Prose from Poetry Magazine

Make Make It New New

by Joshua Mehigan

Asked to compile a list of proscriptions, à la Pound, I was a little worried. My first impulse was to try to be funny. Then I started a project that involved reading thousands of pages of new, unpublished poetry. That put me in a more thoughtful and serious mood. It was as if all the 
young poets had been told beforehand what six or seven qualities would 
be rewarded and had gone charging after those alone. It comes down to 
a straining for effect. This is nothing new. But that’s part of the point.

As usual everything is all about a kind of unusualness. There’s ordinary sensationalism, as when the word anus or the word hegemon suddenly appears in a poem about a bowl of fruit. There’s unconventional typography: the italic voice-from-the-beyond, secret indentation systems, banished punctuation, etc. But there is also a new, relentless infatuation with whimsical discontinuity. One tactic is obscurity, which may include nonsequential thinking, ellipsis, or dreamlike imagery. Obscurity can be wild (Breton), atmospheric (Bishop), or imitative of thought (Eliot). It can reward you with a mindblowing revelation (Dickinson). But the obscurity I’ve encountered recently is merely outlandish, and unyielding. It vibrates with the superficiality of fashion: there is nothing better for it to do but stand there being cute and empty. Non sequiturs abound, in two main flavors, quirkily funny and very — so very — serious. Undemanding punch-line-style ironies are everywhere, and so are Bland Statements of Profundity. In an important subtype, mock-profundity replaces profundity, with a result probably meant to sound like Ashbery or James Tate. Often the best you can hope for in this kind of poem is a hollow cleverness that might be termed “a wonderfully skewed perspective.” Part of this is how much a matter of course poets have made nonconformism. The automatic reduplication of provocative gestures is dulling. The field becomes more and more homogeneous, the sameness camouflages whatever good hides there, and poets continue winking as if they were devastatingly original. Poetry becomes another variety of conformist nonconformism, like Green Day or ironic eyewear.

Commemorating Pound may be what brought him to my mind. But it’s no accident that he stuck there like a radio jingle. After all, what are these offputting tendencies if not the reductio ad absurdum of Modernism? Each is marked by cargo-cult exaggerations of qualities cultivated by Pound, such as novelty, imaginative priority, fragmentation, and difficulty. All of these are desirable sometimes, one or two most of the time. But the special formulae popularized by the Modernists and their followers provide what must be the most brutally contrived models younger poets have ever had to start from.

You can’t hold the Modernists solely responsible. They may’ve wanted to install themselves as oracles of some final indestructible -ism, but they invented no new poetic first principles. Few young poets 
name Pound as a main influence, and many now get their Williams and Stevens from later poets, in the way half the country gets its water 
from soda pop or beer. However we come to it, Modernism is always there, and apparently we haven’t yet begun the process that leads to our having detested it long enough.

Literary movements often exhaust themselves before their last 
adherents notice. But these days it’s like being on a crowded escalator when the people at the top step off and stop dead. Modernism is an especially hard case because of the specific character of its most 
celebrated principles and the hard-line approach of its leaders, many of whom could’ve bullied Bill O’Reilly down to the size of a Pekingese. Of course Modernism is complex, but its leaders hammered up its most revolutionary points with evangelical zeal. Its campaign for novelty and iconoclasm continues clearing space for pioneers like Rothko, or the Stooges, or Béla Tarr. But, after awhile, oversupply does what it does and devalues the new coinage. Novelty gets rarer, no icons are left to smash, and nothing is more predictable than whimsy.

Modernism also stirs up a lower-stakes version of the us-and-them dichotomy of authoritarian regimes. Opponents are ignored or ridiculed, and any alternative to acceptable practice is sweepingly 
dismissed as cliche — the cold kiss of death in all arts. Meanwhile, Modernist cliches go unrecognized because they are cliches of Modernism, enemy of all cliches.

In the end, poetry looks radical only to the outside world, which ignores it, while from inside it looks static. Poets got out of these situations before by doing something new, but novelty is superfluous now. There is no way to get into the game without upping the ante, and there is no way out without bluffing or folding or everyone agreeing on a new game. If you’ve been a poet for a while you might not see how bizarre it all seems, and how monotonous, but if you shake your head and look again as a human being, you might.

Originally Published: March 1, 2013

COMMENTS (18)

On March 1, 2013 at 6:48pm Ed Shacklee wrote:
Not that I disagree with Mr. Mehigan, but this way lies madness. His
assessment seems dead on, but I don't see why following trends makes
any sense at all.

On March 8, 2013 at 10:04am Thomas Jardine wrote:
Joshua, very good and well said. May I add two more elements in poetry prevelent now? Hype, without substance, and, snarkiness, serving no purpose.
Keep up the good work.

