly, but the novels are nothing to coo over.
    To suggest that the idea of poets writing in a community for each other is a new idea is quite ignorant. Byron, Shelley, Coleridge etc. were all friends. Pound edited Eliot.

    To throw poetry out of universities is pure idiocy. That throws poetry to the uneducated. Where can we find that? On any blog or MySpace. Is it good? No. Bad and mediocre poetry is ALL OVER the internet and on the radio. It is at universities that poets with real talent learn to develop and innovate.

    I am at just such a university with a fantastic creative writing department, and have been taught by nationally recognized poets. To say modern poetry suffers due to a lack of talent is extremely ignorant. I have an anthology of poetry from 1950 onward sitting on my bookshelf currently. Full of talent.

    The problem is, again, not the poets but the changing way arts of all forms are produced and distributed.

    I would love to know the credentials you claim to have for making such sweeping generalizations about the current state of poetry, and how you think orchestral music, fine art, songwriting, fiction writing, etc. are doing in comparison.

    • This article is heavily, heavily flawed.

      Well, of course it is. It’s an opinion piece.

      this means it is extremely difficult for one artist, in any medium, to gain popularity. To do so, they usually cater to the Lowest Common Denominator.

      For example?

      You think it’s a positive thing that people can name Dan Brown and JK Rowling as the great novelists?

      Where did I write that?

      I said that people could name their favorite authors. I didn’t claim they were, therefore, “great novelists”. Give their reputations another 100 years, then we’ll see.

      To suggest that the idea of poets writing in a community for each other is a new idea is quite ignorant. Byron, Shelley, Coleridge etc. were all friends. Pound edited Eliot.

      Yes, but they didn’t make a living off each other.

      Currently, once a poet has broken into the system (as you seem to have done) they can do quite well making money off other poets and aspiring poets. Who cares whether they write good poetry.

      To throw poetry out of universities is pure idiocy. That throws poetry to the uneducated.

      Yes, thank God poets never wrote for the uneducated.

      Bad and mediocre poetry is ALL OVER the internet and on the radio.

      So what? If it’s no good, it won’t be read.

      It is at universities that poets with real talent learn to develop and innovate.

      I’m sure there are poets who thrive in that atmosphere, but it’s not necessary. Keats was trained as a physician, not a poet. Somehow he, and other poets like, let’s say, Robert Frost or William Carlos Williams, managed to write great poetry without the self-appointed beneficence of academicians and programs like you and yours.

      I am at just such a university with a fantastic creative writing department, and have been taught by nationally recognized poets.

      And I’m sure all those poets are just at the tips of everyones tongues.

      I would love to know the credentials you claim to have for making such sweeping generalizations about the current state of poetry

      Me too.

      And yet here you are, posting at my blog, responding to my assertions. It’s me, unread and unemployed Vermont carpenter, who finds his way onto Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish, not you.

      I’m as shocked as you are.

  31. I found my way over here through a link on Poetry Hut, and I just wanted to say I loved your post. I don’t know the first thing about academic poetry or that whole, strange world–I only just started writing poetry about two years ago, at the relatively late age of 38, and I am still feeling my way through the morass and learning as much and as often as I can how about how to write better. The vast majority of my friends are non-poets, and I can tell you that you’re absolutely right in what you say here, and in one of your earlier posts, about poets failing the audience. My friends can’t stand poetry because most of it is completely inscrutable and emotionally vacant to them. These are not stupid people who spend most their time in front of the TV. They are bright, curious, interesting people who actually want to like poetry, but just sort of shrivel up and shut down when faced with most of what’s out there these days. It doesn’t touch them, it doesn’t reach them, it doesn’t make much, if any sense to them, and they just end up feeling like they’re “too dense” to understand it, and give up. I find this really sad, and I try to make up for it by sending them poems I think they’d enjoy. So far, the top favorite poets have been: Robert Service, Ogden Nash, Mary Oliver, and Tony Hoagland. I run a poetry group at a teen shelter once a week, and I find that these tend to be favorites amongst the kids, too. So, what is it that these poets are reaching in people that is lacking in most other poetry? I’m not sure, but maybe it’s a combo of some damn good rhyme and meter, wit, and a deep sense of reaching out, of longing to connect and offer redemption, or healing of some sort–or least a sort of half-wave, a nod to the fact that we’re all in it suffering together, and they’ll leave a light on for us. And I know a lot of poets sneer at that sort of thing and say that they aren’t responsible for “making anyone feel good” about themselves and their lives, but I do believe that as poets, we not only have a responsibility to say something well, we have a responsibility to say something that has a purpose beyond itself, and maybe that purpose in it’s highest form is to truly connect to us to one another. (Not that we can’t “play” just for the sheer joy of it as well).

    There are a lot of poets who are very talented, but I’ve notice they are very much in their heads, very much in their own worlds, and don’t care much for anyone beyond themselves. I wonder if this somehow translates into poetry that is off-putting to lay people. I really don’t know–I consider myself pretty much a rank beginner at all of this, but I do think that an audience is looking for a sense of connection and meaning, and that the average non-reading poetry audience doesn’t want to have to hack their way through the forest of a poem with a buzzsaw in order to find it. I don’t think this makes the audience lazy–just efficient.

    • You bring up a very good point, in that it’s not just the form of the poetry, but also the content that has changed. Historically, it was a form of story telling. The Iliad and the Charge of the Light Brigade have a plot. Not that I’m saying all poetry should tell a story, only that it can be a compelling way to tell a story.

    • Amazingly well said. And it sounded pretty good, too, as I read it aloud to my partner as she passed behind me asking what had me so intently engaged.

    • : ) Stay tuned. The Wall Street Journal commissioned an editorialized version of this post (which I wrote for them). If there were any bridges left unburned, this will send them straight to the river’s bottom.

  32. I come here by way of Ron Silliman’s blog. I ended up on Don Share’s blog a few weeks ago, same way. By now I have a rant.

