Reblog: The Public Responsibilities of Known American Poets

  • This article was just brought to my attention by the author, Eugene Schlanger. I thought that many readers, even if they didn’t agree with my post Let Poetry Die (or its later rewrite Redux), might find the piece equally thought provoking.

ecently, Forbes magazine attempted to measure the effect of Ruth Lilly’s $185 million bequest to the Poetry Foundation. That foundation, which publishes Poetry magazine, claims that it reached 19 million new poetry readers last year. John Barr, its president, a poet and a former investment banker, suggested this was positive evidence of the growth of the public’s awareness and reception of this art form. Quantitatively, the market for poetry may have increased. Qualitatively, the results are far less clear.

In 1943 T. S. Eliot addressed the British-Norwegian Institute and attempted to measure the social function of poetry. He asked whether a poem could serve a public purpose. In addition to the pleasure of reading, can a poem expand the public’s awareness of non-literary issues, such as those in the social, political, economic, or religious arenas? Noting his inability to read Norwegian, Eliot said that if hypothetically no new Norwegian poetry were ever to be written again, he still understood that was a global loss because it would affect the ability of all people to express themselves. In other words, although civilizations and nations differ, poetic language has a universal purpose.

Against these differing backgrounds—monetized and anthropological—one may inquire about the current state and purpose of contemporary American poetry, not from the point of view of the poetry establishment but from the perspective of the general public. This question may be even more relevant in our age of constant communications when an astute observation or an expression of heightened awareness can circumvent all boundaries and be republished instantly. One might expect well-crafted words to have more of an effect and function in these circumstances. One might also expect American poetry to have more of a general audience.


Continue Reading This Article at The University Bookman

9 responses

  1. I agree with the author of the article. The ‘business’ of poetry seems insular to those of us outside looking into the void of modern American poetry. The word present day master does not seem to apply to anyone since my heroes Lowell and Bishop. There are older poets still around in their eighties but they are not mentioned much as towering figures on the poetic scene. It is unfortunate but not a reason to be worried about the present condition. The social issues of war, poverty, hopelessness of the African children and man’s defilement of the earth are still out there waiting to be addressed. On the bright side, we can draw on the experience of poets like Gerald Stern, one of the best of the old guard. I was lucky enough to study under him years ago at the University of Pittsburgh. His book ‘Lucky Life’ had just been published and I read it cover to cover. Also, that year, Wright’s ‘To A Blossoming Pear Tree’ had recently been published. He, too, touches upon the rim of greatness. So, I say read the works of Bishop, Lowell and the other American luminaries. Somewhere out there, there may be a Whitman or Frost waiting to be heard.

    • //The ‘business’ of poetry seems insular to those of us outside looking into the void of modern American poetry.//

      In truth, there is no business. If poets actually had to make a living writing poetry, there wouldn’t be any “professional” poets — or at best, maybe one or two. John Ashbery wouldn’t be on that list.

      //It is unfortunate but not a reason to be worried about the present condition. The social issues of war, poverty, hopelessness of the African children and man’s defilement of the earth are still out there waiting to be addressed.//

      That’s the one part of the essay I questioned. He writes:

      will some young poet in Clinton, Iowa or Columbus, Georgia come to purposely write not about themselves or personal desires, but about this Congress, abortion, immigration, God or godlessness, our soldiers, or any of the other political and moral issues that permeate this nation’s consciousness at this vivid time and place?

      The problem I have with this is that, historically, the best poems by the very best poets typically have nothing to do with government, immigration, God or godlessness, soldiers or political and moral issues. Or, if they do, it’s very indirect. Can you think of any poems by Frost, Cummings, Eliot, Williams, Wright, etc.? Some of Frost’s poems started out political, but usually lost such references in the process of revision. In fact, Frost was criticized for not being political. If you remember, there was one poem recently discovered “War Thoughts at Home” that was about as close as Frost got to topicality.

      Later, we had poets like Ginsberg and the “confessional poets”, some of whom were nothing if not political, but they and their ilk (John Berryman, Ginsberg, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Roethke, Sexton) are the very poets Schlanger would seem to be criticizing when he hopes that some poet will “come to purposely write not about themselves or personal desires”. My own thought is that we’ve had too much of that. We’ve had too many poets soapboxing about the very things Shlanger would like to see more of. The durable topical poem is very rare.

      Here’s the Frost poem by the way (if only to have it on the website):

      War Thoughts at Home
      Robert Frost

      On the back side of the house
      Where it wears no paint to the weather
      And so shows most its age,
      Suddenly blue jays rage
      And flash in blue feather.

