Did Poetry Die 100 Years Ago This Month?

There was an interesting guest editorial in the NY Times today by Matthew Walther, the editor of The Lamp. His essay reminded me here and there of my own essay Let Poetry Die. In my own essay, I argued that contemporary poetry’s failure to engage the public was due to poets no longer having to write for the public. Contemporary poets are essentially writing for each other in a system whose poetics are self-reinforcing. That is, the poet’s ambition may be, nominally, to appeal to the public but must be, practically speaking, an appeal to their peers and the pursuit of competitions and positions at colleges and universities where they can achieve financial stability (and be published by those same schools).

The harm is to those poets who write outside this patronage system—poets like me. They will find it far more difficult to compete for public recognition and I doubt that Walther has ever heard of me or read my poetry. The days when someone like Frost could “get outside that circle to the general reader who buys books in their thousands” are largely over. The circle has been institutionalized. None of this would be a problem for poetry’s popularity if the prevailing poetics appealed to public taste but, much to the irritation of “that circle”, the public wants to read poetry with memorable language (think rhyme and meter) or poetry that speaks simply and meaningfully (think Rupi Kauer or Mary Oliver). Kauer’s breakthrough success, to judge by the snarky critiques laid at her feet, was especially resented and unapproved.

At any rate, Walther’s argument is very different. Walther writes:

~ “We stopped writing good poetry because we are now incapable of doing so.”

He goes on to blame “modern life, which [has] demystified and alienated us from the natural world.” That’s a peculiar assertion being that the aforementioned poet, the late Mary Oliver, was popular enough with the public to make a living from her poetry—and the only poet of her generation to do so. Her poetry did nothing but celebrate the mystery and beauty of the natural world. It was her bread and butter. So I’m not really sure what Walther is talking about. And don’t forget the unabated popularity of Robert Frost’s poetry—who was nothing if not a poet of woods and field. But he goes on to quote some poetry by the early 19th century poet Southey:

  Aye Charles! I knew that this would fix thine eye,
  This woodbine wreathing round the broken porch,
  Its leaves just withering, yet one autumn flower
  Still fresh and fragrant; and yon holly-hock
  That thro’ the creeping weeds and nettles tall
  Peers taller, and uplifts its column’d stem
  Bright with the broad rose-blossoms.

Of this passage he writes: “Admit it: Your eyes, so far from being fixed, are already glazing over.” And he uses this observation to validate his assertion that we have been alienated from the natural world. Given that Southey, even in his own day, was considered an overstuffed mediocrity (by the likes of Shelley, Byron and Coleridge among others) I would argue that Southey’s passage only demonstrates that we’re alienated from mediocrity, not nature. If Walther had picked a passage from Keats’s Ode to Autumn (Southey’s contemporary—you may have heard of him) the modern reader might be a bit more attentive. Even so, one really needs look no further than the late Mary Oliver to flatly refute Walther’s claim.

But Walther has a point to make, rather than the problem being our disconnect with mediocrity, it’s our disconnect with nature. And instead of writing about nature, we write about “the feelings of unease within ourselves; [and] draw our images from the detritus of consumer civilization — an empty plastic bottle, an iPhone with a cracked screen.” And now that Walther has nicely established the premise, he pounces on the conclusion: we’ve been doing exactly this and it’s “thanks in large part to [TS] Eliot” and, problematically, nobody did or does it better than Eliot and therefore poetry died the day Eliot published The Waste Land. Thank you for your time.

~ The problem is not that Eliot put poetry on the wrong track. It’s that he went as far down that track as anyone could, exhausting its possibilities and leaving little or no work for those who came after him. It is precisely this mystique of belatedness that is the source of Eliot’s considerable power. What he seems to be suggesting is that he is the final poet, the last in a long unbroken line of seers to whom the very last visions are being bequeathed, and that he has come to share them with his dying breaths.

I’m convinced. Eliot finished poetry off.

Now, I will admit that if everyone’s poetry (and Walther seems to presume this) is essentially another poem by T.S. Eliot, then, yes, poetry ended with T.S. Eliot. The problem is with Walther’s premise. He is flatly and demonstrably wrong that contemporary readers are disconnected from the “natural world”. There are certainly gobs of poets who took and take their cue from Eliot’s example and will never do it as well as Eliot, but the same can be said for all the modernist poets: Williams, Frost, Stevens, Cummings, etc… But, for whatever reason, Walther seems to consider T.S. Eliot the apotheosis of English poetics and so confuses writing like Eliot with poetry in and of itself—as if poetry isn’t poetry if it doesn’t do what Eliot’s verse does. I could just as easily make the same argument for the other modernist poets, each in their turn. No contemporary poet has equaled Williams, Frost or, above all, Wallace Stevens. Did poetry die the day Frost wrote Mending Wall or when Stevens wrote Sunday Morning? The only defense I can imagine Walther making is that these poems aren’t as good as The Waste Land. (In his Twitter threads he does exactly this.) And yes, if you’re trying to write like Eliot or only want to read more poems like Eliot’s, then nothing will be as good as The Waste Land. Long live poetry.