    1) Prior to 1995 there was no Internet, no Internet audience, hence no Internet poetry. By 2001 the Internet was big but had gone broadband becoming in effect television. How many poets have you seen on TV? Since 2001 it has not been possible to put poetry on the Internet. Thus you had maybe five years, 1995-2000.

    2) People rushed to UPLOAD their stuff to the web. This was a mistake. Was there anything good enough ( ten years ago ) to DOWNLOAD from the web to your spiral notebook?

    3) Poetry never really worked on the web, even under the best of circumstances. It absolutely had to be hardcopy/papyrus/parchment/vellum. Book, in other words.

    Summary: Ten years ago you had to find something good enough to put between the covers. Literally. No Kindle books please.

    • Mabool, thanks for the comment.

      I have to admit, I’m really not sure which comment you are responding to. However, I think you’re right. Whether or not poetry’s place on the Internet changes remains to be seen. I think it will. The Internet is still very new and folks like myself still have much to learn about how to fully take advantage of it.

      As it is, I think the Internet has already surpassed print as a source of information for contemporary poetry and poems. But that assertion isn’t backed up by any facts. A journal is printed once. An article posted on the Internet is easy to find and can be read indefinitely. The same goes for a poem. But I’m not sure what you mean when you say that “poetry never really worked on the web”. Sites like mine and Silliman’s are doing very well (though the popularity of my site in no way compares to Silliman’s).

      Let’s see how it looks in another 10 years.

  33. Fascinating reading from top to bottom. I’m on my way to read the Dish post referenced in some of the responses here, as that sounds pretty interesting too. I came to this site via Author Scoop. I’m a poet. I publish online. I’ve submitted to and been rejected by The New Yorker several times, but after reading all the comments, I’m actually feeling pretty good about that now. Here’s a poem I wrote last year that I think would be appropriate “fuel” for this fiery topic.

    The Futility of Poetry

    Banished at birth by sophist brigands
    who feared a cunning linguist
    I roam this isle in solitude,
    spending my days in furtive pursuit
    of fuel and sustenance.

    Deadwood, driftwood, guava and crabs
    prevail in this specious present
    sufficient to my needs, yet pretentious
    in their essence.

    Each night I build a blazing glory,
    a vivid sorcery of semaphoric flamboyance,
    a vigil in the heathen blackness,
    intrepid, with brilliant exactness
    it flares my wanton distress.

    Alone, I watch my bonfire burn,
    the solar center of my solitary universe,
    knowing it can only be a dim and distant star,
    an uncharted speck in the heavens
    above a negligent mariner.

    • Hi Magdalen, I don’t at all mind that you’ve posted your poem and I’m glad you did.

      It takes courage to put it out there. For the record, none of my poetry has been accepted by any publication. Ever. (And not for lack of trying.) : )

    • It is no source of pride, and no reflection on the quality of their work, that America neglects its poets.

      OK, but that sounds an awful lot like the protestation of any director who’s put out a bad movie, any car company who’s put out a bad car, and any band that’s put out a song that sucks.

      It’s not me, it’s you. Right?

  34. Obviously, there are innumerable poets who survive quite well on their poetry, and become quite well known, by singing their poems. “What can a poor man do, but to sing for a rock n’ roll band?” Those of us who are less musically gifted obviously must get on my our wits, and as has been stated, by their blogs. I recommend you read Patti Smith’s Just Kids for a moving story about one such poet.

    • there are innumerable poets who survive quite well on their poetry, and become quite well known, by singing their poems

      I assume you’re writing about lyricist/songwriters?

      I can accept that lyrics and poetry have much in common, but when a song is successful, it’s because of the music, not because of the lyrics. I could probably find examples (same lyrics with different music and with very different reception). Dylan without the music would probably be considered a merely competent poet by the powers that be.

      No worry about “late” comments, by the way. They all interest me.

  35. Forgive me for coming late to the conversation, I just have one point to raise.

    Patrick, I sympathize with those who complain of poetry’s marginalized status in society nowdays. On the other hand, however, if you meet someone who does reads contemporary poetry, chances are they’ll be someone with a abiding interest in it, who reads widely and with a sense of curiosity, and has a least a reasonable knowledge of the history and variety of the form. While I wish more people shared such an interest, I value such an enthusiastic audience highly – and to be honest, would rather write for them than for a readership that isn’t particularly interested in the first place.

    • While I wish more people shared such an interest, I value such an enthusiastic audience highly – and to be honest, would rather write for them than for a readership that isn’t particularly interested in the first place.

      I think that’s a valid position.

      However, I question whether a poet who limits their audience to the choir should be considered a “successful” poet in any larger sense. And by successful I mean more than just job satisfaction.

      I know readers probably get sick of me hearkening back to the Elizabethans (as though it were some golden age) but there are many parallels. There were playwrights who wrote “closet dramas” specifically because they wanted to write for an appreciative (read educated and upper class) audience, instead of the unwashed masses. Some of them were successful, in their way, but today nobody remembers their dramas and most haven’t even survived.

  36. This is great stuff. Philip Larkin would have approved as well. Randall Jarrell’s 1953 essay ‘Bad Poets’ is also required reading.

    • Just read Randall Jarrell’s essay – great read and loved finding that old word widdershins, like bumping into a quirky, slightly drunk and embarrassing relative the family just doesn’t talk about. Clearly, we need to become reacquainted.

  37. This is the best article I’ve read in a long time. Thanks for being tremendously awesome and bold. Thanks for articulating your passion.

    To quote someone I’ve never heard of (and I still don’t know your name) saying something great:

    ‘Me too.

    And yet here you are, posting at my blog, responding to my assertions. It’s me, unread and unemployed Vermont carpenter, who finds his way onto Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish, not you.’

    I’m glad to hear from a person with fire in their veins.

    Now, let’s all go earn our livings.

  38. harsh. the milton friedman approach to poetry? I think poetry got beaten to death by the competition. after all, how can Ashbery compete with CSI. or Harry Potter. so, no more grants is the solution? big deal. how many poets ever see a grant anyway?

