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Is American Poetry at a Dead-End? Prominent Poets Speak Out

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We asked our poets the following questions: Is American poetry at a dead-end? Have American poets betrayed the great legacy of modernism? Why or why not? What worries you about the present moment in poetry? Do you see signs of life? Where is the most promising new work coming from? What is your advice to a young poet trying to make sense of the current poetry scene?

Rebecca Seiferle's poetry collections include The Ripped-Out Seam, The Music We Dance To, Bitters, and Wild Tongue. She is the founding editor of Drunken Boat. Read Rebecca's work here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

It may be that some poets have arrived at a dead-end; for one way to be successful as a poet in American culture has been to carve out a niche, a particular 'voice' or style that is recognizable as a brand name, and to cultivate that niche for decades. There are perhaps styles of poetry that are at a dead-end; I went to a MFA graduate school where Allen Grossman arrived as visiting faculty and announced during his lecture that the work he'd read from the program was "written as if Modernism hadn't happened." There is always a kind of "new" poetry that seems to create a sort of anonymous voice, as if the poems written by its various practitioners could be read as if written by all, a kind of pastiche of vernacular and high diction and appropriation. But that has always been the case; there have always been styles and practitioners who have reached dead-ends, and sometimes the dead-ends are only obstacles through which something breaks through. Whitman for instance was a hack journalist before whatever happened to him happened and the doors flung open.

What worries me the most about the present moment in poetry is the degree to which it's been taken over by the business of being a poet and subverted by the corrupt language of our culture. The attitudes and jargon of our consumer culture are perfidious, and poetry is not unaffected; hence, the cultivation of a "voice" as if it were a brand name, the isolation of the poetry-ego viewing others' experiences as material for one's sincere posturing, the round of networking and readings and mutual publications not unlike any social network with business connections. Poetry when it lives takes language back to its roots, makes us consider the oppression that is often embedded in the etymology of the word and its practice upon the tongue; often exacting and difficult, poetry requires an encounter which puts the poet's intention and ego and persona as much at risk as anything else.

This is precisely why poetry matters; though it may go unnoticed as a whisper in the noise, poetry has the power to speak and be heard at some other level where American conversation seldom reaches. The fear of feeling is how Rukeyser explained America's reluctance for poetry. But that capacity for feeling, for the word to reach another from another, to feel one's self flowering open in the presence of a space that allows and accepts feeling and empowers the unnamed experience, is precisely why it is impossible to say poetry is at a dead-end.

My advice for young poets trying to find their way in the current poetry scene is to resist, resist fashion, resist careerism, resist cultivating poetry as if it were a brand; cling to the "uselessness" of poetry, its marginality, its difficulty, its complex joys, because poetry's use is a human use, to create a space for experience and feeling that might otherwise never find an open door, an open room, an open border, or arms open to the rain.

Elaine Equi's latest book is Ripple Effect: New & Selected Poems (Coffee House Press). A new collection, Click and Clone, is forthcoming in Spring 2011. Listen to Elaine here and here.

Ripple Effect was a finalist for Canada's Griffin Prize. Watch Elaine read at the event:

This seems like a funny question to ask when probably more people than ever before write poetry. As someone who teaches in two Creative Writing MFA programs (at The New School and City College of New York), I can attest to its popularity. Clearly something about poetry is still quite compelling.

From the 1970's on, a lot of experimental writing questioned the convention of having a central speaker (one voice talking) in a poem. Simplicity, sincerity, and singularity were out. Multiplicity was in. As a result, all kinds of collages and mash ups became popular. It was interesting for a while, but ultimately (at least for me) not very satisfying. For some reason, no one seems to think their thoughts are their own anymore--or they just don't want to own up to them.

One challenge for contemporary poets would be to discover a new kind of voice that could encompass or easily move between both the private and the public sphere, the individual and the group mind. I'm not sure exactly how it could be done. Whitman is one example, but I'm thinking of something less transcendent.

Also, because of the influence of technology, people today are very excited by notions of networking and dialogue. So potentially this period could lead to a real renaissance of collaborative writing and cross genre work. All in all, I'm pretty confident about the resilience and adaptability of American poetry in the 21st century. It's movies and TV I'm worried about.

Campbell McGrath is the author of nine full-length collections of poetry, including, most recently, Shannon: A Poem of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and is the recipient of a MacArthur grant. Read new poems and an interview, and a Q&A with Smartish Pace magazine. Watch Campbell read at the New York State Summer Writer's Institute. Download "The Custodian," a chapbook of new work.

Watch Campbell read at Emory University:

Campbell shares his new poem, "Sugar or Blood," with Huffington Post readers:

Sugar or Blood

If Modernism has left a legacy, a final bequest, at least it proves that the beast is dead at last, and we can lay down our pitchforks, and sleep in peace. Or, we would be able to sleep, except that Modernism's legacy is in fact the ethos of fragmentation that bedevils contemporary American poetry like a nest of vampiric bedbugs. Could we send that legacy back? Or at least have it fumigated before nightfall?

