On Poetic Neglect

  • This article was written in response to an article by Vermont’s poet laureate.  I submitted my response to the Valley News this evening but who knows whether they’ll publish it. It willfully and disdainfully exceeds their 350 word limit (as regards letters to the editor). If link rot sets in, let me know.

On Poetic Neglect

Having just read Chard de Niord I can’t help remarking that this is yet another “it’s not me, it’s you” article by a contemporary poet. He establishes his thesis from the get-go writing that it’s not anything “toxic that’s overcoming them: It’s neglect.” Who’s neglect? Well, obviously, the problem is the reading public. Who else is going to “neglect” poets? He then writes that 99 percent of his incoming freshmen couldn’t name a single contemporary poet.

Mr. de Niord’s comments could have been taken straight from my own article at Poemshape, called Let Poetry Die; written for the Wall Street Journal several years ago. What Mr. de Niord left out is that 99 percent of his students could probably name a poet who wasn’t a contemporary. How about Mother Goose? Shakespeare? Keats? Frost? Eliot? Or even William Carlos Williams? If they didn’t know the names, they could probably recognize their poems. They can in my experience.

Mr. de Niord goes further, noting that “very few Americans outside the minuscule poetry community… read and write poetry as a secret discipline.” This is self-exculpatory and circular. In other words, the implication is that if Americans were reading and writing more poetry, then contemporary poems would be more popular. On the contrary, it’s possible that many more Americans are reading poetry than Mr. de Niord’s reasoning would suggest—they’re just not that into contemporary poetry. Mother Goose and Shel Silverstein continue to sell quite well, as do the Modernists, the Romantics and Shakespeare.

Mr. de Niord then writes: “I often see fright, shame, and even disdain on people’s faces when I tell them I’m a poet” Speaking for myself (being a poet too), when I tell others I’m a poet I’m usually met with warmth and interest and sometimes, in the interest of full disclosure, pity—but never shame or fright. Is it my debonair good looks, my wit, my insouciant flair?

But Mr. de Niord isn’t done blaming the victim. He writes that “schoolchildren, as well as high school students, often feel stupid during their first, second, and third encounters with poetry.”

For the record, my own experience (and that of my peers) was generally the opposite. By our third encounter we had all but confirmed our suspicion: contemporary poets were fools. If we let the instructor conclude that he was the smart one in the room, it was because we knew who buttered our parsnips.

The most telling rhetorical question in Mr. de Niords’ article though, is the following: “So what to make of the marginal status of poetry in America, where so many crave poetry for its essential, memorable expression[?]” The question is its own answer. It’s precisely the “memorable expression” that is missing from contemporary poetry. To combatively paraphrase another obscure poet: The fault, dear Brutus is not in our audience, but in ourselves, that we are neglected.

It’s not the readership who has neglected contemporary poetry, but the poet who has neglected the reader. Who knew, after a stultifying generation of Victorian metrical poetry, the 20th century would inaugurate a stultifying century of naval-gazing free verse? Is it possible that contemporary poets aren’t read because they’re just not that good?

I recently exchanged email with a freshly minted graduate student who told me that his instructor wouldn’t allow him to write poems with rhyme (or presumably meter). Is it any wonder the contemporary audience doesn’t look to contemporary poets for memorable language or the memorable expression? When is the last time readers turned to a contemporary poet knowing they could find a passage like this?

By June our brook’s run out of song and speed.
Sought for much after that, it will be found
Either to have gone groping underground
(And taken with it all the Hyla breed
That shouted in the mist a month ago,
Like ghost of sleigh-bells in a ghost of snow)–

At least in some academic quarters, the poetics of the last hundred years has apparently turned into an orthodoxy rivaling a religious creed. It’s high time contemporary poets stopped blaming their audience and maybe it’s high time aspiring poets stopped thinking they need to go to school to write poetry. Was William Carlos Williams sitting in a workshop when he wrote The Red Wheelbarrow? As Mr. de Niord pointed out, he was too busy being a doctor.