    • so, no more grants is the solution?

      No, it’s not the solution, it’s just one part of the whole.

      As I wrote earlier, since grants aren’t going anywhere, why not take them away from the insiders who award them? The cult of the expert is overrated. I’d be interested to see a poetry grant awarded by software engineers – people who haven’t already made up their minds. Would the results be horrific? We’ll never know because I doubt anyone will try it, but I have a hard time imagining it could be worse.

  39. upinvermont :

    I just don’t find the beauty of older writers in contemporary works.

    the techniques of those older writers are considered antiquated or backward looking – never mind that free verse is as old as prose.

    When I read the dos and dont’s of modern poetry, I see that the great poetry of the past has been left out by definition. I refuse to adhere to rules that tie my hands and forbid me to create in the same way poets of the past created. I think it is absurd that current rules would reject a Longfellow, Frost or Bradstreet if each were writing today under a different name.

    • I think it is absurd that current rules would reject a Longfellow, Frost or Bradstreet if each were writing today under a different name.

      It’s something to think about.

      Andrew Wyeth and Norman Rockwell are both artists whose work has been (and is) dismissed because their work doesn’t fit with the larger aesthetic of “modernism” or “progress” (and yet the general public adores their work). Perhaps the only poet who has been comparably “dissed” is Richard Wilbur? Write the way you want to write, and do it well. And get your work into the hands of readers, not other poets.

  40. Fascinating read, the essay and comments. I’m impressed at the lack of a flame war erupting over this. I mean, you’re tearing new ones for Academics. Not that this isn’t a worthy notion, but I don’t imagine it is the best way to win friends in that community. Then again, I don’t see that as your goal in life.

    I get quite tired of the eyes of my friends, my own WIFE and my family glaze over and sink back into their head because they have been frightened away by condescending poets or their apologists.

    • I don’t imagine it is the best way to win friends in that community. Then again, I don’t see that as your goal in life.

      Yeah… you can smell burning bridges from three states over.

      I get quite tired of the eyes of my friends, my own WIFE and my family glaze over and sink back into their head because they have been frightened away by condescending poets or their apologists.

      Amen.

    • Well, I took your idea and tossed my two cents in, for what it is worth.

      Thanks for providing not only a spark for something to write about, but for doing so quite eloquently.

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  42. Paul Halsall :
    I find this essay interesting, but also profoundly myopic.
    America is not the world. In the UK a lot of people can name modern poets from the past half century. Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, John Betjamen, Philip Larkin, Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy all come fairly easily to mind.

    This is pretty funny. You could instead name the English poets who make a living out of poetry today and are much loved by people, though generally despised by poets: Roger McGough and Pam Ayres.

  43. Well, I made one comment en passant, as it were, but I really want to say something a bit more summative. The original post was on the money. I’m a retired academic/administrative/policy type who began to seriously write poetry after he retired. As I became more comfortable with what I was doing and the wholescale upheaval in my understanding of what it meant to write, I subscribed to a handful of poetry journals. They would arrive, I’d crack the plastic sleeve and peruse the contents, and never look at it again. Abstruse, opaque, obscurantist, sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought … (I’ve let all those subscriptions lapse!) So I never sent off what I wrote for publication because I didn’t care to be evaluated by editors who published stuff that meant nothing to me. I was content to write for myself, my friends, my family, for the people whose actions or circumstances inspired me to have and share the thoughts and emotions they stimulated in me. For a dozen years I’ve been associated with writers’ groups locally whose constructive criticism and honest reactions have, until recently, been more than enough reward. And I have actually been published occasionally, mostly in juried compilations generated by our groups, or in the local press. In the past year, I finally responded to the entreaties of my group colleagues that I “get myself out there” and, together with my partner who is highly skilled at design, layout, and Photoshop, I “created a press” and self published a collection of my poetry which is now in a dozen bookshops on the central coast of Maine, distributed to friends, family, and the “persons of insight and inspiration.” This is the first time I’ve visited here (but certainly not the last!). I was directed by a poet friend, Bob Bagg, who told me I simply HAD to send off what I’d done to the “carpenter in Vermont” and allow him to work is will upon my efforts. I sent a request for his snail mail address and settled down for the delight of reading through this entire post. What an absolutely delicious investment of my time! Thank you all (most of you, that is).

  44. Hello Vermont Poet,

    You are my hero, my mentor, my inspiration….you have often written honest feedback on my page; http://www.hmirassou.wordpress.com, your comments are sorely missed and since I have added some new content, I would be amiss if I didn’t stop by and request a visit for honest, intriguing commentary!

    The legendary poet, Hart Crane is quoted as saying; “Life is Literature”

    I consider myself a “novice poet” although one day I would like to be among “literary legends”; I have developed a consistent, unique and recognizable writing style; one that enables the reader to see through “Rose-Colored Glasses.” It encompasses a hopeful, familial and comfortable atmosphere. With a voice and tone that is romantic, witty, empathetic and compassionate and once in awhile erotic…

    Don’t forget to stop by and read my newest addition of poetry that is a dedication to you my Vermont Poet.

    With a Smile,
    Heather

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  46. I think somebody has already said in reply that many people in the average UK supermarket queue can name the poets of the last x number of years. And that may be so.
    But it is also true that the poets they name will mostly belong to the dead poets society. The BBC’s book The Nations Favourite Poets edited by ex-Monty Pythoner Gryff Rees Jones (?) proves this to be the case. Listeners were invited to nominated favourite poets and poems and needless to say Kipling’s poem IF took the laurels.
    Why do real poets write? They write, like Bukowski, because they have to. It fills a need. Who do they write for? They write for themselves in the first instance. Fame and fortune, if they ever come, come later. And they often comes unwanted. Beckett on receiving the Nobel Prize news: “Disaster!” Not for nothing did he say that.

    • But it is also true that the poets they name will mostly belong to the dead poets society.

      That’s what I would expect, given that the British probably aren’t all that different than Americans.