On March 8, 2013 at 4:33pm William Gens wrote:
This is a remarkable article. I read it a few times over and actually had to write about it for my graduate level poetry workshop. We've been under the yoke of modernism for nearly a hundred years. It's influence is already 3 generations removed. Mehigen is so on target it has become stale. Making it new isn't new anymore, it's old and tired and so overly stylized -- "static" he says. And poetry now that is under its yoke is tired, cliched and just plain boring. Since when is obscurity an art form? The world of Pound was much more complex than it is now, while we celebrate globalization his time and subsequent generations afterwards lamented fracture, fragmentation and a world on the brink. We are no longer fractured, fragmented or on the brink, we are in the internet age the greatest time since the European Renaissance. A golden age...the yoke of modernism is habitual, a crutch, we don't need it anymore, but we do need Pound, Eliot, Joyce all those modernist masters in the same way they needed Homer, Sappho, and Sophocles. Making it "new new" means making what is old or past new again, by mostly how we view it. Let's do away with the isms and appreciate those modernist poet for being more accesible than ever for being simply poets from before.

On March 8, 2013 at 4:34pm William Gens wrote:
This is a remarkable article. I read it a few times over and actually had to write about it for my graduate level poetry workshop. We've been under the yoke of modernism for nearly a hundred years. It's influence is already 3 generations removed. Mehigen is so on target it has become stale. Making it new isn't new anymore, it's old and tired and so overly stylized -- "static" he says. And poetry now that is under its yoke is tired, cliched and just plain boring. Since when is obscurity an art form? The world of Pound was much more complex than it is now, while we celebrate globalization his time and subsequent generations afterwards lamented fracture, fragmentation and a world on the brink. We are no longer fractured, fragmented or on the brink, we are in the internet age the greatest time since the European Renaissance. A golden age...the yoke of modernism is habitual, a crutch, we don't need it anymore, but we do need Pound, Eliot, Joyce all those modernist masters in the same way they needed Homer, Sappho, and Sophocles. Making it "new new" means making what is old or past new again, by mostly how we view it. Let's do away with the isms and appreciate those modernist poet for being more accesible than ever for being simply poets from before.

On March 13, 2013 at 10:21pm Patrick wrote:
I wish more poets could admit the reality of this state of affairs. Thank
you for having the courage to state it so boldly.

On March 14, 2013 at 10:28am Sammy Shaw wrote:
"The world of Pound was much more complex than it is now, while we
celebrate globalization his time and subsequent generations afterwards
lamented fracture, fragmentation and a world on the brink. We are no
longer fractured, fragmented or on the brink, we are in the internet
age..."

Well said, William! I agree with this statement completely.

I would argue with Mehigan that we can't blame the Modernists at all.
The way they wrote was a unique reaction to the time, I don't think they
should harbor any blame whatsoever.

On March 14, 2013 at 1:52pm Abby E Murray wrote:
I agree with many of these comments, especially the one that thanks Mr.
Mehigan for acknowledging the "state of affairs" in poetry. It's the only
way for poets to still pursue this craft of communication with some
optimism - realizing it's at risk of being ignored or turning monotonous.

On March 14, 2013 at 11:57pm william brophy wrote:
I've read poetry since 1956 when a guy living in the room down the
hall introduced me to Wallace Steven. So i went out and bought a
copy of "Harmonium." How could a person do that nowadays?

I look for song and rhythm, with so many beats per line and an
underlying music in the poems I read. I don't hear it. It seems to be
prose in short bursts of words, slightly abstruse so as to sound like
poetry, but the underlying music is not there.

As I said, I am not a poet, just an old man who has spent a lifetime
reading everything within grasp. I long for the old singing poetry.
When the sensational movie "No Country For Old Men" came out I
shuddered at the irony. I didn't see the movie.

Tell me where I might find the poetry I'm seeking

sincerely
Will Brophy
Shingletown, California

On March 17, 2013 at 1:59pm Patrick wrote:
Mr. Brophy, don't despair! As a member of that dying
race known as "booksellers" I am happy to report that
most of the readers I encounter feel the same way you
do. I used to stock all kinds of poetry, but 99.9% of the
people who came looking for poetry (that is to say,
maybe 1% of the people who came through the door)
were looking for accentual-syllabic poetry, usually with
rhyme (Dickinson, Frost and Poe seem the be the
favorites). The good news is that even if you've already
exhausted all the classics you need look no further than
this month's issue of Poetry to find what you're looking
for: right smack in the middle stands Dan Brown, a truly
remarkable poet who (rare thing!) doesn't take himself
too seriously. Also check out Richard Wilbur, whose last
book, Anterooms, is an absolute gem. And anything by
Dana Gioia. And that's just to start. Besides, the mere
fact that Mr. Mehigan's essay was printed by the most
prestigious poetry magazine in the world bodes well for
the future!

On March 20, 2013 at 9:24pm Baltimore Poet wrote:
Well said. However, the ending kind of lost me. One thing many poets don't have now that Pound certainly had is immense learning. Reading Pound's Personae is reading a poet, feeling emotion, and engaging in world history. Poetry does not need to display massive "erudition," but it is one nice feature of Pound.

