the book I didn’t buy

Readings in Contemporary PoetryI put snow tires on, better late than never, and stopped by the Dartmouth bookstore. There’s a book there that’s been tempting me, called Readings in Contemporary Poetry. The book is really lovely, nicely presented, spacious and with brief biographies and discussions of the poets and poems.

The book (I’m guessing by design) has more the layout of an art book than a poetry anthology. Biographies and background on the left page, paintings, prints, or in this case, poems carefully reproduced on the right page. The poems generally fit to a page and are thoughtfully typeset on glossy paper. And I like the book’s cover art. Appeals to my sense of the transgressive.

First to the presentation. I found it interesting because, intentionally or otherwise, the book would appear to be blurring artistic spheres in a mercantile sort of way. The presentation of the poems suggests, if unintentionally, that the value of these poems functions in the same theater as contemporary art (in the sense of “art valuation”). To understand why I find this intriguing (and without rewriting the wheel) take a look at the following article at Quartz (and you can find many other articles making the same argument): High-end art is one of the most manipulated markets in the world. It begins:

“You’d think the value of art would depend on its aesthetic value; a picture you enjoy looking at on your wall. How could a dismembered corpse artist be remotely successful? Yet these paintings were classified as desirable by the art market.

To understand why, you must first understand the economics of art galleries in America and Europe. Almost all primary art sales—art bought from the artist as opposed to another collector—occurs through art galleries. Galleries set taste and prices—sets is actually an understatement. Galleries manipulate prices to an extent that would be illegal in most industries.

Someone with a financial interest controlling the market is worrisome. In any market, price manipulation causes distortions, shortages, and inefficiency. But in its own peculiar way the primary art market functions; contemporary art generates tens of billions of dollars of revenue each year.”

So what do you do when no one is paying attention to your poetry but a small clique of groupies and devotees—each devoted to maybe half a dozen poets out of the thousands starved for attention in chapbooks, journals, colleges and universities? Perhaps you attempt to create the same kind of buzz contemporary art galleries drum up when they want to attract the “invite only” art investor. Is it coincidence that the book is published by the Dia Art Foundation? And this isn’t just any collection of poets. I notice a coterie of names that always seem to show up together, like well-connected vultures circling a feast.  If you’re a certain age, if you’re a bird of the feather, you’ll be invited to the kill.

I’m shocked that I wasn’t invited. Shocked.

The problem would seem to be that a poem isn’t like a painting. There is only one painting. Complete a painting and you have, in effect, a kind of death. The painting is unique. There will never be another like it.  Xerox a poem and you have two thousand—each just as worthless or invaluable as the next. It takes the death of the poet to really make a poem valuable. Alas. But wouldn’t poets love to be able to present their poems in an art gallery, poem as performance ‘piece’ and Objet d’art, and have them auctioned off for tens of thousands of dollars? Apiece?

That’s not going to happen, but maybe if you can make the poet his or herself like that painting, then maybe some of that perceived value will brush off on the poetry? If contemporary poetry can’t sell itself as poetry, then maybe as modern art? This, I think, is the effect of the book, regardless of intent. Both the poem and the poet are the centerpieces. They are curated; and we’re clearly meant to admire both. I’ll be curious to see if this “art valuation” of poets and poetry amounts to anything. It’s a new, if somewhat pretentious, play for a new market.

But why didn’t I buy the book?

I sat with it at the bookstore, reading some parts, skimming others. The problem was that I found the editorial introductions to the poets and their poems more interesting than the poems themselves. The poems are discussed much like contemporary paintings; and I can’t think of a single poem that wasn’t discussed in terms of content. The summaries also briefly describe this or that poet’s characteristic style, development and personality (as if between friends); and I do like knowing the biographies of poets. But in the time allotted me (by the parking meter) I couldn’t find a single poem that wasn’t free verse. That puts all the weight on the poem’s subject matter and they’re simply not that compelling — generally vaguely clever observations expressed in mundane forms with all the usual stale stylistic tropes — missing syntactic connectives, typographical arrangements, short lines consisting of one or two words, and various “poems” that dispense with lineation altogether—prose poems. Ron Silliman, who you would fully expect to find in a curated (and obviously important) anthology like this, dispenses with the pretense altogether. His poem is three paragraphs with all the personality of three bricks.

I would say that the poems are most typically characterized by some element of cleverness, most generally in their subject matter rather than execution. This, at least, is what seems to appeal to the editor/curator Vicent Katz. At $30.00 for the book, this just wasn’t enough to compel me.

Acknowledging that I’m not the audience for these poems, I don’t find anything in them particularly fresh or exciting. The only real test of a poet’s linguistic skills remains rhyme and meter, and not one poet risks it. I am so bored with free verse. The form is as tired as a brokeback pack mule. Critics of rhyme like to say they can guess the rhyme before they’ve read it; and maybe half the time (or better) they can. Thing is, I can guess the line endings of free verse with near one hundred percent accuracy. Writing traditional poetry is a hard, risky and potentially fatal business. I doubt any one of the poets in the anthology could pull it off. Dedicated formalists, devoting a lifetime to the constraints of the English language, have a hard time doing so but at least take the risk.

Surely Katz could have found some poets willing to buck the last hundred years of prevailing aesthetics.

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2 responses

  1. I recall you saying elsewhere that one of the greatest afflictions of modern poetry and free verse is the paucity of memorable line. I know the feeling because, of the hundreds I’ve read, I can’t remember a word—even at their putative best. Ashbery, for example, gets me nowhere, except perhaps to some insight into what it’s like to have a receptive language disability or early dementia. Now, the post-modernist might retort I’m a little too dull to “get it.” But if that’s the case what’s with that 99 percentile on the Miller Analogies Test? To be fair, we semi-formalists are not totally without a seat at the table of publication, canonization, and accolades. The Academy has generously allowed Maya Angelo to speak in rhyme and meter—and to speak, by extension, for us:

    https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48989/caged-bird

    You might also welcome the five volumes of supplemental autobiography to assist you in understanding this poem in context.

    • Maya Angelou. Hard to say anything negative about her poetry when there’s so much to admire about her life and person (all five volumes of it), but… all the verse I’ve ever read by her would be comfortably at home on an inspirational greeting card. It’s one thing to write simply and without affectation, but so many of her images strike me not as simple but as amateurish. This:

      A free bird leaps
      on the back of the wind
      and floats downstream
      till the current ends

      I feel like I’m reading one of those modern English versions of Shakespeare where everything that’s beautiful and Shakespearean has been plucked out. Angelou’s imagery is so overt that it’s clichéd. As Thomas Lux once said to me (the wisest advice I’ve ever gotten): There’s a difference between writing poetically and writing poetry. All I ever get from Angelou is the “poetically”.

      And lines like these:

      “he opens his throat to sing”

      or this:

      “the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn”

      Make me wince. It’s the kind of thing one expects from a 15 year old. But you know what? That’s the risk in making a poem about more than its semantic content. And good for Angelou for trying. Would that more poets had the mettle.

      As for Ashbery, even the post-mmdoernists, by in large, have no clue what to make of his poetry. Some simply throw up their hands and say that the right way to read Ashbery is without reading him. That is to say: you should let the words and ideas wash over you without grasping them (or at them).

      The best thing to do, then, is not to try to understand the poems but to try to take pleasure from their arrangement, the way you listen to music. It’s only then, for most readers, that the meaning begins to leak through. Meghan O’Rourke @ Slate

      Or you get an article like this that talks alot about the experience of reading Ashbery without really talking about the poetry itself—which is just another way of asserting that the way to read Ashbery is to read “the way you listen to music.”

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