Essay — From the July 2013 issue

Poetry Slam

Or, The decline of American verse

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We might say that three qualities are necessary to write superb lyric poetry. First, the writer must have something of a gift: she 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. But there is more — a second requirement. She must also have something to say. There must be some region of her experience that has transfixed her and that she feels compelled to put into words and illuminate. She must burn to attack some issue, must want to unbind a knot, tighten it, or maybe send a blade directly through its core.

Given these powers — the power of expression and the power to find a theme — the poet still must add ambition. 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 (which one might also call courage) — come together, the results can be luminous: one gets Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” or Plath’s “Daddy” or Lowell’s “Sunday Morning” (or Wallace Stevens’s). But without that last ingredient, ambition, nothing great will come. There are writers of real value who write with only two of the three capacities, though both may be heightened to an extraordinary degree. Adrienne Rich has no little to say and is not without ambition, but except in her love poems and some of the early lyrics, the gift for artful expression is not hers. In “Seven Skins” she devolves into flat storytelling:

Shall I drop you, he says, or shall
we go back to the room for a drink?
It’s the usual question
a man has to ask it
a woman has to answer
you don’t even think

Rich’s poetry is read by many who read few other poets: they are in search of eloquent, polemical prose, and she delivers it. James Merrill, a writer of stunning poetic gifts, finds a passionate theme only in a handful of magnificent lyrics, and in time ends up lost in the digressions that arise from consulting his Ouija board, the matrix for his late-1970s poem The Changing Light at Sandover. (“Zero hour. Waiting yet again / For someone to fix the furnace.”) There are plenty of poets writing now who have a strong lyric gift, who have searched for and found a theme. There are even some few who can be said to possess both theme and creative prowess. But the muse they invoke is not a fiery one.

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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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