      People can name plenty of poets from the modernists back. It’s the poets since then who give them trouble. As to “real poets”, my own opinion is that writing because “one has to” doesn’t hold much water. And I’m sure you don’t disagree. They should write if they must… I just don’t want to be told I have to read them or that they merit reading unless I hear it from my neighbor or decide so myself.

  47. Pingback: Vermont Poetry Newsletter • February 18 2010 « PoemShape

    • Hi Troy, hadn’t known that about Turner. No argument that Ashbery’s reputation is cultishly overblown, but where did you get your information on Turner?

    • Let’s just say that it helps that I know Turner.

      Well…. no it doesn’t. What helps is to know how many books Turner has sold as compared to Ashbery or other poets.

      He was also nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature

      :-) I don’t put much stock in the Nobel Prize for Literature. It’s about as meritorious as the Olympic Committee’s Quadrennial pick. But that explains why Measure devoted their opening pages to him (V. 2 2007). I, personally, find Turner to be a second-rate poet (I don’t know about his other writings and they may be brilliant), but I find that his poetry seldom rises above meritorious competence. It never really gets off the ground.

      Probably not what you want to hear…

    • I don’t have exact numbers but, I presume Turner wasn’t lying to me when he said his last collection was a best seller among poetry books.

      I’m not sure how much of Turner’s stuff you’ve read, but I don’t think your description fits his epic poetry, certainly. Nor the poems in April Wind. Not every poem by a poet is a gem, to be certain, and some of Turner’s experiments with content are likely to grate with some people (and, as with any experiment, some may not get off the ground), but at the least I find him far better than most poets publishing today.

      His scholarly works are brilliant beyond belief, regardless of what one may think of his poetry. I cannot recomment “Culture of Hope” enough.

      For whatever it’s worth, he’s been a huge influence on me in more ways than I can imagine. Including — perhaps especially — in my own poetry. Of course, I haven’t had enough poems published to fill even the opening pages of Measure.

    • I don’t have exact numbers but, I presume Turner wasn’t lying to me

      Being a best seller can mean a lot of different things.

      I don’t give much credence to hearsay (which isn’t the same as calling someone a liar). I’ll take the facts when I can get them.

      his last collection was a best seller among poetry books.

      You’re talking about “The Prayers of Dallas”?

      I don’t think your description fits his epic poetry, certainly. Nor the poems in April Wind.

      If you enjoy his poems, then that’s all that matters.

      My own impressions: Even in April Wind, I find his tone to be wooden. But I’m a tough reader of poets, especially poets who write traditional poetry. I should probably review Turner’s latest book… I already commented on his translations of Tang Poetry. I lost considerable respect for him when he told me he was qualified to hear stress patterns in Chinese because he was “good” at hearing them in German and Hungarian. What German and Hungarian have to do with Chinese is nil.

      at the least I find him far better than most poets publishing today.

      I wouldn’t disagree with that.

      His scholarly works are brilliant beyond belief…

      His introduction to his Tang Poetry was anything but. It was amateurish, intellectually lazy and arrogant. Maybe that was an exception…

      For whatever it’s worth, he’s been a huge influence on me in more ways than I can imagine…

      That’s worth a lot.

      I’m sure there are plenty of readers who read me the same way I read Turner…

    • The collection I was talking about was “Paradise,” which I saw in book stores everywhere when it first came out. “Prayers of Dallas” isn’t really a collection. It’s intended for performance. In fact, I saw the first performance of it. Qiite an interesting piece.

      I can’t speak to what he said about Tang poetry, having not read that collection, nor the introduction. I would tend to agree with you on making the distinctions among sounds in different languages, though I suppose one could argue that a sensitivity to nuances in sounds in any language — to the music in them, and to music in general — is a particular talent. Not sure the ability to hear it in one necessarily proves one can hear it in the other, though. I recommend his more scholarly works, which are more generally insightful.

      All in all, one can’t argue differences in taste. But at the same time, I think there might be something in the differences between romantic and classicist poems and poets. I often hear classicists criticized in the same way as you criticize Turner, and Turner is certainly a classicist. I don’t know if you would think my work as wooden or not (you may be able to find many other flaws with it, I’m sure), but my own poetry is I think equally influenced by romanticism (broadly defined to include Modernist and postmodernist poets) and classicism.

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  49. Great post and great conversation generated. Like Rafael above, I blame television for many of our modern failings. I agree with most of what you say about poetry.

    But I’ve got some reservations about the public. I am a fan of “how-dumb-are-Americans?” news stories. Can’t name any poets? They have no clue about history either.

    I asked my own brother last night if he had looked at my blog lately. “Too deep for him,” he said.

    I’m not sure how deeply a poet should dive if the reading public are all bottom feeders.

    Thanks. I’m going to scroll up and bookmark your page.

    bd

    • But I’ve got some reservations about the public. I am a fan of “how-dumb-are-Americans?” news stories. Can’t name any poets? They have no clue about history either.

      :-) Right. But don’t forget, as Garrison Keillor likes to point out, we all think we’re above average. I don’t find Americans to be any dumber or smarter than anyone else. Besides that, there are a lot of dumb poets (and doctors for that matter).

  50. “Make poets work for their bread and butter by being poets.”

    Unfortunately, in the present marketplace, there are only a very for for whom this might be possible. Should the discourse of poetry then be reduced to received monologues from those few?

    I must point out a third way–which I am living, and which countless other poets also live. I am a working poet. Poetry for me is not a career, but a vocation. I write before dawn, and read after work, but that does not relegate my love of poetry to the status of a hobby like knitting or collecting plates. I am engaged with the conversation of poetry. I just don’t get paid (very much, or very often) for my part. Still it nourishes me, and I know my work has had an impact on others.

    Poets of centuries past often had independent financial means. We are, in some ways, more fortunate than ever to have so many outlets for poetry, so many poets capable of self-support. The viewpoint that poetry need be a job providing financial support is antiquated. Academia is only attempting to hold up this outmoded ideal, and struggling precisely because it is outmoded. And, of course, academics favor poems written from the neck up.

