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Susan Schultz Adds to ‘Contemporary American Poetry’ Debate
On the Tinfish Editor’s Blog, Susan Schultz writes about Mark Edmundson’s article, “Poetry Slam: The Decline of American Verse,” forthcoming in Harper’s. We’ve covered Edmundson’s article as well as poets’s and critics’s responses to it on Harriet here, here, and here. Susan Schultz is a poet, critic, founder of Tinfish Press, and Professor of English at University of Hawai’i.
The year was 1991. I was teaching “20th Century Poetry in English” to a lively group of students at the University of Hawai`i. The day I’d chosen to have them read poetry by Frank O’Hara from the anthology, I knew there’d be a lot of laughter in class. We began our discussion. No one laughed. In fact, there was no response at all. My students’ eyes looked blank. Knowing something was desperately wrong, but not sure what it might be, I read O’Hara’s lines out loud, using the ironic tone of voice that’s appropriate to his work. The classroom was quiet, deadly quiet.
What I learned from that day is this: Frank O’Hara is a local poet. He lived in New York City; he wrote about New York City; and his tone is New York City. This is not to say that he’s not a wonderful poet. I still teach his work, though these days I ask students to use it toward their own experiences. Make his local your local, I advise them. Poetry is a goad to experience, not simply a set of marks on a page. Last semester several groups of my students did videos of Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died,” set here. To teach O’Hara in my classrooms is to engage in an act of translation, where I explicate not only the words on the page, but the culture of the east coast, where I grew up.
I earned my Ph.D. at the University of Virginia. Mark Edmundson directed my dissertation on the poetry of Hart Crane. The dissertation was worth abandoning, but the fault was all mine. I’ve followed his career as a public intellectual with some interest, if not utter devotion. I’ve read his books about poetry, used his critical work on the fight between poetry and philosophy in at least one of my graduate classes. So I was intrigued when I started seeing strong responses to his new article in Harper’s, “Poetry Slam: Or, The Decline of American Verse.” I begged a copy of the piece, outside the pay wall. Edmundson’s essay reads like something out of my recent trip east. I remember these arguments, these disappointments, these poets’ names, but they feel strange, as if translated from another language, another time. After nearly 23 years in Hawai`i, I read the piece as an outsider, one for whom critiques of this American poetry (and its cousins) mean very little. 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. But it’s hard to find this caveat amid his strong rhetoric, namely the shoulds and the musts and the references to ambition and to a communal “we” that still reaches for some sublime space beyond us.
Read more of Schultz’s thoughts on the “decline of American verse” on the Tinfish Editor’s Blog.