Essay — From the July 2013 issue

Poetry Slam

Or, The decline of American verse

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Leafing through a volume of Robert Lowell’s poetry not long ago, I came across some lines that I couldn’t help reading over and over. They were from “Waking Early Sunday Morning” (1967), and they ran this way:

Pity the planet, all joy gone
from this sweet volcanic cone;
peace to our children when they fall
in small war on the heels of small
war — until the end of time
to police the earth, a ghost
orbiting forever lost
in our monotonous sublime.

I was taken by the artistry of the lines, by their subtlety and their melancholy grace. I was impressed by the rhymes: “ghost” and “lost,” for instance, create exactly the right haunted and haunting sound. But it was Lowell’s ambition that impressed me; he was looking at the world as though from outer space, like a graying weary seer, and pronouncing judgment. He was calling things as he believed them to be not only for himself but for all his readers. And he was looking into the future.

His prophecy about the filth-ridden state of the planet and the sad, endless “small wars” has turned out to be more or less true. But poets almost never do this sort of thing anymore, at least not prominent American poets. Our most highly regarded contemporary poets — the gang now in their fifties, sixties, and beyond, who get the major prizes and the plum teaching jobs and appear from time to time in the pages of The New Yorker — write in a much blander, more circumscribed mode. Granted that there’s no end of poetry being written and published out there: one can’t generalize about it all. Still, it’s palpably the case that the poets who now get the balance of public attention and esteem are casting unambitious spells.

Mainstream American poetry now often sounds like this:

For some time I thought there was time
and that there would always be time
for what I had a mind to do
and what I could imagine
going back to and finding it
as I had found it the first time
but by this time I do not know
what I thought when I thought back then

That’s W. S. Merwin from the December 12, 2011, issue of The New Yorker. At the close the poet hears a thrush at dawn “singing the new song.” A freshness in nature registers as an ironic reproach to the poet’s fruitless ruminations. “The New Song” is about the unlived life: chances neglected, deeds undone. It also seems to be a poem about how hard it is to write a poem. (Going back to “what I had a mind to do” suggests not only deeds undone but poems unwritten.) The lines are melodious, the voice warm and sympathetic — but there’s too little at stake. We’re sitting in on a small-time game.

Most of our poets now speak a deeply internal language not unlike Merwin’s. They tend to be oblique, equivocal, painfully self-questioning. They not only talk to themselves in their poems; they frequently talk to themselves about talking to themselves, as Merwin does here. (“But by this time I do not know / what I thought when I thought back then.”) Lowell speaks directly of our children, our monotonous sublime: few are the consequential poets now who are willing to venture that “our” or, more daring still, to pronounce the word “we” with anything like conviction. At a time when collective issues — communal issues, political issues — are pressing, our poets have become ever more private, idiosyncratic, and withdrawn. Their poetry is not heard but overheard, and sometimes is too hermetic even to overhear with anything like comprehension.

Contemporary American poets now seem to put all their energy into one task: the creation of a voice. They strive to sound like no one else. And that often means poets end up pushing what is most singular and idiosyncratic in themselves and in the language to the fore and ignoring what they have in common with others. The current poet may give a certain sort of pleasure by his uniqueness, but no one reading him will say what Emerson hoped to say when he encountered a poet who mattered: “This is my music; this is myself.”

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teaches English at the University of Virginia. His book Why Teach? will be out this fall from Bloomsbury.

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  • Beard Steel

    Al gore rhythm

    I struggle to legalize my third eye

    And wish to insure it

    May it marry itself and serve openly

    As a patriot carrying a sword of transparency

    We have travel destinations reenacting atrocities quaint

    To the bleeding addicts chewing on their heart leather

    Cathartic calluses rubbed, picked, scratched, and pinched

    Or burned clean by alcohol derivatives

    We can find peak oil at the freshest layer

    Analytically rendered into all forms of moveable pink slime

    My time and my people fear most

    Of shadow that doesn’t follow

    When what we want is to be heard or however listened in on

    So we can lament upon our watchmen but if are watcher is


    I wish to be there like a search result

  • Jerry

    Great article. He’s not in the mainstream by any means, but the writer Emile Benoit seems to be someone you might be interested reading

  • Frank Gaik

    The poet W. B. Yeats did not always “hedge,” especially when he called nearly all of Ireland “base-born products of base beds,” but if Mark Edmundson is looking for oracular clarity, he won’t find it in “Easter 1916.” “Wherever green is worn” is a restrictive modifier; the Easter rebels carried the tri-color, not the green flag of the more radical IRB. And how can anyone parse the advocacy out of “a terrible beauty is born,” certainly one of the most oxymoronic phrases in poetry? That’s why Maud Gonne called it a tepid drip.
    Edmundson might find a D’Annunzio or Jean Paul among his contemporaries who share a cultural pessimism (and feed it?), but lines from Yeats and Lowell, who joy in dismissing the common herd, will never attain greatness. Neither Homer nor Shakespeare did that. Robert Haas, so easily dismissed, articulates the tentative epistemology of our time; we Americans lack indignation because we lack enemies. That’s no loss.
    Frank Gaik
    Long Beach, CA.

  • HobbyArtist

    A discussion of quality requires a framework of analysis. The framework I learned at the University of British Columbia is:

    1. What is the MOOD of the poem? i.e., sad, happy, angry?

    2. What is the THEME of the poem? i.e., what does the author have to say?

    3. What is the STRUCTURE of the poem? i.e., sonnet, or freestyle etc.?

    4.What are the CLEVER DETAILS of the poem? i.e., similie, metaphor,etc?

    5. Is the work SCALABLE? i.e., Are all of the above EASILY UNDERSTOOD, IMPORTANT and considered WELL DONE by both the average person and the scholar?

    A work needs to pass all 5 of these tests to be called good. In this context,

    I read Mr. Edmunson’s article as arguing that the works of acclaimed American poets, and their respective publishing houses, fail most of these tests. And I think he may be correct, if we ask whether most of the works of America’s most lauded poets are scalable, while presuming that they should be.

    In the Huffington Post, Seth Abrahmson, challenges Mr. Edmunson, but fails to address the issue of quality analysis with much depth. Notwithstanding that, Mr. Abrahmson’s point I think, is that despite the group think and nepotism that grips many of our incumbent poetry establishments, people continue to write poetry and enjoy it for its own sake. Again, I don’t think Mr. Abrahmson addresses the matter of quality analysis by simply listing all the many ways people participate in poetry, but I do concur that so much participation feels good. His article is here:

    Cordially, EP Tangas,

    Author of the Epic Fantasy Poem, Poepi & the Giant, which is on the kindle and free online.


  • Moshe

    I found this essay remarkably well argued.

  • wwillis
  • lulu

    Edmundson’s article on poetry sparkled for me because I needed to hear another person say what happened to poetry in the U.S.? I read the two poems in the New Yorker dutifully and I think with the exception of a rescued Brodsky who is it that chooses these dull bits of internal digressions written as though something of consequence is being uttered. I think he is a courageous man because you have to whisper the truth lately behind closed doors almost about everything.

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  • Michael Boughn

    This piece can only make sense if you ignore completely the history of art (assuming Mr. Edmunson considers poetry an art) in the 20th century. He seems to think of poetry as a genteel exposition of ideas for people of good taste (and, presumably, breeding). Harpers should be ashamed for aligning itself with such reactionary nonsense.


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