      It is late in an afternoon
      More grey with snow to fall
      Than white with fallen snow
      When it is blue jay and crow
      Or no bird at all.

      So someone heeds from within
      This flurry of bird war,
      And rising from her chair
      A little bent over with care
      Not to scatter on the floor

      The sewing in her lap
      Comes to the window to see.
      At sight of her dim face
      The birds all cease for a space
      And cling close in a tree.

      And one says to the rest
      “We must just watch our chance
      And escape one by one—
      Though the fight is no more done
      Than the war is in France.”

      Than the war is in France!
      She thinks of a winter camp
      Where soldiers for France are made.
      She draws down the window shade
      And it glows with an early lamp.

      On that old side of the house
      The uneven sheds stretch back
      Shed behind shed in train
      Like cars that long have lain
      Dead on a side track.

      January 1918

  2. Hi Patrick,
    “Why are poets so unreliant?” Perhaps because they don’t own or use dictionaries!
    This essay by the “wall Street Poet” could have been profitably edited to good effect by a high-school student. I don’t find that he anywhere actually articulated a question and then answered it –though he did give us reason to suspect that the Old Possum (T.S. Eliot) had gotten mentally dodgy toward the end. (In fact, Eliot’s remarks on poetry and its relation to public and private culture are profound and worth the effort; though one would not learn that by reading this moron.) It is a case in point of the phenomenon it belabors: it is intellectually lazy and uncensored or edited only because he is part of the “in crowd.”

    If poetry has a public place in the world, let’s hope it is not the poets themselves who make the case.

    • Hi Kevin, I shudder to think what you must think of me! What with all my typos, incomplete sentences, and malapropisms. I leave that criticism to you. :-) My pot is very black and my self-editing unreliant.

      I thought it was interesting. As I said in the previous comment, I’m not sure that a moral and political poet (topical though that my be) is the answer to a general banality. I get the sense, with Schlanger, that he’s searching for someone congruent with his own poetic ambitions. That’s normal, but we should always question ourselves when we make assertions like that. Politics is best left to the poet/dramatists, I think.

  3. What are we truly asking for when we say we want poems that the “general public” will buy?

    Poems that are, first and foremost, entertaining. Poems that catch and keep our attention; poems that do not bore us from the start; poems that pay off what they promise; poems that promise something clear. This is the “Hollywood” secret of success (love it or hate it).

    Thousands of poems written in the past thirty years could (and do) meet these criteria –and many, many of them were written by poets teaching in MFA programs–but there is still a massive disconnect in popular appeal.

    What are we missing? I’ll give three possibilities.

    When you pick up a book or go to the movies, don’t you usually ask: What genre does this story belong to? What other stories have I already seen that are like this? And before you’ve even opened the book or sat in the theater, you know the basic emotional response that the story is aiming at: laughter, fright, tears, titillation, etc.

    In effect, you know the context for the content in advance—“I’m watching a documentary to expand my knowledge about issue X; I’m seeing this movie because I want to laugh, cry, jump out of my seat; I’m reading this book because it’s part of my favorite genre.”

    But the context of most contemporary poems—both in terms of subject matter and tone—is much less clear, or even far too varied to meet or exceed our expectations. Why? Because nearly all contemporary poetry is lumped together in what I call the “Whoa Genre.”

    As with a galloping horse, the aim is to get us to stop, to be silent for a moment; there’s little or no cause for lively engagement. I’m not totally arguing against this reaction, but when you go to the poetry section of a library or bookshop, you can’t tell from the spines and covers what “genre” of poetry you’re looking at; it all looks about the same, and uniformly kind of bland. You can’t guess what enjoyable and entertaining emotion you might have by reading that book or poem. Most of all, it’s a marketing ghetto, as though poems are too good or strange to mix with prose or be categorized by genre (which means more poetry books written in other genres to begin with).

    And if you do “sample” a poet’s work, you don’t come prepared; you can’t connect it to similar work; and you won’t go through the ritual of readying your mind for an artistic experience (as you do when entering a theater or concert venue). Again, this is not altogether a negative, but it does limit poetry’s ability to catch and keep a much larger audience.

