Letter from Poetry Magazine

Letter to the Editor

by Robert Wrigley
Dear Editor,

The fact that nine pages of the September issue were taken up by John Barr's insipid "American Poetry in the New Century" strikes me as, well, let's just say not the best use of space. If there aren't poems out there more interesting than what Barr has to say, then the situation is worse than he thinks it is.

Take his call for "a new poetry." Anybody feel like voting against such a sentiment? It seems to me that a new poetry becomes necessary every time the sun rises. If another "new" and altogether different poetry had emerged simultaneous with Modernism and had proved just as revolutionary and durable, would that have been a bad thing? Maybe Barr's commentary is just muddled but well-intentioned cheerleading. Maybe he figures the next Wordsworth, Dickinson, or Eliot is out there right now, and his call for "a new poetry" will rouse the genius into action—presumably sending his/her work to Poetry. Maybe. Though that, as Barr might say, seems hard to imagine, especially given the limp toot-toot of his battle cry.

Then there's the bashing of MFA programs. I'm surprised Dick Cheney hasn't started in on them too (you're either with us or you're with the MFA programs!). Here's a moment of full disclosure: I hold said degree (albeit from thirty years ago) and I teach in a program that offers it, and, as I tell my students, anybody who thinks a college degree of any kind makes one a poet is an imbecile. To believe such a thing is the literary/academic equivalent of believing in Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. Barr finds the likelihood of "the next Walt Whitman" holding an MFA "hard to imagine." So what does he imagine? The next Pablo Casals coming from Juilliard or the Eastman School something equally unimaginable? That an actor of timeless power will not likely come from the Yale University School of Drama or a painter from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago? The only credential for a poet is the poems themselves. Students of the art of poetry are novitiates, whether they are matriculated or making their way on their own, and speculation about the source of the next messiah is a fool's game.

But what galls me most is Barr's assertion that "academic life removes [poets] yet further from a general audience." Better to be a vice president of the Hartford Insurance Company? Better an editor at Faber and Faber or Farrar Straus? An exec at General Foods? Director of the NEA? The editor of Poetry? The idea that teachers are by virtue of their employment in the academy not part of the general life of the culture is a canard. What, they don't live real lives? Their children can't be killed in stupid wars? They don't have children at all, or bills, boils, or legitimate boy- or girlhoods? And we're supposed to accept this assertion from a man whose "other career" was on Wall Street and who now sits atop a hundred-million-dollar foundation? Bullshit. I don't even know what "a general audience" is. Is it a number? A demographic? People who also read Stephen King?

Finally, hello? Is there anyone out there who doesn't know that careerism is vile? Being opposed to it is like being opposed to child molestation. Your career, I tell my students, is something you manage; your art is what you must live, and if you don't live it but live your career instead, then you are the worst kind of failure. Barr wants a new poetry, and who doesn't? Maybe in his non-presidential hours he's taking a shot at it himself, though let's face it, such work will be a lot harder to accomplish than simply smearing with his broad brush every man and woman who actually believes that the connection between novice and teacher in the art of poetry is something worthwhile and decent. Those are the ones who take it seriously and hope—unimaginable as it may seem—that maybe, just maybe, something new and important might yet happen.

Moscow, Idaho

Originally Published: November 1, 2006

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This prose originally appeared in the November 2006 issue of Poetry magazine

November 2006


Audio Article
 Robert  Wrigley


Robert Wrigley was born in East St. Louis, Illinois. He was drafted in 1971, but was discharged as a conscientious objector. The first in his family to graduate from college, and the first male for generations to escape work in a coal mine, Wrigley earned his MFA from the University of Montana, where he studied with Madeline DeFrees, John Haines, and Richard Hugo.

Wrigley believes that poetry can influence the world and . . .

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