It doesn't quite reach the authority of Joseph Epstein's “Who Killed Poetry?” or the rigour of Dana Gioa's “Can Poetry Matter?” but Mark Edmundson’s 6,000-word tirade against contemporary poetry, “Poetry Slam Or, The Decline of American Verse,” has ripped through the American poetry scene these last couple of weeks.
You need to be a subscriber to read the essay online, but Katy Waldman gives a pretty good précis:
Hi, Mark Edmundson, you big-time poetry troll. I am not sure where to start with you. You took to Harper’s this month to denounce contemporary American poets. You upbraided them for their “inwardness and evasion,” their “blander, more circumscribed mode,” and claimed that they cast “unambitious spells.” You scolded them for playing “small-time games” with “low stakes,” timidly avoiding the words “we” and “our,” neglecting pop culture, and refusing to offer up a “comprehensive vision,” a “full-scale map of experience” encompassing politics, childhood, love, death, society, and nature. You scorched them in aggregate and you scorched them individually: W.S. Merwin is “oblique, equivocal, painfully self-questioning.” John Ashbery “says little.” Of Anne Carson: “The title of a recent profile in the New York Times, ‘The Inscrutable Brilliance of Anne Carson,’ has it half right.” Jorie Graham is “portentous,” Paul Muldoon “opaque.” As for Adrienne Rich, “the gift for artful expression is not hers.” You go after Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Charles Simic, Frank Bidart, Robert Pinsky, and Robert Hass, even the late James Merrill, all of whom deserve pages and pages of defense (and are likely getting it: I don’t even want to think about the contents of your inbox right now, Mark). Yes, your screed was a passionate piece of writing, dripping with erudition. You quoted great poets down through history: Dante, Milton, Emerson, Wordsworth, Yeats, Frost, Plath, Lowell. You did exactly what you want today’s poets to do, which is make a sweeping, fervent argument about something that matters. Unfortunately, you are completely out of your mind.Ron Charles takes it in stride:
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.Seth Abramson fires back:
Because you cannot judge the poetry of any era on the basis of a case-by-case aesthetic analysis of its merits, not only because there is too much poetry written and published for any of it to be considered an exemplar of an era, not only because aesthetics is a subjective enterprise, but also because it is in the nature of aesthetics to evolve and thus for an innovative aesthetics to be underappreciated in its own time, because we do not know what poems being written today will be considered of enduring value in the distant future, because what is Great is Great almost exclusively in retrospect.David Beispel isn’t buying it either
Edmundson laments that poets avoid speaking for the ‘we.’ Well, I will. We all say to anyone who suddenly realizes that contemporary American poetry is a mess, a botch, and a clutter of talent, that contemporary American poetry is confusing and full of mayhem and even monstrosities, that contemporary American poetry is untidy and inconvenient and exists continuously between floundering and semi-visibility, that contemporary American poetry self-mutilates, that contemporary American poetry is a swarm, a thicket, a caboodle, and (oh, I’ll just say it, for God’s sake) a multitude, well, we say back to you, Professor Edmundson, so fucking what? Poetry is an art, and art is messy. It’s messy in the making, it’s messy in the product line, it’s messy in the distribution, it’s messy in the reception, and it’s messy in its ability to please everyone, nay, anyone, especially readers who expect all poetry to be shat out as marble monuments.J.K. Trotter believes Edmundson misunderstands the problem:
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.Susan M. Shultz thinks Edmundson's POV is too narrow and antiquated to take seriously:
I can't muster up the anger expressed by many of my facebook friends, because the poetry about which Edmundson writes is not the poetry I read (or: even if I read it, I don't read it the way he reads it). Edmundson, it seems, is a local critic. His location is east coast, Ivy League-trained, New Yorker-reading, and he as much as admits that in his essay.Stephen Burt can’t help but sigh:
Is a poem better because it “speaks in the plural,” or because it takes a side? Is a poem better because it addresses a nation, rather than addressing the poet’s daughter, or a beautiful stranger, or God, or the poet herself? Yeats did not think so: the author of “Easter 1916” was also the author of the equally admirable, and equally ringing, and equally canny “A Prayer for My Daughter,” and—almost twenty years later—of “Politics”: “Maybe what they say is true/ Of war and war’s alarms,/ But O that I were young again/ And held her in my arms.” There’s something admirable in a call for almost any kind of poetry, because it can prompt rereading, and poetic creation; but there’s something bullying in Edmundson’s particular call for a particular kind of poetry, as if it were the king of the rest.