Saturday, February 2, 2008

The moated castles of today's poetry

Recent commentaries by Reginald Shepherd, Ann Lauterbach, Adam Kirsch and Christian Wiman all include a concern about the tendency of modern poets, at least American ones, to write from an excessively personal viewpoint and to form hives that buzz in a similar way, heads in and stingers out, serving mainly each other.

Shepherd, author of the just-out literary commentary Orpheus in the Bronx (Michigan, 2008) is one of the nation’s best poets and literary critics. He comments on his blog ( on a book and essays by Ann Lauterbach, whose enthusiasm for modern writing is tempered by a growing concern that poets are clumping into identity-castles to the detriment of poetry as a whole, and especially the poetic audience. These clusters tend to write as though they are only poets of a group, not poets as individuals. Thus we have womenpoets, gaypoets, longshorepoets and other double-jointed po-beesten. As Shepherd points out,

“Such fixations on labels and side-taking seem more prevalent in the online poetry world (certainly in the world of poetry blogs) than in the print poetry world, where things are much more fluid and flexible, though such compulsive territorializing and fence-building is far from absent there either.”

Lauterbach’s book The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetics of Experience (Viking, 2005) discusses, among other things, the concern that literary movements such as “Language poetry” or other identifiable trends can end up driving the poets, rather than the poets driving the movement. If poets move along in a huddled cluster behind a predetermined literary shield and don’t go outside its penumbra as they write, are the poets really writing from what they have to say, or are they forming a series of moated guilds for the purpose of mutual support and protection? This kind of branding or commodification is part of what Shepherd discusses on his blog.

Lauterbach writes of this problem in one of her essays (from the journal Diacritics) with uncommon clarity and a calm dedication to what words really mean that has become rare in poetic circles of late:

“The aspiring young poet begins to write in such a way as to invite a certain critical attention, to ‘fit’ her work into one or another critical category. This is the main function of being identified with a group or school, to draw critical attention that individual poets, not affiliated with a movement or group, cannot easily attract. ‘New York School’ or ‘Language Poetry’ are given brand-name status, commodifying and homogenizing, so that critics (and poets) can make general identifications and totalizing critiques without having to actually contend with the specific differences among and between so-called members of the group. Those not so identified are left out, often understandably embittered or confused, as the idea of an individual iconoclastic poet gives way to collaborative and tribal identities. Thus the marginalized world of poetry begins to imitate other identity formulations which increasingly govern contemporary academic, cultural, and political life. Frightened by exclusionary clubs, the poet ceases to identify herself with the essential margin from which a vital critique must come.”

There is so much of importance packed into this lens-hard paragraph that I hardly know where to begin talking about it. First, there is the understandable desire of a poet (or any creative person) to attract attention to their work. This, in today’s world of poetry, also necessarily means links to employability, publishability and whatever level of fame a poet can expect within the literary world (not much).

There is also the general problem of narrowness that grouping inevitably creates. I write poetry about the natural world, and many of my friends have come to think of me as a nature poet. There are some very fine poets who can fairly be classified thus (Pattiann Rogers and Mary Oliver come to mind), but I don’t think of myself that way. The looks from my reader-of-nature-poets friends may get a little wide-eyed when they turn a page in my next collection and find a long poem about a 1944 naval battle off the Philippines next to a haiku about a college reunion and a dark reminiscence of my jury service in a child molestation case. I’m afraid my market placement as a nature poet is slipping.

Adam Kirsch touches on the problem of excessive narrowness in his recent collection of reviews The Modern Element (Norton 2008):

“Today, the poetics of authenticity is securely established. … Yet it should be clear by now that this poetics has thoroughly failed. … The sound of the critical madhouse is a thousand utterly authentic voices, all talking at once.”