American poetry, on the contrary, is neither dead nor at a dead-end. There may not be any great revolutionary movement afoot, but there is much ardent hewing of lumber in the forests of Poetry Land. Many of those trees end up as sawdust, sure, but there's some good carpentry and furniture making as well--there are plenty of roads through the yellow wood. I'd assert that liveliness reigns in Poetry Land. I attended my very first AWP Convention last year, and was amazed at the energy on display in the vast warehouse full of poetry journals and webzines and other innovative publishers that jammed the convention center in Denver. Of course, much of that publishing takes place online nowadays, but those of us raised on books are just going to have to get used to the virtual transition taking place. When it comes to the economics of online publishing, poets are way ahead of the curve, having not been paid for our writing these last several centuries. To all those prose writers and journalists bemoaning their lost paychecks I say, welcome to Poetry Land, Comrades!

Finally, I'll risk restating the obvious by venturing that there's only one useful piece of advice for any young writer: write. Pay no attention to the state of American poetry, the death of the book, the legacy of Modernism, the bedbugs in your cheap apartment: ignore as much as you possibly can get away with and write. Resist the careerist temptations of PoBiz. Stay home and write a poem. There is no particular place to get to in Poetry Land, anyway. The point of the journey is the journey itself, the process of writing poetry, which hopefully you consider enriching and indispensable. If not, spare yourself a lot of grief. Go back to that fork in the yellow woods, watch out for ATVs driven by gun-toting meth-heads, and pick another road.

Carmen Gimenez Smith is the author of Odalisque in Pieces, Bring Down the Little Birds, and the forthcoming Trees Outside the Academy. She is the publisher of Noemi Press and the editor of Puerto del Sol.

Carmen reads from Bring Down the Little Birds:

Carmen shares a new poem, "Bleeding Heart":

BLEEDING HEART by Carmen Gimenez Smith

For some reason modernism figures as a cultural lynchpin and, depending on who you talk to, is the dawn of a new day or the arrival of the antichrist. But if you pull modernism out of the intense scrutinizing lens of history and scholarship, you see earnest artists shaped by context--the houses they're living in, the foods they're eating, the amount of light they had in a day. The historical moment these artists lived in is bookended by two of the greatest wars this world has ever seen. It's very likely that some of these poets aspired to greatness, had lofty aesthetic aspirations (to change the course of history, for example), but they were constrained by their conditions, unaware that conditions existed. We live today in a microcosmic world in which a gesture is recorded, analyzed and historicized in a matter of days. Nothing is allowed to fester or bloom before it gets vanquished by the masses. We simply don't know that in a hundred years Billy Collins and Flarf won't be considered under the same terms.

Chad Prevost is the author of a collection of short prose, A Walking Cliche Coins a Phrase, and a poetry book, Snapshots of the Perishing World. Listen to Chad read here, here, here, and here, watch Chad read here, and read his work here. Listen to an interview here. Read Chad's poem "as one plunges from the sky" here.

Read Chad's new poem, "Jack White Speaking Telepathically":

Poem Jack White Speaking Telepathically

If we're looking at the growth of MFA programs, or how incredibly serious many people are about the "po biz," or how many thousands of small magazines are publishing poetry, then I suppose not.
America is a really big place, and there is an awful lot going on for poetry these days even in these difficult economic days. So, while we may have recently seen the terminations or cut-backs of some major poetry programs, such as the Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey, there are still people out there "following their bliss," and working hard at their craft and working hard at getting the word out there.

I don't know that all that much has really changed in America related to poetry in many decades. There were never really that many readers in the first place. Few to none--other than perhaps Billy Collins and Maya Angelou--are making (or have ever made) a living from sales of their books peppered in with a few readings. Everyone needs a day job. And this is also widely true for musicians, painters, and fiction writers, although their audiences are generally larger than one who primarily writes poetry.

Just think of how much attention T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens and Y.B. Yeats get taught in academic contemporary poetry settings. Were modernists betraying romantics? Victorians? If I define Modernism as High Modernism, and distinguish it between the mid-20th century definitions of the "cooked and the raw," or between "elitism" as opposed to "populism," then, perhaps yes, American poetry today has "betrayed" the highly educated, elite impulses of the High Modernists (in many ways, the fundamental pull of all "postmodern" thought is a reaction against the modern). But it's also a way of reading history. There has been an ongoing tension between the impulses of the highly refined and the layman's voice throughout the past several centuries of poetry. But if we're being more inclusive in our definition of Modernism, and basically taking in every major figure from the general era, like, say, Frost, or Marianne Moore, or William Carlos Williams and mixing them up with Auden, and a dash of "objectivists" David Jones, Basil Bunting, David Ignatow, Louis Zukofsky sprinkled in with "new historicists" Robert Penn Warren, Theodore Roethke, Elizabeth Bishop, as well as others like Richard Wilbur, Randall Jarrell and John Berryman, then it's difficult to say who's betrayed who and how.

