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America, Meet Your Poets

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When Mark Edmundson published his jeremiad against contemporary American poetry in Harper's earlier this month, the outcry from working poets was predictable. Some argued, via social media, that Edmundson was reading the wrong poets, or too little poetry altogether. Others found his argument to be well-intended but finally incomprehensible; indeed, they opined, it's hard to know what to make of an essay that simultaneously criticizes the "blander, more circumscribed voice" of much contemporary poetry and also those poets who "strive to sound like no one else." Just so, Edmundson's equal dismissal of "programmatic" writing and the writing of poets whose work "could be no one else['s] but [theirs]." Still other poets shook their heads sadly and noted that, by now, poorly researched major-media attacks are old hat for American poetry.

It's true, poetry's been a punching bag for the media, and for academics like Edmundson writing in major media, for a very long time. The tradition stretches back decades, though the recent history of stinging rebukes of poetry begins with Joseph Epstein's "Who Killed Poetry?" (1988) and Dana Gioia's "Can Poetry Matter?" (1991), and extends to Edmundson's piece and a similar one published shortly thereafter in The Atlantic, "Can Modern Poetry Be Saved?" In each case, the predictable calumny heaped upon contemporary poetry was followed by predictable hand-wringing -- or, increasingly today, predictable snorts and dismissals -- from the nation's working poets. Ultimately, both of these reactions miss the mark, as the real tragedy of the nation's ongoing debate over poetry is not what does or doesn't get discussed but who does or doesn't get to discuss it. Working poets are increasingly getting locked out, by newspapers and popular magazines, from one of the only conversations they're uniquely qualified to participate in.

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it might have made sense for conversations about the state of contemporary poetry to largely emanate from, and be responded to from within, the Academy. Back then English departments were still in passable health, creative writing as a discipline had yet to see its first American boom, and the volume of poetry being produced by the nation's poets was still modest enough for even a critic with only a passing familiarity with poetry to dismiss all of it with a desultory hand-gesture.

But times have changed. American literary study and discourse has, regrettably, devolved since Epstein's and Gioia's direct assaults on the state of poetry a quarter of a century ago. According to a recent article in The New York Times, in 1991 Yale University graduated 165 English majors; it graduated 62 in 2013, a decline of 62 percent. Other universities have seen similar declines, indeed so many declines, and declines of such magnitude, that the downward spiral for the collegiate study of English is now unmistakable. According to the American Scholar, from 1971 to 2003 the English major lost nearly half its share of the American collegiate population. While a more recent piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education notes, rightly, that most of English departments' declining enrollment is due to an exodus from the major in the 1970s and 1980s, none of this changes the fact that the health of academic English departments is very much in doubt today.

Yet the recent history of literary study in the United States isn't nearly as grim if we consider the evolution of creative writing, an English department specialization that from 1971 to 2003 grew by 908 percent -- that's not a typo -- if we measure the discipline by how many terminal-degree graduate programs are devoted to its study. The effect of this unprecedented growth is that in 2013 there are approximately 250 terminal-degree graduate creative writing programs in the United States. In 1991, when Gioia wrote of his concern about the future of American poetry, there were but fifty such programs (and half of these had, at that point, graduated five or fewer classes of poets).

While we have only anecdotal evidence for the claim, the number of publishing outlets for poetry in the United States has likewise experienced a major boom in recent decades. Whereas in the late 1960s American literature was dominated by approximately two dozen literary magazines, including Poetry, The Paris Review, and The Kenyon Review, by the late 2000s a substantial percentage of the nation's poetry publishing and even poetry criticism was occurring online, leading to a drop in overhead costs for publishers and between a five-fold and 20-fold increase in the number of poetry magazines with regular publishing schedules.