What does it matter if you speak with an authentic voice if no one is listening, or perhaps worse, if they hear what you say but either can’t understand it or, having understood it, wonder that you bothered to write it. Poetry needs to be more than just unplanned bleating: we can all make noises, but if the only purpose of your sound is to make yourself feel good or call attention to yourself, please spare us the distraction.

Finally, there is the matter of the “essential margin” and the idea of the critique. Movement-clusters in the world of writing almost by definition cannot abide critique except to the extent that another member may suggest better ways to carry the group’s water to its literary destination. This brings us to the fundamental problem of the moats, what lies within them and why it lies there. Do these moats protect a convent or a harem? It doesn’t matter. In both cases the virgins are all serving the same master. It is not the nature of the group’s master that matters, it is the existence of a master. A “school” of poetry is a master. A poet worthy of the name can have no master.

Shepherd’s blog and Lauterbach’s book discuss whether literary movements can become in effect a commodity. A literary movement can become a commodity, or at least a brand, to the extent that what its members produce is purchased by a definable group of people. In the case of poetry production, that group may well be each other, within or hovering on the fringes of that movement, head in and stinger out.

What a horrible idea, "poetry production." In today’s literary climate being a successful poet means being employed primarily because one is a poet—that is, paid to be a college-based poet instead of having an ordinary life and writing from that experience. In this unfortunate context it’s a natural term.

 There are rare exceptions but this is the normal, the common, definition of success.

Writing from a group identity rather than an individual identity generates a certain level of safety, protection, and an uncompromising commitment to adequacy. This is hivewriting: the hum is constant and the result a good nap. 

What it never does is produce excellence. However, in that it matches American society. We live in an age that is threatened by excellence, resists it (especially in education) and thinks any kind of clear statement of position contrary to the direction the bull is running is socially damaging (to the speaker) and unprofessional.

Poets by the hundreds have started building their careers by humping along familiar lexical tracks trodden deep with dust by the herds. It is sad to watch. They all want jobs as protected college-poets. They want their extra-large photo in American Poetry Review, which would be hilarious if it were not such a peculiarly American way of establishing virtue-by-celebrity. Imagine where we would be if we had spent our literary column inches gazing upon photos of, say, Auden, Spender and Bishop, recorded for history by Isherwood, that ultimate pre-digital recorder.

Many modern poets become part of artificial moated cloisters constructed so that poets can run around inside them squeaking to each other like rodents turning a wheel. To what end? Although I understand and respect James Merrill’s statement that he’d rather have one perfect reader than write for the great mass of people, surely poetry written as a group member for the group is too incestuous to serve any but the crudest needs. The fact that the phrase “career in poetry” exists as a meaningful concept in academe is cause for humor tinged with revulsion. But that is how poetry works in the U.S. today, in groups and with the same kinds of networks and cliques as appear in other employment clusters.

Christian Wiman, the current editor of Poetry magazine, in his recent essay collection Ambition and Survival (Copper Canyon, 2007) offers a clear view of what has to change:

I have long believed, though, that to be truly ambitious is to be alone. Wordsworth says that a poet must eventually forswear all aid and criticism of his work or his ability to discern what’s real there, what is most and only himself, will become too debilitated to function. Aligning oneself with a group is not the same thing as seeking criticism, but there is a way in which such identification dulls this blade of solitude, makes it easier to believe in what you’re doing, and thus easier to become complacent.

The net result of this self-congratulatory clustering is that far more people think that they are good poets than is actually the case. The fact that they do not have—and can never have—a readership outside their guild doesn’t seem to affect their understanding of their fundamental status. They are chimeras flitting in the forest of their own imagining.

An astonishing number in poetry's legions are parading about unclothed but for their self-woven corona graminea. In their pride of cult they have forgotten that the grass crown of the legions cannot be self-awarded. Even the consuls could not award it. It comes in its own time, from the people who have seen with their own eyes the supreme acts which earn the honor. When we see writers crowned in chaff, let us say so. Let us award our grass crowns to poets of all schools (or none) based on their work.