Let Poetry Die ❧ Redux

 

  • This is a rewrite of my earlier post Let Poetry Die. This version came about because I was asked to do a rewrite by the Wall Street Journal, who considered publishing the article in their essay section. Because their essays tend to be more informational than confrontational they ended up rejecting the rewrite (or that’s my theory). I re-submitted the essay to other publications including The Atlantic Monthly and Poetry Magazine. It was Andrew Sullivan, of the Atlantic Monthly, who first brought the post to “the world’s” attention, so I thought they might be interested in the rewrite. They weren’t.  So be it. Rather than let the rewrite burn a hole in my pocket, I’m posting it here. Enjoy, or refute, as the case may be.

On Nov. 5, 1913, Robert Frost wrote to John T. Bartlett, professing his ambition and, at the same time, defining what a poet’s ambition should be. “There is the kind of success called ‘of esteem’ and it butters no parsnips. It means success with the critical few who are supposed to know. But really to arrive where I can stand on my legs as a poet and nothing else I must get outside that circle to the general reader who buys books in their thousands.”

Frost’s driving ambition was founded on the belief that the general reader was equal to his own ambitions. Frost could have been echoing Walt Whitman’s assertion that “to have great poets, there must be great audiences.” But the populism of Frost and Whitman was increasingly distrusted by poets and critics stung by public rejection. The answer was not that their own poetry and vision might be mediocre, but that the public’s demands were mediocre. The obvious answer was to create their own audience and that thesis was formulated by Harriet Monroe, the founder of the Poetry Foundation. In a 1922 editorial she implicitly condemned the corrupting influence of the general reader. She contemptuously referred to poems, daily published in newspapers, as “syndicated rhymes,” and equated the poets to “movie-producers” who had learned that it paid to “be good”. It paid to give “people the emotions of virtue, simplicity and goodness.” And she meant that contemptuously. In short, she was accusing poets of catering to the general reader. Poetry needed to be freed from the corrupting expectations of “people”.

History cherishes irony. Robert Frost’s tremendous success in courting the public made Monroe’s vision of the poet, so different from his own, not only possible but triumphant. It was Frost’s popularity that wakened colleges and universities to the lucrative possibilities of the poet-in-residence. After Frost, more and more academic institutions established a poet-in-residence, then creative writing programs, then MFAs. Even if modern poets largely disdain catering to the general reader, the colleges and universities, who bait their hooks with them, make catering a science. There is no MFA equivalent to organic chemistry – a trial by fire that thins the ranks of premedical talent. MFA programs glow with the radiance of a sabbatical. The University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, the oldest in the country, gives the feeling of a vacation brochure. “Workshop alumni have won sixteen Pulitzer Prizes (most recently Philip Schultz in 2008), as well as numerous National Book Awards and other major literary honors.” They might as well be describing sixteen award winning slopes, well groomed and with powder. To paraphrase Harriet Monroe, it’s a program that “pays at the box office”, but empties your pockets. The program promises nothing other than that students will be comfortably acquainted with the expectations of “the critical few who are supposed to know”.

Harriet Monroe’s vision of the poet won the day. And the triumph of Monroe’s vision was never so spectacularly endorsed as when, in 2002, Ruth Lilly, the last surviving great-grandchild of the pharmaceuticals baron Eli Lilly, bequeathed roughly $200 million to Monroe’s Poetry Foundation. Monroe’s vision of the poet, insulated from the corrupting influence of the general reader, now extends to the Poetry Foundation itself. Flush with fantastic wealth, public appeal is no longer a matter of life and death; and that’s fortunate for the Poetry Foundation. Monroe correctly assumed that the “large public [would be] little interested” in what she had to offer. She wanted readers who were “primarily interested in poetry as an art” and those readers, predictably, turned out to be other poets, critics and aficionados. Whether the Poetry Foundation’s aesthetic genetics deserve to survive will never be known. Survival of the fittest has been thwarted. The foundation’s future influence on America’s poetry for good or ill will be unrivaled.