There’s plenty of poetry being read. It’s just not “contemporary” poetry. My own blog, which primarily examines traditional poetry, has had almost two and half million visits from readers around the world. Readers are fascinated by the memorably expressed poems of the Elizabethans, Romantics and Modernists.

And it’s long past time poets blamed a “utilitarian, capitalist culture” (among other excuses). Mr de Niord might be interested to know that I engage, every day, in wonderful conversations about The Red Wheelbarrow, Hamlet, and the meaning of Ozymandias. I’ve even done so on an airplane. The first is by a modernist, the second an Elizabethan and the third a Romantic. Maybe contemporary poets simply lack the talent to write memorable verse?—or are too ossified by orthodoxy? At the very least, they might evince a little interest in the kind of poetry Americans are reading instead of equating a disinterest in contemporary verse with a general neglect of poetry.

upinVermont • June 3rd 2016

7 responses

  1. Bravo to all of the aforementioned above. Give me rhyme, any time, be it end, slant, internal, or however it comes my way it’s intriguing, fascinating, and altogether fine. Oh, and, to answer your question, it’s clearly your debonair good looks expressed as you butter those parsnips so effortlessly.

  2. Frankly, I think “the fault” is a mix of both poets and audiences. The 20th century has had an explosion of new media placing demands on audiences’ attentions: TV, Film, Video Games, Recorded Music, Internet/Social Media, etc., so it’s not surprising that there’s been a declining interest in the older art-forms. How many people can name contemporary painters or composers (that didn’t compose for TV/film)? For the poets part, I generally agree that the ability to use language memorably has also declined with the fall of meter/rhyme and the rise of free-verse: but clearly that’s not the ONLY reason as the memorability of the modernists and late romantics (Whitman, Eliot, Stevens, et al) is a testament to.

    I also think that the sheer amount of poetry/poets has increased with the population explosion; perhaps because it’s the one art-form that anyone with a basic grasp of language can do (as opposed to having to learn music, or learn to use a camera, or how to paint), but few bother to learn how to do well. So there’s simply so much more poor/mediocre work out that it’s difficult to know what to read to begin with. I still think there are great poets writing, even if they might not appeal to your everyman reader–but the same is true of other literature. McCarthy and Pynchon hardly have the readership of King and Rowling. If there’s anything that’s off about contemporary poetry it’s not that there aren’t McCarthys and Pynchons out there, but that there aren’t many Kings and Rowlings. Maybe Collins and Oliver are as close as poetry has.

    • //but clearly that’s not the ONLY reason//

      No, but I do think it’s the main reason. And I do play the ‘Billy Collins’ and ‘Mary Oliver’ cards to make my case.

      Collins is a poet who sold 200,000 copies of his book and made enough money to live, albeit judiciously, off his poetry. His poems are conversational and, best of all, witty. I happen to think he’s a one trick pony, but it’s a good pony. There’s also Mary Oliver who’s essentially written the same poem a hundred times, but they’re good poems—with memorable metaphors and ideas. She also makes a living from her poetry. They prove that it’s possible to achieve popular success with poetry that, in some sense, excels.

      Besides that quibble, I agree with your perspective. There’s way too much mediocre work. Poetry has become an arts & craft—like scrapbooking—and with about as much appeal.

  3. I perhaps have more reservations about both Oliver and Collins than you do, but I would agree that their accessibility is refreshing in an age where obscurity and “purpose poetry” (SJW-type stuff) is the name of the game. At the very least they’re superficially enjoyable, which is better than most work that is neither enjoyable nor provocative enough to meditate on the way Stevens and Eliot were.

  4. DeNiord’s poetry is…kind of rambling and boring. In a lineup, it would not stand out. Actually, “What the Animals Teach Us” would stand out for being self-important (in my opinion).

    • Embarrassed to say: I’d never heard of de Niord before his becoming poet laureate and had obviously never read his poems. As I would describe him, he writes poems like an essayist, with some asides into humor/doggerel. Of the poems I’ve read, I find little to no metaphor — just flat-spoken exegesis.

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