I agree broadly with the three premises of Tony Hoagland’s essay, “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment” [March 2006]: that non-narrative modes and narrative modes are not enemies, that non-narrative modes are in fashion, and that many of fashion’s followers are often thoughtless poseurs. I think any observer without an axe to grind, whether friendly or antagonistic to non-narrative modes, will be able to agree with those.
But the essay I keep hoping to see on this subject, the one I think would most fruitfully deal with these prevailing contemporary trends, would be the essay that tells us not that the “associative” modes are the true future of poetry or the end of its history, but simply how to discern the worthwhile from the wasteful—the innovators from the imitators.
If one truly believes that associative modes are not the enemy of narrative, then determining the relative merit of particular practitioners would seem to be the critic’s most basic duty. The duty would be the same if the current fashion were formalism or narrative epic. Hoagland admits that “every style has ... its narcissistic cul-de-sac” and, I think, would grant that plenty of formal or narrative writing begins and ends in empty posturing. But if that is true, then merely pointing out the existence of a particular style’s particular cul-de-sac accomplishes exactly zero. Pointing out the weaknesses (or strengths) of a style qua style does not suffice, for style does not equal art. Contrasting it with surrealists or comparing it with l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e poetry also does not suffice. Such aesthetic profiling is, sadly, nothing less than a refusal to read, even if Czeslaw Milosz (on a bad day?) gives in to the impulse. Even an essay that vehemently despised all non-narrative poems but demonstrated why some were more or less vile than others would be preferable to one that felt duty-bound to pass a judgment, positive or negative, on them as a class.