While I agree with the thrust and some of the content of Michael Thurston's letter in your October issue, in which he explained his reasons for feeling disappointed by the exchange between Michael Hofmann and William Logan in your June- July issue, I do not believe that his critique goes nearly far enough or precisely pins down the reasons why the exchange was neither satisying nor edifying. Hofmann and Logan look back on a time that was (for them) more auspicious, seeming to promise a renascence of English-language poetry that has not, in their view, occurred. Michael Thurston deplores their hand-wringing and suggests that they fail to see the gold that glitters under their noses.
First of all, though it certainly is possible to talk about the state of poetry at any given moment, I don't know what insights or significance such a discussion would be expected to yield. It is not like talking about, say, literacy, which can be measured and improved by agreed-upon criteria, nor is it like talking about democracy, which, though vague, is known to consist of certain elements that can be promoted in practical ways. Hofmann and Logan talk about poetry as if it were a communal or team activity like soccer or water polo, with the "language poets" competing against the "multiculturalists," and somewhere in the background a poetry scoreboard. What would they have thought if they had held their discussion in the late nineteenth century instead of the early twenty-first? Wouldn't it have been likely that they would have come to a similar conclusion about the waning vitality of English language poetry at a time when Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Thomas Hardy had written much but published little or nothing? Wouldn't they have been likely to dwell on poets whose names we do not even recognize any longer and to ignore or to scant those we now revere?
Poetry is an endeavor we value for a very few, solitary achievements, not for some broad, shared effort. I do not think it is ever possible to say intelligently what the state of poetry is. English-language poetry being written today and in the coming few years will be valued a hundred years from nowif it is valued at allfor the work of, at most, a dozen poets, and more likely only half that number. All the rest will be background noise, of interest only to specialists.