It’s been 100 years since the publication of The Waste Land and his legion of passionate readers are out in full force trumpeting the poem as the “most significant of the 20th century” and for them it is. But outside of them, significant to who? It’s not everyone who wants to write like Eliot or even read him. But let Eliot’s readers have their birthday cake. Don’t tell them that The Waste Land makes a good many eyes glaze over—and I’m not saying that it should. But don’t tell them. You know how it goes with truth and handling it. It won’t kill poetry but it might kill them.

And as for all the forgettable verse that’s been written since the modernists, it bears mentioning that poetic genius is rare. Every generation elevates their own but genius isn’t a generational entitlement. Poetic genius skips whole generations. The horror! One can go decades if not hundreds of years and have only gradations of mediocrity to show for it. And the last hundred years of mixed, if not forgettable, talent is hardly an anomaly. Was poetry dead after Shakespeare? Milton? Keats? Maybe the next great poet won’t show up in your lifetime. Then again, maybe you just have to know where to look.

me from Vermont | December 30th 2022

The Devil’s Work

The reverend stood before the congregation, 
A godly man afflicted and heart-sore. 
"There's someone stolen every last donation," 
He grieved. "Funds devoted to the poor!" 
A strident wailing filled the pews. "The Beast!" 
"The Devil's work!" If little Peggy-Sue 
(At six months due) was first to cry, at least 
Her pearls and patent pumps were still brand new. 
"But Satan won't impoverish us!"  he cried,
"Those, rich in faith, are wealthy!" (After all, 
Was not the reverend's day-old car outside?) 
“But Jesus needs your money!” he warned them all; 
  Adding (with tearful prayers at the pulpit) 
  “Just a little more—praise God!—we’ll find the culprit!”

The Devil’s Work
Written on ye 21st of December 2022

Shakespeare’s Genius in Four Words

“The air bites shrewdly.”

These four words occur in Act I Scene iii of Hamlet. They’re followed by: “It is very cold.” It’s not a famous soliloquy but in these four words, eight words perhaps, Shakespeare’s genius appears in miniature—a mind that perceived strife, competition and drama animating not just human endeavors but the inanimate. What often goes unmentioned in Shakespeare studies is not just the human drama, but the contest of wills in nature itself, or in Shakespeare’s nature—in the inanimate. There are hundreds of plays within plays that bubble up like quantum particles in the vacuum of the page. Some are almost fully realized while other dramas, like the four word play above, disappear as quickly as they appear. (Shakespeare was born to write drama the way Mozart was born to compose music.)

The first thought that occurred to Shakespeare was the cold, and Shakespeare straight away perceived that not as a condition but as an ongoing struggle between two characters—the speaker and the shrewd and biting air. For a bubbling instant, the air becomes a character, almost like an Elizabethan humor—and having as its humor a shrewd and intelligent aggressiveness—shrewdly biting. How? The four words tell us as much about the speaker as the air. If the air can bite, then the speaker’s clothes, like another character in the play, must be a poor and ineffectual servant. We can guess that there must be holes in the speaker’s clothes, or they’re ill-fitting or too thin. The air doesn’t just bite, but does so shrewdly, with intelligence and cunning. In this little play, the air outwits the speaker’s defenses.

If Einstein’s peculiar genius was to see the world relativistically, Shakespeare’s genius was to perceive world and all its various parts as being in a never ending and creative contention. When Shakespeare wrote that “all the world’s a stage”, he meant it and with a comprehensiveness exceeding what most think he meant. The world isn’t just a stage where we play our parts, but the stage itself is in contention with itself and with us. Where you and I might feel an icy wind and call it a cold day—these being the static and inanimate properties of the elements—Shakespeare might perceive the elements as having intelligence, motive and intention, contending with or against us on the world’s stage. He perceived a different world than most of us do—or at least the adults among us. You could think of Shakespeare as the great animist—whose perception of the world as intelligent, in all its parts, gave to his poetry and drama a vibrancy and life beyond the human characters on stage.