Nonetheless, the failure of Monroe’s vision, and the Poetry Foundation’s own inability (or refusal) to court a wider readership, was unwittingly confirmed by the Poetry Foundation’s own expression of gratitude to Lilly. “Thanks to Ms. Lilly’s munificence,” they write in an online article, In Memoriam: Ruth Lilly, 1915-2009, “the programs of the Poetry Foundation bring poems to 19 million Americans who would not otherwise read or hear them.” Without her they could not offer “the annual $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize”. Without her “millions of readers [might not discover] the great magic of poetry for generations to come.” And topping it with a cherry, the Poetry Foundation’s President, John Barr, stated that “poetry has no greater friend than Ruth Lilly.”

The question arises: if the magic of poetry is so great, why did it need $200 million? Apparently, it’s not the magic of poetry that will bring the thrill of poetry to millions but the magic of $200 million. And John Barr’s own revealing statement that Poetry “has no greater friend than Ruth Lilly” is a curious self-indictment. It should have millions of friends – none any more or less great than the other.

What has been lost with the triumph of Monroe’s vision? As far as Frost’s general reader is concerned, American Poetry died with the modernists and their contemporaries: Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, E.E. Cummings, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, WB Yeats. No poets ever filled their shoes. Few passing pedestrians could readily name a poet from the last 50 to 60 years – let alone the title of a poem, let alone a first line. Yet ask the same general reader to name a favorite novelist, golfer, band, lyricist or rapper, and watch them light up.

By asserting that poets shouldn’t have to cater to the marketplace of common opinion, poets were given leave to write without consequence. And when any human being can act without consequence, the dogs of mediocrity, narcissism and hedonism will be let loose. The most recent example was Elizabeth Alexander’s reading at Obama’s inauguration. Her list of credentials and awards are show stopping. She is a poet, essayist, playwright, who has degrees from Yale University and Boston University, along with a Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania. She was the 2007 winner of the first Jackson Prize for Poetry and, to boot, was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, two Pushcart Prizes, the George Kent Award and a Guggenheim fellowship.

But on the day when she was exposed to the marketplace of common opinion as no other poet since Robert Frost’s own reading at the Kennedy inauguration, the consequences were final. Her talents, as revealed in her poem Praise Song for the Day, were judged to be those of a mediocre poet whose poetic reach was strained by a clichéd phrase like “glittering edifices” and whose stanzas were typified by breathtakingly bland and unimaginative language:

I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

The public’s reception was captured on John Stuart’s Daily Show when her reading was juxtaposed with images of a rapidly dispersing crowd. At present, Amazon offers 31 copies of her chapbook, Praise Song for the Day, (a print run of 100,000) for 1 penny each. New copies have been marked down to yard sale prices: $1.52. The public has spoken. If the general reader was to blame for the mediocrity in Monroe’s morning paper, public reception was the choke collar that restrained it’s durability. If the worst poets were permitted 15 minutes of fame, the next 15 years were payback. Currently, given enough publications and enough awards, a poet, despite having little to no public appeal, can expect the esteem of his or her peers to confer lifelong job security. After all, who publishes their poetry and awards them but other poets, critics and aficionados? The estimation in which the last decade’s poets have been held hasn’t reflected public opinion but the poets’ opinions of themselves.

Monroe’s stance excludes the general public from the evolution of art, but as Walt Whitman wrote, great poetry isn’t possible without a great audience, and if the audience is excluded from the development of a given art form, then it will no longer reflect the audience’s innate greatness. Interest among the general public has predictably collapsed. In January of last year, the National Endowment for the Arts reported that while 50.2 percent of adults had read a work of fiction in 2008, as opposed to 46.7 in 2002 (an encouraging increase) poetry’s adult readership had declined to a 16 year low. The general reader no longer turns to contemporary poetry because they cease to find their greatness within it. When the poet August Kleinzahler stated that Garrison Keillor’s 2002 anthology of poems, Good Poems, “makes no demands on his audiences, none whatsoever,” he might have added, with equal conviction, that the “audience hasn’t been permitted to make any demands on poets, none whatsoever.”