    But being associated with a university doesn’t need to make your writing deadly dull. The point, for me anyway, is to engage poetry for vocational, not careerist, motives.

    So, long live the vocation of poetry, and all those who write for love.

    • Unfortunately, in the present marketplace, there are only a very for for whom this might be possible. Should the discourse of poetry then be reduced to received monologues from those few?

      As it is, the discourse of poetry is already reduced to received monologues by relatively few.

      An institution like the Poetry Foundation, which now has the means to exert considerable influence on opinion making, could help or hurt that.

      However, your third way is very much a part of the alternative I’d like to see more of. We’re both living it. The world wide web provides a fantastic opportunity to democratize the future of poetry and many established poets and critics don’t like it. They’re comfortable with the poets they’ve hand-picked, and suggesting that the wider public should have any say undercuts all that.

      Over the next 20 years, I expect a lot of coddled reputations to be knocked off their pedestals.

      [Thanks for a great comment by the way!]

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  52. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. This is why I prefer poetry to be obscure and its beauty decided by the reader.

    • Everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

      I agree. And I’d like to see what would happen if the “general opinion” carried some weight.

      Instead, poets are largely isolated from opinions like yours and mine. They can write whatever they please – without consequence.

  53. The general opinion does carry weight. Poets who isolate themselves from the opinions of the general reader and write whatever they please never write without consequence — the consequence is that they will be lost to history.

    • Poets who isolate themselves from the opinions of the general reader and write whatever they please never write without consequence

      That’s debatable. :-)

      If I were a bank robber and knew that shortly after my long and well-lived life the true nature of my wealth would be revealed and all my ill-gotten gains confiscated, I could happily live with such “consequences”.

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  57. Reading this article reminded me of this: “Is there any need for poetry? The question in itself is enough to realize how bad the situation with poetry is at present. When everything is fine, no one has the slightest doubt that there is absolutely no need for poetry.” (B. Pasternak)

    • Yeah… that’s one of those smart-ass, glib one-liners that always irritate me. Sounds witty as all get out, but doesn’t withstand any kind of scrutiny. :-? But I do appreciate your comment. You’ll forgive me if I snark a little.

    • I didn’t say it holds up under scrutiny, I just thought it was funny and this post reminded me of that. Sorry I didn’t feel up to saying anything more substantial. As usual this is a subject that’s big enough for a book-length argument, and I’m currently carrying on some other involved debates on unrelated topics on other websites so I didn’t really think I could my opinion full justice. Part of me agrees with you, part of me doesn’t. I guess I’ll just say this:

      Poetry will exist as long as people care enough to write it and read it. It’s that simple. I’m not sure if bringing the public back to poetry (or bringing poetry to the public) will necessarily produce better poets so much as it will produce more poetry that the public will like. Michael Bay makes films the mass public likes, Stan Brakhage didn’t. I’m not about ready to declare the former a better filmmaker than the latter.

    • //Michael Bay makes films the mass public likes, Stan Brakhage didn’t. I’m not about ready to declare the former a better filmmaker than the latter.//

      No, I agree; the next generation needs to weigh in. :-) In poetry, film and music, unlike the art world, there isn’t an auction system to artificially lengthen the past-due dates of artists.

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  60. I personally think it’s “done to death”, but your comment, Jonathan, is probably the better one. The Bible, and its stories, hold no fascination for me — none — so I’m not, to say the least, the best audience. I’d almost rather read yet another poem drawn from the Greek Mythology (which I find better and more interesting than Christian Mythology) but still fetidly over-ripe. I always take it as a sign of decline when poets start blowing the dust off old chestnuts. You know that I love Robert Frost, but his masques aren’t memorable or particularly worth reading. Geoffrey Hill, I view, as an essayist who happens to write poetry. He’s got Byron’s gift for rhyme sans the wickedness. I refuse to acknowledge any sentence or paragraph that contains the name Merill and the word masterpiece. He’s a second rate poet with a first rate reputation. But I think you are a much more forgiving and fair reader than I am.

  61. [[[The Bible, and its stories, hold no fascination for me…]]]

    There are few subjects that hold intrinsic fascination for me in the context of poetry, perhaps Stevens’ philosophy on reality VS imagination, but such subjects are rather abstract. Other than that, I have little preference when it comes to mythology, or even everyday, subject matter. Like you seem to constantly emphasize, I’m more interested in how such things are poetically executed.

    [[[I always take it as a sign of decline when poets start blowing the dust off old chestnuts. ]]]

    There’s nothing new under the sun. It’s not as if poets can tackle any genuinely new subject that has no predecessors. With that in mind, I see nothing wrong with overtly tackling old subjects as long as a poet brings something new to it. One project I’ve had in mind for a while is doing The Orestia as a series of dramatic monologues.

    [[[I refuse to acknowledge any sentence or paragraph that contains the name Merill and the word masterpiece. He’s a second rate poet with a first rate reputation. But I think you are a much more forgiving and fair reader than I am.]]]

    I refuse to acknowledge any sentence or paragraph that contains the name Merrill and the term “second rate.” How in the world could you even begin to justify that statement? I don’t think I’m a particularly “forgiving” or “fair” reader at all, but I find it hard to grasp how someone who emphasizes the importance of formal virtuosity such as yourself could think so little of Merrill, arguably the most virtuosic formal poet of the century (I think only Auden and Yeats challenge him).

    Frankly, as much as I admire aspects of Frost, over time I’ve come to think of his achievements as rather limited, if not downright miniscule, in comparison to poets like Merrill, Auden, and Yeats. Merrill could easily manage Frost’s idiomatic blank verse, his ease with emblematic poems and intimate dramas; but Frost utterly lacked the vision or originality to pull off pieces like Lost in Translation, From the Cupola, The Thousand and Second Night, The Broken Home, A Tenancy, The Summer People, A Room at the Heart of Things; not to mention The Changing Light at Sandover. I truly believe that when the dust settles on this century Merrill will take his rightful place in the canon, hopefully alongside Yeats, Auden, and Stevens. Those four are the only poets I feel comfortable saying are genuinely first-rate. While there are others I’d hate to be lost to time, Frost, Eliot, Ashbery, Heaney, and HIll among them, I think their loss would be far less tragic.