On March 21, 2013 at 5:53pm Hanna Busse wrote:
I agree and I don't. I think as a young poet (well, a baby poet, really, in
poet-ages) I find within myself a desire to learn what all of the
modernists were about before I move on. And honestly, it's kinda easier
to figure out when you understand how they were creating their
material and where it came from, as opposed to only reading their
work. And then sometimes you form habits, and start doing things that
same way, and get stuck doing things that same way over and over
again. So yeah, true. But how does one overcome that?

On March 24, 2013 at 2:08pm Michael deBeyer wrote:
I don't know, Mr Mehigan. When you gorge yourself on thousands of pages of unpublished contemporary poetry, your bound to get a little indigestion. And you're bound to note the six or seven tropes you identify. Go out and read two or three poetry journals today and the result is the same. But two or three times a month, year, I'll read something that is new or new enough, and, even if rife with the traits you indicate, it really works for me, really soars, and I guess that's what keeps us reading through it. Because we're still reading through it. All of us.

On March 26, 2013 at 1:22pm Gabriel Friesen wrote:
"The field becomes more and more homogeneous, the sameness camouflages whatever good hides there, and poets continue winking as if they were devastatingly original."
I have been acutely aware for some time now. The invigoration that was Pound's chief aim — a temporary time to find the true English metric — is now a hundred years old. This "greater freedom" many continue to claim is possessed turns out to be more burdensome, as Joshua Mehigan so brilliantly points out:
"But the special formulae popularized by the Modernists and their followers provide what must be the most brutally contrived models younger poets have ever had to start from."
I am heartened by the intelligent, positive responses to this article and I wish that a greater array of poetry may come of it, in this magazine and elsewhere. And I hope to see younger poets finding the courage to charge "language charged with meaning" with meaning.

On March 26, 2013 at 1:51pm Surazeus Simon Seamount wrote:
Cinemism

I started writing poetry in 1984, inspired by The Sounds of Silence by Paul Simon, and by The Wasteland by Eliot. I started writing free verse modernist, but ditched it within a year as inadequate.

I am more inspired by the classics that tell stories like Iliad, Odyssey, Mahabharata, Ramayana, Aeneid, Argonautica, Metamorphoses, Divine Comedy, Canterbury Tales, Song of Roland, El Cid, Faerie Queene, Shakespeare, and Paradise Lost. I also love historical ballads and modern country western songs that tell stories. Bob Dylan was one of my favorite influences, and I wrote a number of Dylanesque Jeremiads, which are quite fun, and the most modernist I have written.

I developed what I call Cinemism, where I write cinematic narrative poems in ballad form and blank verse that tell stories in present tense. I incorporate techniques used by film makers in plot sequences. When I explore "confessional" or "modernist" aspects of poetry, I do so within the context of a speech of an individual in the story. I incorporate modernist fragmentation in the frame of the narrative rather than isolated.

To me the core of good poetry is the story, the characters in a setting and what they do, and what they say in response to various situations. Poetry is about people in a social context. Much modernist poetry is sort of like that, but there is just not enough context to make the fragmemented expressions meaningful. That is the hard part, writing the context in a poetic manner, but the frame is just as important as the picture itself.

I am writing an epic in about scientists I call Hermead, a series of biographies currently at 58,000 lines of blank verse about the lives of philosophers and scientists. For me, narrative verse Cinemism is my answer to restoring the ancient classical methods of story telling in verse, and making it new.

On March 28, 2013 at 12:40pm James Milton Smith wrote:
Poetry is timeless
Living in the present mind
Expressed as original today
It is our today, not the past
Visualization is what we let stick in our memory
Sophistication and analysis lack inclusion

Poetry is like a Haiku to me
Abbreviated descriptions posted on big screens

My Haiku for you:

Could I always write?
Probably, but without depth
Age allows true sight
The appreciation is mine
And perhaps yours too

James Milton Smith

On March 28, 2013 at 8:02pm Surazeus Simon Seamount wrote:
When I first read the Wasteland and the Cantos, I felt that Eliot and Pound were picking among the archetypal fragments of the bombed-out cathedral of western mythical story-telling. So as I learned to write poetry since the mid-1980s, I wanted to help build a new cathedral of global myth that incorporates all human history and societies. I feel comfortable with what I am writing these days.

On March 30, 2013 at 1:05am Dan Brown wrote:
Dear "Patrick" (from seven or so comments up): If you're still following this string, I'd like to thank you for your kind words about my poems. Made my day (if not my decade).

All best,

Dan Brown

On April 5, 2013 at 11:05am Patrick wrote:
Mr. Brown,

No thank you: it made my day coming across your poems in the
magazine. I've already ordered a copy of your last book and can't wait
to dig in:-) Keep 'me coming!

Patrick Kennedy

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This prose originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of Poetry magazine

March 2013

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 Joshua  Mehigan

Biography

Poet Joshua Mehigan grew up in upstate New York and received a BA from Purchase College and an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Influenced by the poetry of Philip Larkin, Jorge Luis Borges, and Edgar Bowers, Mehigan writes intelligent, morally complex lyric poems shaped by a nuanced attention to rhyme and meter. Critic Adam Kirsch praised The Optimist in a review for the New York Sun, observing, “Mr. Mehigan is Frost-like in . . .

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