It would be better if poets were fed to the lions of public opinion. Drive them out of the universities, if not literally then figuratively. Drown institutional benevolence in a barrel of water. When poets were required to make their living by writing for the public there was a give and take – a kind of death and rebirth in every public appraisal of their effort. Artists disputed but also encompassed their audience’s demands and tastes. There was a balance, perhaps imperfect but a balance nonetheless. The interaction produced our greatest works of art. Hamlet was a product of the public’s demand for revenge tragedy. Mozart’s Magic Flute, one of the greatest operas written, was a direct appeal, not to nobility, but to the Viennese public’s taste for Singspiels and fairy tale operas. Conversely, careers sometimes sputtered and artists starved. But that’s the way it should be. This is how art thrives and improves.

It is a supreme irony that Monroe’s vision of the independent artist has recreated the very system of patronage that the great poets, composers and artists of the 19th century were so determined to escape. They wanted to write for the public. And it’s a curious state of affairs when criticism of John Barr’s efforts to steer the Poetry Foundation toward a more populist direction can be paraphrased (by Dana Goodyear, in her New Yorker article, The Moneyed Muse) as “the encroachment of cultural conservatism, money, and vulgar money people on a precinct considered sacred, and safely forgotten.”

Those making the criticism, those who fancy themselves independent artists, are hardly independent. Beethoven, whose music inaugurated the age of the Romantics, disdained patronage. The very definition of the independent artist, exalted by the Romantics, rejected the social and political norms of the previous century, and that included its patronage system. Ironically, there is little difference between that patronage system and the patronage system of America’s wealthy academic institutions. There is little difference between the hundreds of forgettable court composers who dutifully scribbled ditties for their aristocratic employers and the hundreds of forgettable poets who dutifully compose poem after poem under the auspices of their respective institutions. (No academic institution is going to patronize a poet who doesn’t reflect well on them.) If anything typifies cultural conservatism, it is the poet safely ensconced in the court of academic institutions.

Poetry answerable to common opinion might, at the very least, prevent the public from being lectured by “the critical few who are supposed to know.” They will stop being told they are too vulgar to recognize which poets rightly deserve their admiration and attention. Instead, maybe your neighbor will tell you. Maybe you will hear a poet’s lines absently-mindedly chanted by the stranger next to you. No one knows what the next great poet will sound like. But it’s likely the public will recognize him or her before other poets, critics or editors do.

And surely, a great many poets who are currently the darlings of their generation will be toppled from their esteemed perches. But why not invite these poets to actually make a living from their poetry? If they can’t, then maybe their poetry isn’t all that good? On the other hand, maybe the public has spoken after all. If there’s not a single poet the public finds worth praising or remembering, then maybe the argument is already over. Robert Frost’s legacy lives on in his poetry. Monroe’s legacy lives on in $200 million.

Make poets work for their bread and butter by being poets. Make them, as Frost wrote, stand on their own legs. The current culture, in which poetry is written for and supported by poets, has created a kind of state-sanctioned poetry too shielded from the destructive and re-creative impulses of common opinion. When the ancient myth makers invented the phoenix, they created a myth far more captivating and compelling than deathless immortality. They recognized the vitality of death and rebirth. When and if poetry is ever made to answer to the broader public, then the public may begin to see great poetry again – the greatness that stems from the re-creative collaboration between audience and artist. Let poetry die.

❧ January 10 2011

Vermont Poetry Newsletter • February 18 2010

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[The Vermont Poetry Newsletter is not issued by me but by Ron Lewis, by whose permission I post this. PLEASE NOTE: I have edited his newsletter so that links are provided rather than text. If I cannot find a link, I will either omit the relevant portion of the newsletter to avoid copyright violations, or I will provide an alternate link. Please contact Ron Lewis if you would like to receive his Newsletter in full. All images are linked.]