The effect of all of the above is that the academic study of literature has never been in worse health, nor the study of literature from the perspective of working writers in more robust condition. What these two distinct trends are telling us, if only we've ears to listen, is that the population of eligible literary critics in the United States no longer remains static over time. Whereas the number of English departments offering the Ph.D. has risen only slightly in recent decades, an increase easily offset by the loss of undergraduates in English majors across the country, the explosion in the number of English departments offering a terminal degree in creative writing is of such magnitude that it represents the largest expansion of domestic literary conversation in American history. Moreover, because the creative writing MFA is a nonprofessional degree that sends no more than 5 percent of its holders to full-time professorial positions, the vast majority of creative writing MFA graduates in the United States (approximately 45,000 per decade, also not a typo) are still looking for a productive way to make use of their degrees.

Some MFA graduates, this author included, have turned to writing poetry reviews for major media outlets in addition to regularly publishing collections of poetry. One hopes that, in the future, even more of the nation's more than 2,000 annual MFA graduates in poetry will take up the mantle of the critic and begin putting contemporary poetry more clearly in view for a general audience. In the meantime, one can hope that these thousands and thousands of working poets will increasingly be seen by media outlets as the largest natural resource for poetry criticism ever aggregated in American letters.

{NB: This article emphasizes poets with MFA degrees specifically, and younger poets generally, because we can more readily estimate their numbers than is the case with older poets, non-degreed poets, street and slam poets, and so on. But rest assured that the poet population is rising steadily across the board, and that -- most importantly -- having something to contribute to discussions of contemporary poetry has everything to do with being a working poet and little or nothing to do with age or merely having an educational pedigree.}

As the nation's most critically acclaimed poet, John Ashbery, once detailed in an interview with The Paris Review, what first awakened him to the joys of poetry was seeing that "poetry wasn't just something lifeless in an ancient museum, but must have grown out of the lives of the people who wrote it." Ashbery, still a working poet today, is exactly right: If we want the nation's youngest readers to take up an interest in poetry, we must introduce them to more working poets and fewer academics, and indeed make exposure to working poets in real-time a mandatory precursor to the reading of contemporary American poetry. No one's thirst for verse was ever quelled by spending some quality time with a 20- or 30-something working poet passionate about poetry; countless thousands of American young adults have, however, turned away from poetry due to the absolutely abysmal state of academic poetry instruction at the high school and college levels. Thus the long-term decline in the number of English majors, whose faculty mentors are doctorate-holding academics, even as we witness a concurrent explosion in the number of undergraduate creative writing majors, who are almost uniformly taught by MFA graduates or current MFA students. In other words, not only do we know what works in poetry education and what doesn't, but the present demographics of America's literary dialogue favor a prescription that at least partially supplants academic literary analyses with writerly ones.

So far so good, though you wouldn't know it from reading about contemporary American poetry in newspapers or popular magazines. Edmundson, the author of the controversial Harper's piece, is not a poet, nor does he hold a creative writing MFA. In fact, he's been an academic for three decades now, making him a curious choice to pinpoint MFA programs as a primary source of contemporary poetry's ills. Likewise, when The Atlantic decided to run a major feature on graduate creative writing programs in 2007, it didn't recruit any of the over 20,000 working poets who've had direct exposure to such programs in the last decade to write the piece, nor did it even seek out doctorate-holding academics whose Master's degrees were in creative writing (or, for that matter, Ph.D. students and graduates whose research specialization is either Creative Writing Studies, a new literary studies focus, or Critical Creative Writing Pedagogy, a new rhetoric/composition one). Instead, The Atlantic gave the job to journalist Edward J. Delaney, whose credentials for writing authoritatively on contemporary American poetry and graduate creative writing programs include a 1979 B.S. in Finance from Fairfield University and a subsequent M.S. in Mass Communications from Boston University. Years later, when The Atlantic wanted to publish a response to Edmundson's piece, it tapped for the task J.K. Trotter, the Editor-in-Chief of IvyGate, a "news, gossip, and commentary blog that covers the Ivy League."

What we have here, it seems, is a failure to communicate. America has a thousands-strong class of recent university graduates whose degrees are in writing, who are presently without any gainful employment directly associated with their field, and who are intimately familiar not only with contemporary poetry but also with the communities and institutions working poets spend much of their time in, and yet few in the media seem willing to tap them as a resource. The result is not merely errata -- it took years for Delaney's erroneous implication that there are more than 800 creative writing MFA programs in the United States to disappear from regular citation in the press -- but also accounts of contemporary poetry that are, like Edmundson's, ill-conceived.

