The fury stirred up by John Barr's considered and polite critique of current American poetry (never a jeremiad) suggests that it is justified. ["American Poetry in the New Century," September 2006 and "Letters to the Editor," November 2006]. It's natural for people who are criticized to protest, but these professionals protest too much. In my view, Barr's essay, with Dana Gioia's "Can Poetry Matter," should be required reading for every MFA program in the country—if only to make students aware of the disciplined literary education they will need if they are serious about becoming poets.
To lay the blame for today's tired poetry on Modernism, though, is probably unfair. The great Modernists, because not academics, were more learned and closer to the foundations they built on than most professors of creative writing will ever be. One only has to listen to the music of the early Cantos and to the literary echoes in Four Quartets to realize that Pound and Eliot transformed the English tradition only to reaffirm its strength. So did Wallace Stevens. So did W.H. Auden. In the following generation, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and James Merrill all stretched that tradition further without dropping its thread. A freer, more American tradition, of course, emerged at the same time: Whitman inspired Williams, Ginsberg, and the Black Mountain group; Marianne Moore's syllabic verse, moral and revolutionary like Emily Dickinson's, looks somewhat old-fashioned today, but it is never imperceptive or lazy.
No, the fault lies not in our Modernist stars; it lies partly in the universe of postmodernism that has cut poetry off from its own texts and set up an independent, theoretical heaven; and partly in the heavy weather of political correctness, with its consequences in the dumbing down of education. The Modernists were, in today's warped language, elitists. Postmodernists want and get big audiences, but they either write language about language for each other, or they indulge their grievances, writing for themselves (v. your correspondent Susan Wheatley) or, like the ebullient Taylor Mali, they have fun and make money performing poetry without ever having to put a line on paper.
All these activities (and more) go on today, claiming the rubric "poetry," and there is no reason why they shouldn't. Poetry has many mansions. There will always be people like William Valenti who discount verse that lacks a thumping meter and rhyme. And there will always be people who believe that writing programs produce today's best poets, with their "multifarious" books. What I hope is that there will always be a few who care deeply for some poetry, not all; a few who listen out for a line's inner sounds and rhythms, who weigh each word for its right meaning and tone. We don't so much need "new" poetry as "good" poetry. To write good poetry you need a working knowledge of the past, a deep feeling for language, a lively experience of human nature—never mind what field or profession—and an acute awareness of the present, with all its evils and absurdities.
Pwllymarch, North Wales