The world of poetry is facing an insurrection. "Friday morning, America’s great poets will wake up to find that someone has TP-ed their trees and scrawled 'COWARD' on the door," warned Ron Charles in The Washington Post on Thursday. The occasion for this imagined vandalism? On Friday, the July issue of Harper's appeared on newsstands, delivering readers a lengthy essay (currently quarantined behind a paywall) by Virginia professor Mark Edmundson concerning the "decline of American verse" — the flagging ambition, that is, of our nation's most decorated poets. Compared to the members of the postwar canon and their muscular, transporting poems, Edmundson says, today's rhymesters "write in a much blander, more circumscribed mode ... It's palpably the case that the poets who now get the balance of public attention and esteem are casting unambitious spells." Edmundson spends the rest of his essay attempting to figure out why, citing the increased professionalism of the literary arts (evidenced by the proliferation of M.F.A. programs across the country) and the literary community's aversion to facing political and social issues.
The responses so far have been either skeptical or overwrought. Charles is somewhat dismissive: "Could this essay in Harper’s spark a real literary wrestling match? Possibly, although poets are pretty inured to these well-worn grievances. Edmundson admits early on that Ralph Waldo Emerson preached essentially the same complaint 170 years ago." At The Huffington Post, meanwhile, the poet Seth Abramson published a 2,500 word sermon against the idea of poetic decline. "Contemporary American poetry nourishes and enlivens and congregates and educates and in some cases even saves us the very same way poetry has always done for those with the willingness to stop speaking and listen," he writes. Edmundson clearly touched a nerve among those invested in preserving poetry's stature.
At the same time, Edmundson's premise requires some scrutiny. He focuses primarily on the species of poet whose work appears in organs like The New Yorker, where verse is treated, much like the magazine's infamous cartoons, as page filler, utterly subordinate to the long-form journalism and fiction that dominates the magazine's feature well. "Many of the poems published in, say, The New Yorker feel just like the linguistic equivalent of a vanilla-scented candle," the author Courtney Queeney noted in 2009. A year later, Slate observed that New Yorker poems tend to obsess over the craft of poetry itself. By design, New Yorker poems don't distract or tantalize. They don't grasp for what lies beyond, much less the reality before us. They don't question authority. Of course, this may concern members of the literati like Mark Edmundson. But it is not exactly proof of a decaying form.
By the same token, Edmundson's strict focus on the country's most famous poets — Paul Muldoon, Anne Carson, John Ashbery, Charles Simic, and on and on — seems to suggest that our systems of awards and fame are far more flawed than the bulging corpus of American poetry. If your media diet comprises The New Yorker, The New York Times, and (presumably) Harper's — and the books these publications endorse — it seems a little silly to be shocked at the lack of poems that attempt to seriously challenge arrangements of power or revolutionize the way humans think. Remember: Walt Whitman self-published Leaves of Grass! It's not unimaginable to think that the most potent verse resides in a digital file on the servers of CreateSpace. Fame, even literary fame, is still simply fame, not a categorical claim on a work's quality or impact.
Discussing John Ashbery and Seamus Heaney, Edmundson laments:
What troubles me is the fact that their contemporaries have made them central poets of our time. It is they whom young writes are to look up to, they who set the standard—and the standard is all for inwardness and evasion, hermeticism and self-regard: beautiful, accomplished, abstract poetry that refuses to the poetry of our climate.
Nonsense. No one is forced to acknowledge Ashbery and Heaney — or anyone else — as the upper limits of American poetry. There are other poets, there are always other poems. Edmundson has described not the decline of the form, but the mechanics of celebrity, and the flawed institutions dedicated to administering them.
Photo by V.H. Hammer via Flickr.