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.”

9 responses

  1. Your take on “To Autumn” echoes Allen Tate’s observation that “it’s very nearly a perfect piece of style but has little to say,” as if the rhyme, meter, imagery and figurative language have no basis in substance (content). I beg to differ: The aesthetic elements are driven by the content to the point they subsume it—a sure sign the poem is authentically and deeply felt—and the more contagiously so, the greater the poem. It seems “art for art’s sake” would better describe an aesthetically perfect poem written about, say, a paraphillia—a perfect piece of style but about a paraphillia, in which case you might politely suggest the poet try to improve his or her “range”??? In this respect, content can prove as problematic for traditional forms as for contemporary ones, can it not?

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    • I don’t know the context of Tate’s comment, so there might be more to it, but for the sake of argument let’s say that he, or someone like him, unequivocally observed that “Ode to Autumn” had little to say. Then I would disagree. To say that the ostensible subject matter of Keats’s poem, ostensiby “Autumn”, is the least important facet of the poem isn’t the same [to clarify] as saying that that poem has nothing to say. The poem has plenty to say about Keats’s himself, what he values in poetry, and what, to Keats, constitutes great art. The poem says all this implicitly rather than explicitly. The poem is art for art’s sake in that the endpoint of our admiration, in a sense, isn’t autumn but the *poetry* that expresses autumn. The poem has lots to say about the art of poetry—more than most any other poem. As for your example. Lolita is an aesthetically perfect novel, in my opinion, written about paraphilia. I read it more for Nabokov’s astonishing prose than for its subject matter, but that might just be me.

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  2. Ok. So you could tolerate my sending you a couple dozen aesthetically perfect poems on raping a pubescent Nabokovian “nymphet.” But what if that’s all you’re getting? Day after day, week after week, year after year, from everywhere. Despite the perfect aesthetics, wouldn’t you be about ready to give up poetry and prefer reruns of “The Rifleman”?

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    • You should try it. Although I’m not sure what point you’re making. It almost sounds like you bridal at the value I place on poetry as more than its subject matter. And so you propose the most offensive subject matter possible (I’m sure there’s worse), but then Nabokov has already demonstrated that you can write a masterpiece of prose on a troubling subject, so the real issue is the repetitiveness. Try it and if you succeed then society at large will have to come to terms with your masterpieces.

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  3. Believe it or not, I’ve written sexually perverted and/or violent poems in a high style that excels even Nabokov’s and written them with a grin on my face. But that mood lasted only an hour or so. I appreciate that you are a tolerant audience for that kind of thing. Certainly, were I to share them with, say, Lucas McCain I would be tarred and feathered, dragged through North Fork, if not gunned down on the spot. However, that dire prospect might also constrain me to write more like Keats, Yeats or Frost in the first place, in my most inspired hours, and not to squander my talent on lurid sex fantasies. Indeed, an argument could be made that Nabokov’s content, in its arrogance to shock, wasted and dated his genius. In fact that argument has been made by none other than William Logan:

    “I have never been a great fan of Nabokov’s fiction, which reads as if composed by an eighteenth-century automaton with only a flywheel for a heart. I make a partial exception for Lolita, but only partial—its set pieces are outrageous and surprisingly sad, but the deserts of prose between defeat me. (That the tale can no longer be read so blithely will remain as much of a problem as the use of “nigger” in Huckleberry Finn. We are no longer in a century when sex with twelve-year-olds is considered amusing. That does not mean that we stop reading, merely that there is resistance to overcome.)”

    Incidentally, Lolita the movie was playing locally when Kennedy was shot. I wonder if Nabokov’s lowbrow analogue, Oswald, ever watched it. His wife wrote about how he would bathe nude with his daughters.

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    • The critical consensus is that Nabokov’s book is masterfully written and a masterpiece, if an unsettling one. Meanwhile, Logan considers Robert Lowell to be among the great poets. I don’t see it and there’s little evidence that the general public thirsts for his poetry. Logan has also said that Robert Frost’s Birches is sentimental tripe. I’ll put it this way though: I love reading Logan’s criticism and love it even when I think he’s wrong.

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  4. I am not one much to write about such things lately, being a pragmatist and all, but I have come to the conclusion that contemporary poetry is whatever the current associate professors of the en vogue MFA program or programs say it is. When (multiple) award-winning poets and critics as famous as Matthew Zapruder can proudly spout that poetry is “a truth beyond our capability to articulate…” (Why Poetry, 2017, pp.12) and later conclude that poetry must be “free of all obligations” (pp. 224), then I am not sure what is left to argue. Poetry is both anything and nothing. It is free beyond our ability to think about it. I would agree that poetry is a collection of words delineated. This delineation is used to modify and enhance meaning–or so I thought. Prose is a collection of words in paragraph form. Line length adds nothing nor takes away from prose except its position on a page, based upon the shape of that page– except some recent copies of The American Poetry Review publish works of poetry that prove me very much in error, and I am a fool if I do not believe that poetry can be in paragraphs rather than lines. What is the subject matter of contemporary poetry? I have not seen lately that it cannot be about anything, but I am told that it must have–and I hope that I am not accidentally quoting a renowned MFA associate professor–a reverence for authentic experience. You know, so many of my experiences are not authentic, maybe I should just give it up. Oh! and even when I do have authentic experiences, I am rather irreverent about them sometimes. As always, love to read the blog and the comments. I trust no critic who would put Robert Lowell among the great poets, American or otherwise. I took a seminar on Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead.” My brain wished to be one of those soldiers by the end. Come to think of it, that seems about the time my memory started going.

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  5. Patrick, I started to title this poem “Art for Art’s sake: A Problem in Poetic Ethics” But perhaps you know of a famous love poem that proves otherwise.

    Ars Poetica

    Art for art’s sake
    He said of his creation.
    It ended in a shambles
    Of global conflagration.
    “And what about me?” she posed,
    With growing irritation. “I’m the one
    Who makes your meals
    And pays your debts on time.”
    “Oh, way too sentimental!
    But I promise to consider it
    If you die or go insane.”

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