    Poets who capture an audience through an entertaining stage presence and voice—poets who perform their own poems and “cover” poems by others—have the greatest potential to capture a large and broad audience. Robert Frost and Dylan Thomas knew this then; Billy Collins and Robert Pinsky know it now. Radio, TV, slam circuits, YouTube, Facebook—these are the great amplifiers for great performing poets (as opposed to performance poets). Poets who engage with the other art forms, too, stand a greater chance of success. Collaboration is key. We’ve got hundreds of poets—many of whom teach in MFA programs—who could (and do) rise to these challenges. Still, something’s missing…

    Imagine that the basic unit of contemporary poetry is not the collection or anthology, is not the literary magazine or blog, is not the creative writing workshop, is not the poetry reading. It is the individual poem, like a hit single off an album. The single poem is the vehicle for the poet’s persona and is the most effective gateway to the book, the reading, the career.

    Ideally, the single will do all the work, and an infrastructure will emerge naturally, in Darwinian fashion, around selling that single to the most people possible.

    Imagine, too, that in any collection of poems, there might be two or three poems at most that will reach “hit single” status. These few poems stand alone quite well, and are representative of the greater variety of the book.

    Encourage poets to invest in the individual poem and to circulate it (free of charge; money comes later, if at all) in places where audiences already are, according to their interests, and those poets will get better results. Use all the tools of marketing, salesmanship, and promotion—and the backing of universities and The Poetry Foundation—to engage a fan base: not to lionize a great poet’s body of work (that comes later, if at all), but to deliver and capitalize on one very good poem.

    When book publication is no longer the object (or requirement for tenure), then poets wanting wider recognition (and real sales in a real marketplace) will publish less and focus more. When young people see a few older people succeeding in the “singles” market, they’ll innovate and strive to secure a place for themselves. But, for my money, they’ll do it one poem at a time…and they’ll have to give away a lot more than they sell (that’s where the internet comes in handy).

    Eventually we’ll have an actual body of good work by good poets—many of whom will never teach in an MFA program—that is readily available to anyone. We’ll even be able to bring back the “hits” of the past and from other cultures. And that doesn’t even touch on the possibilities of children’s poetry…

    A poet might get one solid “classic” in a lifetime, but a great number of people will know it by heart…will recite it and remix it, too…and isn’t that more than most of us achieve despite our torrent of toss-away chapbooks and zines?

    Can you imagine it?

    Steven Withrow

    • I agree with you Steven. I have a practical example. I teach English as a foreign language and I was scouring through the web for an article to discuss with a literature undergrad. I came across a poetry review on an English poet – Mimi Khalvati. The article (from The Guardian, UK ) was so engaging that I went on to search for the poet’s website, and ended up printing off (for free) a poem for myself and bought two books of poetry for Christmas presents. I felt confident enough to do this because of the biographical information given and the explanation offered on each collection.
      Siobhan Collins

  4. “I have often wondered whether anyone else writing about poetry these days has the courage to suggest that not much that is memorable, meaningful or musical has been written by an American poet in decades.”

    It seems to me that you’ve said this before. I agree with Schlanger. The poetry today does not enter the “national conscious.” Although I am not convinced that a poem has to be political or current to resonate with the public. I fear that the general public is very much left out of the “universal purpose.” It must have been refreshing to see your views validated. Don’t give up.

  5. I had two thoughts that seemed worth sharing. First, for the last two years I have mostly kept my diet to American poets writing after 1950. There are tons and tons of really pleasurable, demanding, lovely, carefully made contemporary American poems. I am not sure what qualifies as “great”… but I am doubtful that we get much good from so-called great works of art. And I think it is best for us and for the art if we do not see it primarily as a contest to produce masterworks but rather a craft of producing lovely things of some value.

    Secondly, I read somewhere that it was quite likely that more people write poetry than read it. Wonderful! The writing of poetry is for me so compelling and fruitful, so difficult and confusing, so disconnected from profit or desire for acclaim, that it makes total sense to me that a vital and thriving poetry culture could be built around many, many poets trying every day to say something wonderful and their circle hearing them out and responding. Poetry as a folk art, like gardening or playing the guitar or cooking, will do more to fill hearts and minds with beauty than than a poetry-as-commodity effort to hit it big.

    Loving poetry and respecting the grace it can bring, I read poems I like (some of which maybe I wrote, others by better poets) to the people I know and love.

    • You know, I find nothing in your post to disagree with.

      I had to laugh though, when you wrote that more people writes poetry than read it! That’s the kind of praise that damns! I think, though, that what frustrates a poet like myself, is that claims for great poetry are nevertheless made.

      To me, finding and recognizing the good (and what’s good) in great art matters. So when claims for great art are made by a self-appointed circle that has shown a complete and utter inability to recognize greatness in anything whatsoever, I get frustrated. I’m glad that more poetry is being written than read (he writes with a wry smile) but I’d like it see the public passionate about one or two poets whose poems are far exceeded by those who read them. :-)

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