Perhaps one of the finest examples of Shakespeare’s animist world bubbling up and becoming a play within the play, like a small morality play, comes from Titania’s speech in Act II, Scene i of the Midsummer Night’s Dream (one of my favorite speeches in all of Shakespeare).

These are the forgeries of jealousy:
And never, since the middle summer’s spring,
Met we on hill, in dale, forest or mead,
By paved fountain or by rushy brook,
Or in the beached margent of the sea,
To dance our ringlets to the whistling wind,
But with thy brawls thou hast disturb’d our sport.
Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which falling in the land
Have every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents.
The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard;
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;
The nine-men’s-morris is fill’d up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
For lack of tread are undistinguishable.
The human mortals want their winter cheer:
No night is now with hymn or carol blest.
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound:
And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose;
And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown,
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set; the spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries; and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which.
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and original. 

The play within the play begins with “Therefore the winds” that pipe “to us in vain”. The wind is like a character, a musician, whose intention is to entertain, but who pipes “in vain” due to our own contention. This makes the winds vengeful and so they suck the water from the sea to pelt “our lands” with it, and that makes the rivers, now another character in the play, “proud”. Shakespeare perceives the rain and flooding as their own characters in a play—the vengeful wind and the proud rivers suddenly full of water—water like a proud King’s train that topples all where the King strides. The green corn, among those who suffer, rots before it can grow a beard. The moon, who Shakespeare’s imagination makes a governess in the dye of his enlivening imagination, washes the air with “rheumatic disease”. “old Hiems”, meaning winter, is mocked with a crown of “sweet summer buds”. (The frost mocks the air shrewdly bites.) The seasons and angry Winter—because in drama every character’s action has its consequence—are made like confused characters at the close, who “change their wonted liveries”. The worlds elements are full of contention and consequence and with an intelligence of their own—and of which we are an unwitting part. In other words, Shakespeare didn’t see nature as a dumb force to be acted upon with impunity, but as an intelligence having its own course that will contend with us or benefit us. (Shakespeare still has much to teach humanity given our treatment of the natural world.)

Try seeing the world the way Shakespeare saw it—the great poet. When the wind shakes the last leaves today, what does the wind want and what do the leaves take away? Think of the elements as characters in a play—the rain, frost, moon, or the sunlight cannily peering through the rigid trees. Find out the “humor” in the inanimate. See the drama staged around you every day and maybe see the world a little like Shakespeare.

Self Pity and Other Works of Art

Being of Sound Mind and Body

My grandmother, who raised me, used to joke about the Will she’d leave behind. It would say: Being of sound mind and body I spent it all.

Nice People

My father died this summer. We were and weren’t close. We saw each other maybe once a year. With the invention of email, we eventually kept up a regular correspondence, but only talking politics. He was a beautiful writer but his clean and concise prose went into translating technical documents from German into English. He wrote with greater clarity and concision than I do, but he had no gift for creative writing. (To his dying day he was correcting my grammar.) If there’s such a thing as tone-deafness as regards poetry, he had it. Might as well sell a raincoat in the desert than give him a poem. He may have read a handful of novels. I don’t know. He loved the precision of Kafka’s prose for Kafka’s flawless German. He also had a copy of the 1001 Nights translated by Richard F. Burton. As far as I know he didn’t read a single story. He kept them because of Burton’s introduction. Burton skewered the moral pretensions of translators who delicately edited out the best parts of the 1001 Nights—understood to be the uninhibited erotic parts. Of which there are many. My father, and his parents who raised me, detested nice people. I was never sure what they meant but they probably meant the kind of nice people who Richard Burton dismantled. To be on the safe side, I decided to dislike everyone; which is to say, I’m an introvert. I deeply get Wednesday Addams (if you haven’t seen Tim Burton’s Netflix series). People are exhausting, especially nice people.


When my father died I finally realized that I probably would too. I looked at my possessions and thought to myself: What in the hell are you thinking? Why am I buying anything? I’ll probably be dead in another twenty to thirty years—maybe sooner. Who knows? The thought of death doesn’t disturb me at all. The thought of all my possessions? Deeply disturbing. What’s the point? But my most valued possessions are my stories; and I’m going to give those away as generously as I can. Those stores include some from my family. I’ve already snuck some of them into my novels and poems.

Don’t you want to say, Hello?

My grandmother grew up in a family of ten children equally divided between girls and boys. Two of the boys, my Uncles, were bomber pilots in World War II. There was a rule that if a pilot flew ten or twenty (I can’t remember) sorties, then they wouldn’t have to fly any more. There was also a rule that relatives couldn’t fly on the same plane. My Uncles George and Bill both had one more flight and decided, violating all the rules, that they would fly their last sortie together. They were shot down by the Germans and captured.