    • I agree that Frost’s achievements are limited, but when he excelled, he was a genius. I won’t defend him beyond that. His reputation is secure.

      Merrill, on the other hand, flies but only soars by fits and starts. In terms of reputation and skill, he reminds me of a John Middleton. If you read a poem like “Lost in Translation” you”ll find much that is excellent and that certainly exceeds the abilities of the majority, but where is the memorable line? — the poetic image? — the metaphor, simile or association that makes a reader stop, re-read, stop and re-read again? — the poetry? Perhaps here:

      “What Pains, what monolithic Truths
      Shadow stanza to stanza’s symmetrical
      Rhyme-rutted pavement. Know that ground plan left
      Sublime and barren, where the warm Romance
      Stone by stone faded, cooled; the fluted nouns
      Made taller, lonelier than life
      By leaf-carved capitals in the afterglow.
      The owlet umlaut peeps and hoots
      Above the open vowel. And after rain
      A deep reverberation fills with stars.”

      That’s good stuff, but it doesn’t quite lift off. It’s the kind of stuff I was writing in college. Merrill writes like a good writer of prose ought to, but there are passages of Steinbeck that exceed Merrill’s poetic ability.

  62. [[[If you read a poem like “Lost in Translation” you”ll find much that is excellent and that certainly exceeds the abilities of the majority, but where is the memorable line? — the poetic image? — the metaphor, simile or association that makes a reader stop, re-read, stop and re-read again? — the poetry?]]]

    What makes me stop, re-read, stop, and re-read again in Merrill is rarely a singular line, image, or metaphor, but more often effects of structure: surprising turns; moments of transformation, those times when seemingly disparate elements coalesce, or seemingly singular elements separate; moments of irony; even the puns, which are almost never frivolous in Merrill, but tend to tend embody those moments when two significant thematic elements meet in a single word. For the latter, one great example is in the “Down” Section of “Up and Down” when, after being offered an emerald wedding ring from his mother to give to his future wife, Merrill responds with “the feet that patter here are metrical,” which, beyond being clever and memorable, enfolds a constant motif in Merrill of poetry being a substitute for childlessness.

    Given the above, Lost in Translation is primarily an achievement of structure, of enfolding so many disparate elements—an enormous jigsaw puzzle done by a boy and his “Mademoiselle” nanny, his nanny’s multi-nationalistic past, the boy’s parent’s divorce, the search for a translation of a poem—together and finding relevant links between them, creating interruptions that break apart the fluidity of the poem, introduce another vital “piece,” before bringing it back together. Consider this:

    “Mademoiselle does borders— (Not so fast.
    A London dusk, December last…”

    Why does the poem suddenly break off at that line? We don’t find out the significance of “borders” to Mademoiselle until much later:

    “Indeed. Mademoiselle was only French by marriage.
    Child of an English mother, a remote
    Descendant of the great explorer Speke,
    And Prussian father. No one knew. I heard it
    Long afterwards from her nephew, a UN
    Interpreter. His matter-of-fact account
    Touched old strings. My poor Mademoiselle,
    With 1939 about to shake
    This world where “each was the enemy, each the friend”
    To its foundations, kept, though signed in blood,
    Her peace a shameful secret to the end.)”

    Everyone, everything in the poem seems to have its secret pasts that are feeding into the present so that the poem becomes like a huge puzzle itself. In the beginning, we can’t see the relevance of each piece until they start snapping into place. As for more memorable lines, how about:

    “Then Sky alone is left, a hundred blue
    Fragments in revolution, with no clue
    To where a Niche will open. Quite a task,
    Putting together Heaven, yet we do.

    It’s done. Here under the table all along
    Were those missing feet. It’s done.”

    Again with the pun on “missing feet,” given that the poem is as much about a boy discovering how, like Proust, to recover and make sense of his past through his art. Something like “Quite a task, / Putting together Heaven, yet we do.” relates not only to the puzzle, but to the poem and, beyond the poem, to the Stevensian imagination for structuring its version of reality. From that structuring you equally get the apocalypse, which I also find memorable:

    “All too soon the swift
    Dismantling. Lifted by two corners,
    The puzzle hung together—and did not.
    Irresistibly a populace
    Unstitched of its attachments, rattled down.
    Power went to pieces as the witch
    Slithered easily from Virtue’s gown.
    The blue held out for time, but crumbled, too.
    The city had long fallen, and the tent,
    A separating sauce mousseline,
    Been swept away. Remained the green
    On which the grown-ups gambled. A green dusk.
    First lightning bugs. Last glow of west
    Green in the false eyes of (coincidence)
    Our mangy tiger safe on his bared hearth.”

    Speaking of effects of structure, things like “the blue held out for time…” and “A green dusk. / First lightning bugs.” etc. is not accidental, since earlier we had:

    “Out of the blue, as promised, of a New York
    Puzzle-rental shop the puzzle comes—“

    and:

    “Daylight shines in or lamplight down
    Upon the tense oasis of green felt.”

    These are two examples of how images in the poem transform themselves as the poem goes on. These are subtle effects, and, to me, create more and lasting resonance than just the single outstanding image or metaphor or line, although I do think there are plenty of those things throughout Merrill oeuvre. I think it was Stephen Yenser (whose book The Consuming Myth on James Merrill is one of the best studies I’ve ever read of any poet) who compared Lost in Translation to works like Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, which is also a poem that I feel is more memorable in its accumulative, structural effect than it is in lines, metaphors, or images in isolation.

    On a side note, if you were genuinely writing poems as good as Lost in Translation in college I’d love to read it! I’ve actually read Steinbeck, and while I am a fan of his poetic prose, to say he had greater poetic sensibilities than Merrill, or to say Merrill writes like a “good prose author” is just absurd. Merrill is like Yeats or Auden in that he never, ever makes his formal choices arbitrarily. You can be assured that if he starts off writing in, say, blank verse paragraphs and switches to ABBA stanzaic quatrains, there’s a reason for the switch.