Vermont Poetry Newsletter

Your Poetry & Spoken Word Gateway in the Green Mountain State

February 17, 2010 – In This Issue:

  1. About VPN/How To Print
  2. Newsletter Editor’s Note
  3. Writing Assignment/Suggestion/Exercise/Prompt
  4. Queen City Review
  5. Social Band – A Call For Song Lyrics
  6. The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes
  7. Don’t Get Me Wrong, Criticism by Patrick Gillespie
  8. NH Poet Laureate Walter E. Butts
  9. VT Poet Wins VT Senior Poet Laureate Award
  10. 2010 Senior Poet’s Laureate Poetry Competition
  11. Galway Kinnell – Complete Bio
  12. Brighten The Barn – PSOV Anthology
  13. 2009 NH Writer’s Handbook
  14. New Willie Mays Book
  15. Palindrome
  16. Recommended Readings in Rhetoric
  17. Lucille Clifton Dies at Age 73 (5 articles)
  18. Sidewalk Verse in St. Paul
  19. Book Reviews (2) – Tony Hoagland
  20. Digital Muse for Beat Poet (Gary Snyder)
  21. Movie Review: A Room and a Half (Joseph Brodsky)
  22. Brautigan’s Surreal Story: ‘Trout Fishing in America’
  23. Poem of the Week: 26th Winter by John Dofflemyer
  24. Poet Alum Gives Back to Middlebury
  25. Matthew Dickman, Michael Dickman??
  26. Block Island Poetry Project
  27. Did You Know? What Are Poetry Chapbooks?
  28. Ponderings: “P.O.E.M. — The Professional Organization of English Majors”
  29. Poetry Quote – Paul Engle
  30. Failbetter Poem
  31. Linebreak Poem
  32. Copper Canyon Press Poem
  33. American Life in Poetry Poems
  34. US Poets Laureate List
  35. Vermont Poet Laureates
  36. US Poet Laureates From Vermont
  37. New Hampshire Poet Laureates
  38. US Poet Laureates From New Hampshire
  39. Contact Info for Publisher of VPN: Ron Lewis
  40. Vermont Literary Journals
  41. Vermont Literary Groups’ Anthologies
  42. Vermont Poetry Blogs
  43. State Poetry Society (PSOV)
  44. Year-Round Poetry Workshops in Vermont
  45. Other Poetry Workshops in Vermont
  46. Year-Round Poetry Writing Centers in Vermont
  47. Other Writing Groups in Vermont
  48. Poetry Event Calendar

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1.) About the Vermont Poetry Newsletter Network

The Vermont Poetry Newsletter Network is made up of people of all backgrounds, ages and skills who appreciate the craft of poetry and want to promote it in the beautiful state of Vermont. The network consists of a free e-mail list, an eventual web site, workshops, open mics, poetry performances and other literary events.  The network provides opportunities to meet local poets, talk about and enjoy poetry, and motivate and inspire yourself in whatever writing projects you are involved.

The mission of the Vermont Poetry Newsletter is to foster the poetry arts community in the Green Mountain State.  Its goals are to serve as a resource for and about VT poets; to support the development of individual poets; and to encourage an audience for poetry in Vermont.

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Let Poetry Die

Don’t Get Me Wrong

I love poetry; but as far as the public is concerned, poetry died with the modernists.

No poets ever filled their shoes. And though there remain a number of minor masters and one hit wonders, few passing pedestrians could name a poet from the last 50 to 60 years – let alone the same poet, let alone the title of a poem, let alone a first line. Even though I’ve never watched a single game of ice hockey from beginning to end, I know who Wayne Gretzky is. And even though I’ve never watched more than two holes of golf, I know  that Tiger Woods is not just a gifted philanderer, but a great golfer.

Ask anyone to name a novelist of the last half century and names will come tumbling.

How about JK Rowling?

