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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