    • Fair enough, you defend Merrill well. You value his poetry, and poetry in general, for different reasons than I do.

      Unfortunately, he hasn’t been and will not be ranked to your satisfaction. The kinds of qualities you enjoy in poetry aren’t the kinds that make poems memorable or that sustain a more general readership. I know it’s fashionable (and has been for the last hundred years) to contemptuously dismiss the decadent masses but, given enough time, the masses are right. So far, he might be comparable to an Auden (a reach), but will never be comparable to Yeats. His poetry is too dry.

      You’re probably familiar with this quote:

      Asked once if he would prefer a more popular readership, Merrill replied “Think what one has to do to get a mass audience. I’d rather have one perfect reader. Why dynamite the pond in order to catch that single silver carp?”

      Here are a few choice quotes from William Logan:

      “Among her contemporaries she was closest to James Merrill—the flamboyant surfaces, the preposterously embroidered lexicon (the inheritance of Auden), the sinuous thought and conversational asides (not as witty, but not as frivolous, either).”

      “Merrill’s eye is always being caught by something, his very language an act of flaunting possession…”

      “Merrill, whose own formal poems were gossipy, full of mental pivots and leaps, and deviously self-aware. Merrill was consummately what Robert Frost said a poet should be: a person “of prowess.””

      //On a side note, if you were genuinely writing poems as good as Lost in Translation…//

      I was not. I was writing passages, though, that would remind you of the extract above. I’m not sure I still have those poems. One of my sketchbooks was once stolen and destroyed. Never understood why.

  63. [[[You value his poetry, and poetry in general, for different reasons than I do.]]]

    I’ve read extensively on your blog, and I feel that we value a lot of the same things; perhaps I just value a few more things beside that. As I said, given what I’ve read of your blog and your emphasis on formal prowess I was rather surprised to hear you were so unimpressed with Merrill.

    [[[Unfortunately, he hasn’t been and will not be ranked to your satisfaction. The kinds of qualities you enjoy in poetry aren’t the kinds that make poems memorable or that sustain a more general readership.]]]

    Merrill is not easily served by anthologies, and, therefor, a general readership because his greatest achievements tend to be in long(er) pieces. In that aspect, he’s not dissimilar to Blake and Stevens. Even though Blake remains popularly read for his “Songs,” and Stevens for shorts like Anecdote of the Jar, The Snow Man, The Emperor of Ice Cream, etc., were it not for academics that got obsessive over Blake’s Prophetic Works, and Stevens’ long poems, would either have been remembered enough to have any general readership? I think that’s questionable. Blake was almost completely forgotten until Northrop Frye resurrected interest in him.

    That said, I think Merrill has enough shorter pieces that are memorable and would please a general readership. One lyrical piece of his I quite like and easily memorized is Hourglass II, which I copied from memory once online (so it may not be perfect, word-for-word or in punctuation):

    Dear, at death’s door when you stand
    I will run to let you in.
    You will know me by my grin
    And the joints of this right hand.

    You will follow unafraid,
    As one seldom does in life.
    I will say to Pluto’s wife:
    “Please, your majesty, this shade’s

    My friend who always kept your spring,
    Taught me how to wear your green.
    Twenty winters intervene,
    Yet I glow, remembering.”

    Then she will unlock a chest,
    Shake our senses out like robes,
    Fine and warm to naked ribs,
    Make a sign when we are dressed

    For one hour in which we fill
    With ten thousand joys and pains.
    Then, reversed, the burning grains
    Back through her transparent will

    Drain, and the robes are blown apart,
    Two more bat shapes in a cave,
    Little dreaming how they have
    Blessed each other, heart to heart.

    Is it a perfect or profound poem, a poem of brilliance or genius? No; but is it the kind of piece that would appeal to a general readership, perhaps the kind of person who doesn’t read much poetry? Yes, I think. In fact, I’ve had quite good results reading this to people who know almost nothing of poetry. Frankly, I find much more appeal in a poem like this, and I think a general readership would as well, than in, say, Stevens’ The Emperor of Ice Cream or Anecdote of the Jar, which, I must admit, I find almost inexplicably popular.

    [[[You’re probably familiar with this quote: … Here are a few choice quotes from William Logan:]]]

    I was familiar with the Merrill quote, but not those from Logan. As for the former, it’s not like Stevens and Eliot cultivated a popular readership, yet they are both quite popular and probably canonical by now. As for those from Logan, the first is the typical response from people incapable of looking past Merrill’s glittering surfaces (accusing Merrill of being frivolous is one of the most egregiously wrong comments a critic could make of him). Yet, it’s the appeal of those very surfaces–the wit, the humor, the puns, the irony, the frequent conversational tone, the rhythm and rhyme, etc.–that I would think would make him a good candidate for a general readership. Can Merrill be difficult with a “preposterously embroidered lexicon?” Yes; though in the latter he’s far less showy than Stevens of The Comedian of the Letter C; or even that popular Ice Cream Emperor–Concupiscent curds, anyone? But, like Auden, or even Yeats, I tend to find Merrill delighting and pleasing in equal measure to his moments of ostentatiousness or difficulty.

    If a poet like Frost is much more popular than any of the above mentioned, it’s probably because Frost rarely lifted his poetic imagination above the commonplace; or, at least, what visionary, imaginative content he has was usually reserved for finding their expression in that commonplace. Don’t get me wrong, I find the accusations against Frost for frivolousness as foolish as those against Merrill, but Frost was almost always superficially accessible; and that accessibility, perhaps as much as any memorability or imagination, is what makes him so popular; but can such a popularity really sustain his reputation forever? What about when popular tastes change or dissipate from poetry completely? Where will Frost be then? I tend to think we’ll have academics writing about The Changing Light at Sandover for centuries to come (it is, by a good distance, the most original and, IMO, profound, poem of its length of the century), and probably keeping Merrill in print because of that interest. Is it possible to sustain Frost by equal means? One doesn’t have to look far to find popular, poetic darlings throughout the centuries that faded the moment that popular tastes changed. At one time, Felicia Hemans was once amongst the most popular 19th century poets.