What worries me is that we are becoming an increasingly less literate culture. It's about our education system, sure (I see every day in the composition writing of my freshmen), and that there are so many distractions and other forms of media and entertainment. The countless other distractions are not so much a good or a bad thing. It just is. It disappoints me that there are so few places where one can read authentically critical reviews of poetry. Perhaps it's because the literary world is so small that we all feel like we need to write and publish little more than affirmations? Reviews have been reduced to marketing devices, which are basically either laudatory or descriptive. When I have come across the places that do authentic critical evaluations both my intellect and my inspiration--the head and the heart--are stimulated. Gerry LaFemina and Dennis Hinrichsen nobly ventured into this domain with Review Revue, but it has only limped along the past couple of years, and had a very small subscription base in spite of how excellently it was put together. Contemporary Poetry Review online was publishing some fine stuff for a while.

Wayne Miller is the author of the forthcoming The City, Our City, The Book of Props, and Only the Senses Sleep. He edits Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing. Read Wayne's work here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Wayne reads at a Smartish Pace poetry reading:

Wayne Miller, Smartish Pace Poerty Reading, May 31, 2009 from Smartish Pace on Vimeo.

At any point in poetic history, one finds hand-wringing about the state of the art. These days, Tony Hoagland is concerned by the "skittery poem of our moment," Ron Silliman complains about the pervasiveness of the "School of Quietude," Franz Wright worries about the chatty sociability--the lack of focused quietness--found in the "MFA generations," Dorothea Lasky is bothered by too many poets writing "projects," John Barr complains about the lack of safari-going among today's poets, Ange Mlinko decries the legacy of Lowell's "tyranny of psychological verismo," Michael Theune frets that "middle-ground poets" don't have clear evaluative criteria, Anis Shivani worries about the "mechanical" nature of our poetry, and numerous poets have asserted in response to Ashbery that "the emperor has no clothes."

I say "these days" because we could also be in some other historical moment when, say, William Carlos Williams is complaining about T. S. Eliot's "conforming to the excellencies of classroom English," or M. L. Rosenthal is bothered by the "shameful" nature of Confessional poetry, or France is scandalized by Baudelaire's "incomprehensible" and "putrid" work, or Ezra Pound is attacking the influence of Walt Whitman, whose Leaves of Grass "is impossible to read [. . .] without swearing at the author almost continuously," or the Acmeist poets are decrying the lack of craft in the work of the Russian Symbolists, or Dunstan Thompson is complaining of "the smugness, the sterility, the death-in-life which disgrace the literary journals of America" in that poetic nadir of 1940--the same year Auden published Another Time, E. E. Cummings published 50 Poems, Kenneth Fearing published his Collected Poems, and Kenneth Rexroth and Robert Hayden made their literary debuts.

The legacy of Modernism is alive and well--though, frankly, it's so broad as to be pretty much unbetrayable. After all, the Language poets and Philip Levine both envision their work as building on William Carlos Williams. Robert Bly thought "Deep Image" poetry was a return to true Imagism, yet Ron Silliman lumps Bly and James Wright with many of the "academic" and Confessional poets Bly excoriated in The Fifties.

All poetry lives somewhere on a spectrum between Classicism and Romanticism. If high Modernists such as Eliot, Pound, and Moore tilt toward the Classical side, and the Confessional and Beat poets inhabit the Romantic, then we've more or less marked the boundaries of the Modernist legacy. But that gives us quite an aesthetic and intellectual range to play around in.

Many American poets frustrated by 1980s post-Confessionalism--which leaned largely on personal narrative and ad misericordium for its effects--have turned back to the high Modernists, Objectivists, and New York School to balance out a poetic that was, in the end, too baldly Romantic. Sometimes this turn has produced new work that's mechanical, emotionally flat, or unparsable--but that doesn't negate the fact that this rebalancing is mostly a good move, one that's hardly a betrayal of Modernism. Indeed, it's a backward turn similar to Eliot's when he exalted the Metaphysical poets over the Victorians and Romantics.