Being Pilots/Officers, they were, initially at least, valuable POWs.

The German interrogator brought them in, one by one. You’re both Kremers he would say. Good German names! Why are you fighting against your fatherland? But George and Bill would only answer with their names, ranks and serial numbers. This must have gone on for several days and the interrogator decided that maybe he could play each against the other. Bill had the character of Bob Hope, ready with a quip, gregarious and a lady’s man. George was the quiet, serious and stone-faced brother.

The interrogator brought them both in.

He sat behind his broad desk. Bill and George were marched out and each stood quietly facing the interrogator. They stared straight ahead, neither acknowledging the other. They knew better. Behind the interrogator was a blond bombshell, the kind of uniformed blond bombshell that’s the stuff of Hollywood movies. The interrogator said to George, who was standing next to Bill: Don’t you want to say, Hello? George answered giving his name, rank and serial number. The interrogator impatiently turned to Bill and asked: Don’t you want to say, hello?

Bill turned to the blonde bombshell and said: “I’m Bill. I didn’t catch your name.”

And as the family story has it, George sighed heavily exclaimed in exasperation: “He means me, Bill!”

Sticky Fingers

I decide to go for a walk and, wouldn’t you know, here comes the Devil the opposite way. That’s the Devil’s way, always to go the opposite way. He’s mumbling to himself and throwing up his left hand, now and again, as though shooing away whatever thoughts are nipping at his heels. For no good reason, he carries a cane behind his back.

“Up to no good?” I ask.

“You might expect as much,” he sighs.

“Best laid plans?” I ask.

“A mouse!” he shouts, then as though confiding: “There is not a single mouse in hell. Did you know? There are cats and dogs, but no mice. What does that tell you?” His expression changes to one of disappointment. “I nabbed another soul. A wretched soul. A selfish and petty soul. She loved no one and was a benefit to none.” He inhaled, held his breath, eyes closed, as though savoring a newly poured glass of chardonnay. “She detested children. Horrid little things. She lived alone, hoarded her wealth, hid it away where no one would find it. She was a mintage coined from my own heart.”

“You have one?”

“Does the nightshade have berries?”

“What about children?” I ask.

“Yes,” the Devil sniffs, “but only in hell to torment their parents.”

“Why so glum?”

“God!” shouts the Devil with a disgusted flourish of his hand, then calmly adds: “He of unbounded love and beneficence. Couldn’t leave well enough alone. What should happen to the old shrew’s house but God, in his bounty, makes a gift of it (of course the selfish old bat didn’t have an heir). A couple with their newly adopted child bought the house at auction—for a song and a dance. God’s reward for their good deeds. But that’s not enough. God elaborates. He sends them a stray puppy. A puppy! Nauseating. But it was the nice thing to do. And to celebrate their gratitude to God, they bake him a cake and light him a candle. The instant their backs are turned, the wretched little puppy eats the cake and knocks over the candle. God’s little gift burns down the house. Burns it to the ground.”

“One misery after another!” I say.

“The Devil’s work!—they say. The flames! The flames! The Devil’s work from beginning to end!”

“And you weren’t delighted by all that misery?”

“No,” the Devil sniffs. “The wretched little cheapskate. She hid all her money in the walls of the house. How was I to know? When the house burned down, there it all was. Piles upon piles. Silver coins. Gold coins. Bars of silver. Bars of gold. They built themselves a splendid new house. They gave to one insufferable charity after another. All my handiwork? They took it all. And what did they say? God works in mysterious ways! Praise be to God! To God alone the thanks!”

“Why don’t you like children?”

“Sticky fingers.”

~ For my father, Gordon Gillespie, who detested nice people and who, when asked why he detested children, answered “sticky fingers”.

What is contemporary Poetry?

Just published was an article in the Guardian entitled “The best poetry books of 2022“. I thought it was fascinating not because of what the author, Rishi Dastidar, discusses, but because of what he doesn’t discuss. To wit: Nowhere is there a discussion of the actual poetry. Quoting a line or two from any given poem is not the same. Rishi recommends collections of poetry according to their subject matter and he might as well be recommending cookbooks which, to be honest, seems to be how (the commodity known as) contemporary poetry is largely treated by poets, readers, editors and publishers of poetry. Do you want ‘queer poetry’? Well, try this book. Do you want words about the male gaze and the violation of pornography? No? How about the pain of black communities? Not that? How about resistance to Colonialism? I’m not saying these aren’t important subjects, but important subjects aren’t necessarily the same as good poetry, and to judge by the extracts, the poetry is pretty mediocre stuff. For instance, in another article by the same author from June 3rd, he praises “The Lascaux Notebooks by Jean-Luc Champerret:

~ The book presents a plausible, imagistic recreation of prehistoric living, its quieter moments and dangers, especially when bison are roaming: “We crouch behind the cover of the trees / watching their every step / burning inside with fear”.