How should the more than 20,000 young poets who receive their graduate degrees in poetry each decade receive a review of contemporary poetry that only considers the work of "the gang [of poets] now in their fifties, sixties, and beyond"? Of what relevance is an analysis of Pulitzer Prize winners in poetry when 99.99 percent of working American poets have no say whatsoever in who's selected for the honor? If Edmundson knew that the average starting age of a student at one of the nation's 171 full-residency creative writing MFA programs was 27, would he still have written that "a great deal" of contemporary poetry "imagine[s] TV shows, video games, ads, fashions, the Internet, movies, popular music never existed and don't make up our collective environment"? If Edmundson had spent much time in any of the nation's several hundred bohemian and university literary communities, most of which skew violently toward 20- and 30-somethings, would he really have said that contemporary poetry "does not generally traffic in the icons of pop culture...it gravitates to the ancient"? These comments describe none of the contemporary poetry I review monthly for The Huffington Post, and, more broadly, hardly any of the poetry being written and regularly performed in public by my 20- and 30-something poet friends.

Fortunately, some academics have already taken the hint -- or, at a minimum, acknowledged the sea change that's coming. Writing for Virginia Quarterly Review in 2012, poet and editor Willard Spiegelman noted, of celebrated Harvard University literary critic Helen Vendler, that "some years ago she said she was giving up reviewing or generally writing about new books of poetry by younger poets. She had not lost her acumen, her interest or her powers of perception; she said that she lacked the right cultural frame of reference to be an appropriate audience, let alone a judge." Perhaps this is the same reason Edmundson writes only of "the gang [of poets] now in their fifties, sixties, and beyond"; and perhaps the easiest way for an award-winning popular magazine to assess the state of contemporary American poetry is to pretend that no one forty-nine or younger ever writes it.

Perhaps, it says here, we can do better.

The problem with discussions of poetry in major media outlets isn't, ultimately, that younger poets' aesthetics and poetics differ from Mark Edmundson's, or that most working poets could readily name 50 poets under 50 whose work they believe, with some evidence, we'll be reading for decades and decades to come. Aesthetic debates are, by their very nature, in this period and all others, irresolvable. The real problem is that, with due respect, it's time for academic criticism of contemporary poetry to make up only the tiniest fraction of the national dialogue over the artform.

The primary dilemma posed by the recent articles on poetry in Harper's and The Atlantic isn't that what's been said is wrong, though it is, or that the authors' diagnoses of why poetry isn't a household article aren't up to snuff -- though, in truth, they aren't -- but that how that discussion is currently being held is outrageous under the circumstances. It's outrageous because of who's been elected to participate in the circumscription, description, and advocacy of today's verse. America's working poets, particularly those who publish with small presses and live in close-knit poetry communities outside the borders of urban bohemia, need to be the first recourse for harried magazine editors looking to publish lengthy pieces on contemporary poetry. And if anyone doubts that this change in how America discusses its poetry could happen overnight -- that we could, for the first time in American print and online media, marshal the awesome lit-crit resource of working poets, men and women who know that poetry "grows out of the lives of the people who write it" -- well, I've got tens of thousands of people I'd like you to meet.

A graduate of Harvard Law School and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry: Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013), winner of the 2012 Akron Poetry Prize; Northerners (Western Michigan University Press, 2011), winner of the 2010 Green Rose Prize from New Issues Poetry & Prose; and The Suburban Ecstasies (Ghost Road Press, 2009). A contributing author to The Creative Writing MFA Handbook (Continuum, 2008) and a regular contributor to both Poets & Writers and Indiewire, he is also Series Co-Editor for Best American Experimental Writing, whose first edition will be published by Omnidawn in 2014. Presently a doctoral candidate (ABD) in English Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets (University of Virginia Press, 2008), Poetry of the Law (University of Iowa Press, 2010), Poetry, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Harvard Review, AGNI, Fence, and Colorado Review. In 2008, he was awarded the J. Howard and Barbara M.J. Wood Prize by Poetry.