There are a number of things that worry me about poetry today:
• Ignorance of poetic--and literary--history. I was once on a panel with a well-published poet who said she had little use for the Modernists because her work was about collage. It's just this sort of foreshortened view that leaves poets thinking either (a.) that all poetry must be built around reportage of personal epiphany, or (b.) that Dadaism is new.
• I worry when I hear writers say they're not interested in reading--or writing--"great poems." I still subscribe to the quaint idea that poets write in the hope of producing a few great works--works that, assuming society doesn't collapse in one of its many possible conflagrations, people will continue to read a hundred years from now because those works will continue to be valuable. Call me an optimist.
• I fear that America's most visible and influential critical apparatuses have yet to notice how much American poetry has decentralized. Our next important poet could just as easily be living in Cleveland, Houston, Chico, Tucson, or Lincoln as (s)he could in New York or Boston. How long will it take the New York Times Book Review to pay attention?
• Childishness. I understand that poems written in the whiny idiom of a 15-year-old about Barbies and action figures and teenagery romance are, at their best, intended to approach seriousness through the back door. But, come on: we're adults. We don't need to apologize for having adult concerns. And if we haven't stumbled upon them by the time we're in our mid to late twenties, we should go looking for them. Call me stodgy.

Claudia Keelan is the author of six books of poetry, including Refinery, The Secularist, Utopic, and Missing Her (New Issues Press, 2009). Read her poetry here, here, and here.

Claudia reads her poem "Critical Essay" in Berlin:

I live on a street that is a dead-end, and it used to worry me, until I opened my eyes and saw the sign out my window for the symbol it is. In time, there is no such thing as a dead-end, and if there are tendencies in our current poetries that betray the legacies of modernism, they are those which refer back to symbolism and the fetishizing of the poem-object. Mostly, though, I am not at all worried about our present moment in poetry. The work I see as editor of Interim , and the work written by my most gifted and generous students, is an extension, a provisioning, of the arm of modernism which legitimizes the genuineness of experiment, dares sincerity, and provides those who come after with examples of poets whose lives and work spoke truth to power.

The modern exists in every century and to find it I reach back to the pre-Socratic writers, to the Troubadours, to Blake, to Whitman, to Pound, Williams, to Stein, and continue forward to Oppen, Niedecker, and to the many poets writing now who continue and re-direct the liberality of modernism into our present concerns. The human form divine, the Body Electric, and the compositional methods that urge our poetries to the new(est) available reality--these are the preoccupations of my modernism. This summer Brenda Hillman's Practical Water has been my company, as has Ronaldo Wilson's Poems of the Black Object and the poems of Adam Strauss, a former student of mine who has not yet published a book. Any work that makes a sound serving the whole, that's where we must go--it's not worth anybody's time to read anything that doesn't serve so, and yet, one must read widely, read almost everything, in order to recognize the sound of which I speak. "The whole" isn't a synonym for "the human," though the human is part of it. If one can eek out a place in the plenty that is the poem without need for any other ownership except for the pleasure of being there--one doesn't need to worry or make sense.

Shelley Puhak's first collection, Stalin in Aruba, won the Towson University Prize for Literature. Watch Shelley read here, and read her work here, here, and here.

Shelley shares a new poem, "Transmission from Anteros":

Transmissions from Anteros-18, #2,165

Dead end? No. But we're not yet at a cross-road either. Perhaps we're still circling around a great suburban round-about, deciding which exit to take. A precise answer about the legacy of modernism would depend upon whether we agree what that legacy entails. Precision and "direct treatment of the 'thing'"? The musical phrase vs the metronome? Dislocation and fragmentation? Order and unity? Something else entirely? I feel more comfortable saying we aren't following in the modernists' footsteps by working on our own legacy, in the sense that my generation hasn't yet produced forms or styles that radically break with our predecessors, that we have no clear manifesto, that we aren't sure what we are currently trying to correct or perfect or rebel against.

If I'm in a pessimistic mood, there's lots to worry about, but it's already been better articulated by critics like Dana Gioia, Marjorie Perloff, and Hank Lazer. I agree with their collective concern that many American poets are churning out technically-polished poetry that is safe and superficial, that misses the opportunity to shape the world, not just chronicle a reaction to it. Mostly, though, I worry about my own increasing dependence on technology: I'm hunched over my laptop, addicted to Facebook and my iPhones, and connected 24/7 via email. I worry about the lack of uninterrupted time and space for both poets and readers.

I'm thinking specifically of recent articles like "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" (Carr, the Atlantic, 2008) and the emerging neuroscience behind the debate these have spurred--evidence that surfing the web strengthens new neural pathways and weakens others, that our brains, ever malleable, are evolving. If the science holds up, what are the implications for our collective abilities to concentrate, contemplate, to read closely and critically? I wonder how these changes in perception, positive and negative, will fundamentally alter the way we compose and read poetry.

If the poetry scene has become more fragmented, it has also become more decentralized and democratic. The great thing is that, as a reader, I have more access than ever before, to a wide range of voices and styles. The work that excites me most is not coming out of Knopf or Norton or the academic powerhouses; it is coming from small independent presses like Graywolf and Soft Skull and Marsh Hawk, just to name a few.


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