The line is shopworn from beginning to end. What hunter doesn’t crouch or do so under the cover of while also burning inside [as opposed to bursting into flames I suppose] with fear. The poetry sounds like generically uninspired prose. Maybe it’s not? I don’t know. Maybe that was just a poor example. The problem is that the poetry was never brought up, just the semantic content of the verse. Or if you’re looking for philosophic fragments, consider the following example from Unexhausted Time:

~ “There is no other life, but there are so / many lives … Thank you / for rescuing me with your words.”

This is the collection where you will find “the ramifications of the male gaze”. But without any context, the example above would make a comically effective “Deep Thought” for Saturday Night Live. But my impression is that the actual poetry of the verse is so far removed from the review’s concerns as to be irrelevant. He serves up the various collections of verse based on their content much as we’d purchase a cookbook according to its ethnic cuisine. What used to separate poetry from prose was poetry’s fusion of semantic content with the aesthetics of language—the way language rhymed and the way one could create rhythms/meter out of English’s natural stress patterns. There is also what one might call the arts of rhetoric—highly patterned and figurative language, metaphor and poems wholly constructed from a single conceit. These are also a part of the arts of language which poets elevated in a way that writers of prose (with different aims) largely didn’t. That’s no longer the case. The only thing that separates the majority of contemporary poetry from prose is lineation—and the lineation of contemporary poetry is simply a typographic “sign” indicating that a given set of words is meant to be read like a poem. There is no prosody of free verse lineation. Free verse lineation is an arbitrary aesthetic decided by the individual poet.

So, what is contemporary poetry?

To judge by reviews like those at The Guardian, poetry is no longer an intellectually rigorous fusion of content with the aesthetics of language, but a species of short-form prose where modern writers go to emote over given themes and subject matter. It reminds me of the transition from the baroque era to the rococo or early classical period. The great composer of the baroque era (and of all time really) was JS Bach. In the manuscripts of Bach, all the arts of music were fused together. Bach wasn’t just about writing a good melody, but in every composition he set out to demonstrate, to the greatest extent possible, the art of music—the degree to which elements like counterpoint, augmentation, diminution, harmony, canon and fugue didn’t just augment the emotional impact but created a work of art that transcended its utilitarian origins. Art for arts sake. Nothing more typified this than his Art of the Fugue. No one knows why he wrote it and Bach didn’t even specify what instrument or instruments should perform the music. The Art of the Fugue is pure music—a kind of summation that, perhaps, we’re meant to contemplate like Michelangelo’s David—in silence—a final summation of his life and era. The next generation discarded all that in favor of the melody. Likewise, the modern poet, reader and reviewer have discarded the arts of language in the name of content. Just as melody reigned supreme, content reins supreme. The contemporary reviewer of poetry doesn’t review the poetry because there’s nothing to review. But what would he make of poetry written for poetry’s sake?—like Keats’s Ode to Autumn, of which the subject matter is the least important element?—a poem that, in its exploitation of the arts of language—rhyme, meter, imagery and figurative language—utterly transcends its subject matter?

It’s too much to say what contemporary poetry is. Easier to say what it’s not—and that is art for art’s sake. It’s as though the modern poet has given himself over to erecting statues dedicated to messaging—monuments to themselves, to statesman, to this politician or that cause—and has discarded the notion that sculpting can be an art in and of itself. Given the world and the way it is, it’s possible no one would want to read any other kind of poetry—and so no one writes or publishes it.

By contrast, no one knows why Bach wrote the Art of the Fugue. There’s no message. It wasn’t commissioned by anyone. Its justification is itself. The final notes, left unfinished by Bach’s death, are the notes B♭–A–C–B♮, spelling out BACH in German musical notation, like a final breath before the last notes vanish into eternity, staves empty, the remaining music forever beyond our hearing.

Written in CPE Bach’s hand: “Über dieser Fuge, wo der Name B A C H im Contrasubject angebracht worden, ist der Verfasser gestorben.” (“While working on this fugue, which introduces the name BACH in the countersubject, the composer died.”