Ask anyone to name a contemporary poet and you will be lucky to scrape by with John Ashbery, notwithstanding his much ballyhooed publication in  Library of America.  I know because I’ve asked friends, acquaintances and perfect strangers. Try it yourself. Harold Bloom made the comment that “since the death of Wallace Stevens in 1955, we have been in the Age of Ashbery.” And when you think about it, that’s about as back-handed a compliment as he could possibly make. If Ashbery is a virtual unknown among the larger public, what does that say about the generation scurrying around his ankles?

John Barr, President of the National Poetry Association, described much the same in his article, American Poetry in the New Century:

The need for something new is evident. Contemporary poetry’s striking absence from the public dialogues of our day, from the high school classroom, from bookstores, and from mainstream media, is evidence of a people in whose mind poetry is missing and unmissed. You can count on the fingers of one hand the bookstores in this country that are known for their poetry collections…

Or consider About.Com. The web site offers a TopPicks index that includes the  top ten contemporary novelists, but not a word about the top ten poets. Type <Top Ten> into Google and see how long you have to scroll before you find anything about contemporary poets or poems. (I finally quit scrolling.) Why? Because few people could name so much as one poet, let alone ten. And if ten were listed, who would recognize them?

The Need for Darwin

The recent death of Ruth Lilly got me started.

The event made me think of two things, Frank Deford’s Sports “Curmudgeon” and Darwin. Here’s how the Poetry Foundation expressed their gratitude to Lilly:

Thanks to Ms. Lilly’s munificence, the programs of the Poetry Foundation bring poems to 19 million Americans who would not otherwise read or hear them. From the annual $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize honoring a contemporary poet’s lifetime accomplishment, to five Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowships that go to aspiring poets, to ensuring Poetry magazine continues publishing in perpetuity, to a host of new programs and prizes established by the Poetry Foundation since receiving the bequest, Ruth Lilly’s legacy will allow millions of readers to discover the great magic of poetry for generations to come. ¶ “Poetry has no greater friend than Ruth Lilly,” said Poetry Foundation John Barr.

Lilly’s generosity is praiseworthy but… but… what if she had generously donated such wealth to the NFL, Pixar, or Random House? Why bother, many would ask, they’re already successful. The Poetry Foundation, on the other hand, was headed toward irrelevance, at best, and oblivion at worst. Lilly’s contribution (and contributions) to the Poetry Foundation are the only reason it is what it is today. In other words, it’s not through any intrinsic or hard-earned merit that the Poetry Foundation is surviving and flourishing today, but because of a drug baron’s fantastic wealth.

The Poetry Foundation indirectly admitted as much. Without her, they tell us, 19 million Americans would not otherwise read or hear them. Without her, there would be no annual Poetry prize honoring contemporary poets. Without her, there would be no Poetry fellowships. Without her, millions wouldn’t be able to “discover the great magic of poetry for generations to come.”

Of course, the last assertion begs the question, if the magic of poetry is so great, why in God’s name did it need $200,000,000 dollars to rouse it from its death rattle? Apparently, it’s not the magic of poetry that will bring the thrill of poetry to millions of readers , but the magic of 200,000,000 dollars. Will the organization be made any better for the money? – remains to be seen. Would they have survived without it? – who knows… Did they deserve to survive? – maybe not.

The survival of the fittest has been thwarted.

On the other hand, this is precisely what the Poetry Foundation’s founder would have wanted. Wikipedia puts it this way:

Dana Goodyear, in an article in The New Yorker reporting and commenting on Poetry magazine and The Poetry Foundation, wrote that Barr’s essay was directly counter to the ideas of the magazine’s founder, Harriet Monroe, eight decades before. In a 1922 editorial, Monroe wrote about newspaper verse: “These syndicated rhymers, like the movie-producers, are learning that it pays to be good, [that one] gets by giving the people the emotions of virtue, simplicity and goodness, with this program paying at the box-office.” Monroe wanted to protect poets from the demands of popular taste, Goodyear wrote, while Barr wants to induce poets to appeal to the public. Goodyear acknowledged that popular interest in poetry has collapsed since the time of Monroe’s editorial.