    [[[ I’m not sure I still have those poems. One of my sketchbooks was once stolen and destroyed. Never understood why.]]]

    You may or may not know, but Merrill’s own Changing Light at Sandover was started out of the ruins of his own lost manuscript that he accidentally left in a Taxi! He has a shorter poem about it called The Will that was worked into Sandover.

  64. Hi Nazaritus, you unfortunately confuse the breadth of your ambition with the reach of your talent, and it is a form of blindness which, in my experience, has no known anecdote. It is a good thing in a 13 year old, but sheer narcisism in an adult. If you persist, and I see no reason why you won’t, you will be remembered as a William McGonagall, not a William Shakespeare.

  65. Hi Jonathan, I don’t have anything to add. You’ve succinctly expressed my own thoughts.

    I would probably hesitate to recommend Frost. I’m not sure he’s a good model for the kind of work SN is writing. It’s an interesting question as regards Frost. His vernacular style, I’d say, works better in shorter poems like “Home Burial”. His masques, in my view, show the limits of his style when applied to longer works. I don’t think they’re very successful for a variety of reasons.

    But, now that you’ve engaged SN, I’ll be interested to see how this turns out. As far as sheer volume (volubility) goes, you have definitely met your match.

    SNazaritus writes: “What else is genius, but an unusual love of oneself?”

    What else is mediocrity?

    What constitutes genius isn’t going to lend itself to a single rhetorical question. Among other things, artistic genius possesses an unusual and extremely rare perspicacity and clarity as concerns its own creative output. This is a quality, to judge by your response to Jonathan, that you (as yet) singularly lack. Part of the problem (and my heart goes out to you) is that English isn’t, apparently, your native tongue. Your responses, let alone your poetry, are full of poor grammar and, overall, poor writing. Until you’re willing to hear this and can recognize it in your own output, words are wasted. Writing poetry in a non-native tongue, unless you’re willing to write the flavorless free-verse prosetry of the modern era (which requires little to no sensitivity to the innate musicality of language) seems to be a near impossibility. No poet, to my knowledge, has ever done it. Milosz, though he lived in the United States and spoke fluent English (and loved Lithuanian) always wrote poetry in his native tongue – Polish. Writing “true poetry” — and we all know what I mean by that right? — requires a kind of sensitivity to language that only comes with having been born to it.

  66. Pingback: Berenice « PoemShape

  67. //On Monday coming, 13th January 2014, I will begin draft of the play, JOSEPH THE DREAMER….//

    NS, these posts don’t belong here. I’ve asked you before and now I’m telling you: You need to post these in the Guestbook, look here. This is what the Guestbook is for, especially if you want others to see your posts.

    You are welcome to post there and we can carry on our discussion. In the meantime, I’ve removed this discussion thread. If you continue to randomly post comments without regard to subject matter, I will simply remove them.

    Edit: I’ve removed your posts, Jonathan’s and my own. They are not deleted, just removed.

    In response to your follow up post:

    //Hi. It is not as if I desired that I should have the last word in the argument…//

    N.S. As I just wrote, I have already removed your posts, mine and Jonathan’s. I have not deleted them. If you want them to be reposted at the Guestbook (or sent to you) I can do that. Your comments are not lost, only being held in the event you want to move the discussion to its proper place. If you post here again, I’m just going to remove the post. If you want to continue to discuss your work, then go to the Guestbook.

  68. Hi,
    I realize this is a fairly old post, but I just found it (upon doing a large web search yesterday on Robert Frost as a person.)

    I also just recently found one of my (if not my very) favorite book from when I was in college (no, it wasn’t a text book. I found it in a 2nd hand store): Modern American Poetry Modern British Poetry.

    I was looking through it again the other day, at all the stars I’d made by lines, of all the lines I’d made by rhymes, of how much of it spoke to me, or just seemed to sing from those pages…

    And how right you are that nothing and no one came in to take over after the Modernists…

    “The fact that the Poetry Foundation continues to exist, not because of its intrinsic merit but because of a generous benefactor means that its aesthetic genetics (the attitudes, values and artistic principles) that were probably ripe for expiration, will now continue to exert an undeserved and unearned influence on poetry. ” – I have to say I agree. I don’t feel like delving into why, but that is decidedly a clear observation.

    I also just published my first (short) book of poetry… And while I’m glad I did, it feels strange to do so in a climate where no one cares for poetry (aside for ‘slam poetry’) and where no one reads it.

    At any rate, since you’re right one needs an audience, I thought I would link it here.

    http://www.amazon.com/dp/B013THPS5C

    Thanks for this essay. I will dig around on your page now for more :)

    -Val!
    Valerie Jupe

  69. Pingback: Book Review: Shattered Fragments of my Soul « PoemShape

  70. Poetry died when “poets” stopped writing poetry, and when it became old-fashioned to use rhyme or rhythm. It died when it was no longer pleasurable or instructive to read or listen to. It died for the same reason that classical music is dying: no one is composing “music” that anyone wants to hear.

    • What about rap music and “poetry slams” – which isn’t so much poetry at all but more like spoken word and often substance-less prose?
      I found a collection of poets here in my small town of Sheboygan, WI who are amazingly creative (many of them) with either nicely imagery-driven poetry, or deeply felt poems. I was impressed. It would be nice if poetry could rise again.

    • I’m blown away by the artistry in rap music and the ability of poets to extemporize in poetry slams. Amazed. As you say, though, these aren’t quite the same. Poetry will rise again but, in my opinion, it hasn’t been a good 60 – 70 years — and that’s normal in every genre of art, music, literature. The last batch of poets are mostly like all those poets during the Victorian era — lauded in their day, and easily fogettable.

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