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Classic Literature and Cafes Book Club Message Board › A Literary Call To Arms

A Literary Call To Arms

Denis K.
user 11339830
San Francisco, CA
Post #: 1
Although this meet-up is primarily concerned with novels, I felt compelled to post some excerpts from a recent Harper’s magazine article concerning a critique of contemporary American poetry (“Poetry Slam: Or, The Decline of American Verse”, Mark Edmundson, Harper’s Magazine, July 2013). The article is valuable for two reasons. First, it provides a reasonable framework by which to evaluate poetry. Second, the author (an English Professor) throws down the gauntlet to contemporary American poets in that he believes that poetry has become far too insular, opaque, and largely separated from the social, political, and economic issues of the day. The article is not yet accessible for free online, but I have excerpted it liberally below and the magazine is available at the public library.

1. A Few Words About The Title: The title of the article may be misleading to some (it was for me initially) in that Edmundson is not criticizing the relatively recent phenomena of the spoken-word performance, i.e., poetry slams. Instead, he is using the two words, “poetry” and “slam” in an individuated manner, i.e., he is slamming contemporary American poetry.

2. Framework Before the Critique:
(a) Lyric Gift: The poet “must be able to make music, command metaphors, compress sense, write melodiously when the situation demands and gratingly when need be…She must be versed in irony; she must have control of tone.”
(b) A Serious Theme: “She must have something to say. There must be some region of her experience that has transfixed her and the she feels compelled to put into words and illuminate. She must burn to attack some issue, must want to unbind a knot, tighten, or maybe send a blade directly through its core.”
(c) Ambition (or Courage): “She must be willing to write for her readers. She must be willing to articulate the possibility that what is true for her is true for all.

“When these three qualities, lyric gift; a serious theme, passionately addressed; real ambition…come together, the results can be luminous: one gets Shelley’s ‘Ode the West Wind’ or Plath’s “Daddy” or Lowell’s Sunday Morning’”

3. A Literary Call To Arms (A Few Excerpts): Given the framework above, Edmondson believes that contemporary American poetry simply falls short.
(a) “Most of our poets now speak a deeply internal language…”
(b) “At a time when collective issues—communal issues, political issues—are pressing, our poets have become ever more private, idiosyncratic, and withdrawn.”
(c) “When contemporary poets do write at length, with what appears to be large-scale designs, they tend to lapse into opacity and evasion.”
(d) “What happens when poets at the height of ambition somehow feel the need to programmatically obscure? The obvious result is that they shut out the common reader. But they also give critics far too much room to determine poetic meanings.”
(e) “The critic Richard Poirier praised Norman Mailer for being willing to leap into the whirl of American signs and let his writing be part of that mix, not a postcard from another world. Our poets have taken the opposite route, and it has made them inept when we most need them to be potent.”
(f) “Contemporary American poetry speaks its own confined language, not ours.”
(g) “I search in vain for the kind of large-minded poetic response the events that began on September 11, 2011, and continue to this moment ought to have engendered. To the ‘War Against America’ and the ‘War on Terror’ and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and Libya and Syria, I look for something like the creative reaction that Whitman had to the Civil War and Ginsberg had to Vietnam.”
(g) “Ginsberg [Allen Ginsberg] that being who now no longer seems to exist, the headlong public poet, who even when he writes about himself is trying to compose an allegory of the present for everyone—and who holds the gaze and esteem of the culture.”
(h) Note: Edumundson feels that well regarded contemporary American poets such as W.S. Merwin, Anne Carson, and Jorie Graham simply do not live up to the standard.

4. I wonder if anyone in the book club had any thoughts. I also wonder whether anyone believes that Edmundson’s critique applies to contemporary American novels.

5. Postscript on poetry slams (the spoken-word phenomena):
(a) My experience (though limited) is that the subject matter of poems performed at poetry slams is highly politically and socially relevant. Perhaps contemporary American poetry has split into two wings: (i) the written poem, which is not performed or read aloud, and concerned primarily with the self, and (ii) the poem written for performance, which directly and passionately addresses contemporary American social, political, and economic issues.
(b) I must say that there were poetry readings (performances) at one of John’s house party’s I attended, and most of the poems directly dealt with contemporary social, political, and economic issues. I enjoyed the readings very much. Part of Edmundson’s critique focused on the MFA graduate programs as contributing to the production of overly insular poems, both in subject matter and style. I doubt that anyone who performed at John’s party was part of an MFA program.

Any thoughts are welcome and I will see everyone at the next book club meeting.
Take care,
Denis K.

Catherine D.
San Leandro, CA
Post #: 1
Hi Denis,

Just noticed your posting. This is really interesting and thought provoking.

I have read little modern poetry, and am playing catchup (relative to this group) in both contemporary and classic novels. But poetry was a love in my youth and as a 20-something adult. And then I could no longer read it. While my memories are vague and non-specific, I started not 'getting it', or finding it rather trite. About 10 years ago I went to a poetry slam and had to leave. It was dreadful. This leads me to agree with Mr. Edmundson's assessment, but I really haven't enough knowledge or experience to hold this opinion strongly.

Conversely, of the three modern poets mentioned (Merwin, Carson, Graham) as overrated, Anne Carson is the only one I know - and I think she is marvelous! However, I've only read her translations of Sappho, and 'The Beauty of the Husband', which is written in 29 'tangos of narrative verse'. It seems to me that she more than meets his 3-point criteria of 'Lyric Gift', 'Serious Theme' (assuming we are not hitting gender bias issues here), and 'Ambition/Courage'. She was the Mohr Visiting Poet at Stanford this spring, and I unfortunately missed her colloquium in May due to another commitment.

As to section 3, these same critiques can be (and have been) aimed at modern art, modern philosophy, and other 'moderns', just as you ask in section 4 regarding modern novels. Because really, isn't modernity defined by the 'self' being the gauge used to measure all things? Reality, Value, Truth, Beauty, and all the other capital letter words? As well as the minutiae of daily existence? Perhaps this is a reason for the often extremely personal expression in modern writings . For who in this day and age really believes they have command of the capital letter concepts? Only those with the ego of a Norman Mailer, I think. So if we exclude the capital letter topics of all humanity as unknowable, and the personal topics of the individual as unsuitable, that does leave the social, political, and economic issues of specific communities as about the only fair game, doesn't it? Mr. Edmundson finds a lack thereof; you have found vibrant examples. But is agenda driven poetry all we want to read or listen to? I would venture that all areas of human thought and experience are valid topics, from the grand to the small.

In the end, no matter the medium or the topic, isn't it the ability to communicate that elevates the message? I tend to view obscurely written works with the viewpoint of that old adage, "if you can't dazzle them with brilliance, then baffle them with bulls***". I've gotten too old to be impressed or intimidated by writing I can't understand. I'd rather read a cleverly written recipe.

I will read the full article in Harper's before the next meeting. Thanks for the posting!
Catherine D.

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