In other words, Monroe wanted poets to write without consequence. And when any human being, let alone poets, can act without consequence, the dogs of mediocrity, narcissism and hedonism will be let loose. In the past, public reception was the choke collar that largely kept mediocrity at bay, but when poets were able to create their own audience (themselves) all those checks and balances evaporated.

It’s my own opinion that Monroe’s attitude is toxic and anathema to great art and poisonous to art in general. It’s a shame and the results are indisputable. When poets left their audience, their audience left them.

Monroe’s stance excluded the general public from the evolution of art, but as Walt Whitman wrote, great poetry isn’t possible without a great audience, and if the audience is excluded from the development of a given art from, then it will no longer reflect the audience’s own innate greatness. And that is precisely what has happened. The general public no longer turns to contemporary poetry because it ceases to find itself, its greatness, reflected in that poetry. The general public has been excluded.

So who’s to tell the poet if they’re poetry is good or bad? Poets themselves?

The fact that the Poetry Foundation continues to exist, not because of its intrinsic merit but because of a generous benefactor means that its aesthetic genetics (the attitudes, values and artistic principles) that were probably ripe for expiration, will now continue to exert an undeserved and unearned influence on poetry. John Bar’s own unwitting statement that Poetry “has no greater friend than Ruth Lilly” is a sad self-indictment. It should have millions of friends – none any more or less great than  the other.

It might have been better had the organization died a natural death.

Mob Rule

And it would be better if all poets were thrown to the dogs of public opinion.

Tremendous wisdom can be found in the myths and legends of our past. One of the most profound, in my opinion, is that of the Phoenix – both mortal and immortal. What the ancients knew (or some of  them), and which many moderns seem to have forgotten, is that without destruction, there can be no rebirth.

The reason the Phoenix appeals to us is not because it is immortal (mythology is rife with immortal beings) but because it can recreate itself. The Phoenix’s song of death and rebirth  transfixes us. Immortality can never hold the same gift and promise of rebirth and renewal.

And it’s precisely this cycle of death and rebirth that poetry has lost.

When poets were required to make their living by writing for the public there was a give and take – a kind of death and rebirth in every public appraisal of their effort. Artists disputed but also encompassed their audience’s demands and tastes. There was a balance, perhaps imperfect but a balance nonetheless. The interaction produced our greatest works of art. Conversely, careers sometimes sputtered, poets starved and some had to quit writing altogether. But that’s the way it should be. This is how art thrives.

The best thing that could happen to poetry is to drive it out of the universities with burning pitch forks. Starve the lavish grants. Strangle them all in a barrel of water. Cast them out. The current culture, in which poetry is written for and supported by poets has created a kind of state-sanctioned poetry that  resists innovation. When and if poetry is ever made to answer to the broader public, then we may begin to see some great poetry again – the greatness that is the collaboration between audience and artist.

As John Barr wrote:

[Contemporary poets] operate on a network of academic postings and prizes that reinforce the status quo. They are sustained by a system of fellowships, grants, and other subsidies that absolve recipients of the responsibility to write books that a reader who is not a specialist might enjoy, might even buy.

There has always been criticism directed at the National Endowment for the Arts, for it’s use of our tax money to support artists who would probably (and otherwise) be in the unemployment line. And maybe I’m beginning to have some sympathy with that point of view. If poets and artists can’t make a living by writing poetry or producing art, then maybe they shouldn’t be writing poetry.

Let the fittest survive.

And, yes, I hold myself to that standard. I live it everyday.

Let Poetry Die

So that it can be reborn, make poets work for their bread and butter by being poets. As it is, the state of poetry is dispiriting. The public is right to ignore it.

Some quotes from the web:

  • I asked the newsroom to name a living American poet. A room full of people who write for a living could only come up with Maya Angelou. The Book Club ~ The News Herald
  • …the reason why you cannot recite poems from the last fifty years with ease is not because there haven’t been any good ones but because of the system of education: it has both ceased to renew the curricular literary canon and at the same time devalued the teaching of english… a comment at Melville House Publishing