"When I say, then, that the current audience for poetry in America lacks taste, I do not mean to suggest that we have bad taste--that we like bad poems. I mean, instead, that we have fallen into a kind of insensiblity, a sort of intelligent numbness, which is both a cause and a consequence of the poetry culture's lingering anxiety."

So says Brian Phillips in his essay in the September issue of Poetry, "Poetry and the Problem of Taste."
Here's one more excerpt:
"What happens when the relationship between an audience and an art form begins to fail? A kind of obscurity, something felt but not quite formulated, overwhelms aesthetic judgment. It becomes difficult to say what is good or bad, and worse, what one likes or dislikes. Somehow these questions appear unconnected to what is actually happening. The atmosphere fills with the bad air of theories. Conservative outcries are feebly raised, in response to no evident controversy. Discussion shies from the work of artists, withdraws to the question of survival, the ominous question of the future. What will the way forward be? Irving Howe wrote that all literary revolutions begin in an assault on a standard of taste. Where will the next one begin, if the standard of taste is a vapor?"
Where, indeed?

Originally Published: September 11th, 2007

Don Share became the editor of Poetry in 2013. His books of poetry are Wishbone (2012), Squandermania (2007), and Union (2013, 2002). He is the co-editor of The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine (2012), and editor of Bunting's Persia (2012) and a critical edition of Basil Bunting's poems (2016). He...

  1. September 12, 2007
     Simon DeDeo

    I can't read the article because it's not available online, so I can only base my comments here on the quotes extracted.
    Brian's picture looks like nothing I've seen from being "in the trenches" -- writing critically on new poets publishing in the little journals that for centuries have been the birthplace of the great.
    But his picture is far from unfamiliar. It's the common chorus of a certain kind of critic; I've written on James Matthew Wilson's remarks here.
    Again, I can't read Brian's full essay. I wouldn't be surprised if it hit many of the same highlights James does. But to take on the verifiably wrong assertion that you quote -- it is absolutely undeniable poets and readers spend a significant fraction of their time passing judgement on the significance and excellence of their peers.
    To make some (any!) sense of Brian's remarks, you have to figure he's actually hitting that common old chestnut -- "I have discerning aesthetic judgment, you just have a theory." Meanwhile, the diversity of taste today means that whatever sacred cow Brian chooses to gore produces less outrage than he'd like.
    When Brian refers to the "failure" of the audience-author relationship, what he really means is that he personally is not getting the audience he wants: anyone who's gone to a reading or read one of the microjournals knows that the audience for new poetry is small -- as it's always been -- but also passionate, opinionated, and damn smart.

  2. September 12, 2007
     Simon DeDeo

    OK, that was grumpy. This is something that really does get my goat! If I had to say a flip side, it's that I understand Brian's grumpiness. While readers and poets are great, the "critics" are often horrifically bad uberblurbers. I think if you get your news on the community's "taste" from a random sampling of published criticism, the idea that nobody has any taste at all would be a pretty reasonable conclusion to jump to.

  3. September 12, 2007
     Aaron Fagan

    Going by Phillips characterization of the activist and the anti-activist, the public versus the private experience of poetry there is still a dilemma, one that is not being addressed. And my sense is that it is because it is not very entertaining. It lacks sex appeal and noise. There is no spectacle in it. No fame or celebrity to it. The literary community is behaving no different than these myriad documentaries on the war and the environment that are just as bad as the internet and evening news. These anxieties will all turn out to be bogey-men. The fears outweigh an honest and dispassionate inventory of reality. The problems of poetry and the world keep being pointed out over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. It's really annoying. The actions that are being taken, if they are taken at all, are not changing anything for the better. Or maybe they are and this is just the growing pains period of the 21st century. I do wish the there were something different going on over there though. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result. One real cure to this is distribution. You are deluded if you think you create taste. But the current distribution system doesn't give readers and chance to recognize it even if it was there. These protests about poetry's place in our culture! Has anyone really invested in giving it the physical place it needs in order to be discovered by a reader? Go to Border's, go to Barnes and Noble, go to Amazon and show me how poetry is equitably placed among other products? And what would it take to encourage The New York Times to add poetry to the bestseller list, however modest the numbers may be? And what ARE the numbers? Where do we really stand? The list of practical solutions goes on and on, but it's in poor taste to complain.

  4. September 12, 2007
     Aaron Fagan

    Brian Phillips concludes:
    "We can describe the hedges, we can draw the map of the maze, but it is beyond our power to identify the exit. If there is a hidden door anywhere, it will be up to a poet to find it."
    Phillips comments sound like a description of the internet. The "exit" may be akin to what the computer learns at the end of the film War Games--the way to win is not to play.
    Or going with his labyrinth allusion we can remember Joseph Campbell:
    "The little we need is close at hand. Most curiously, the very scientist who, at the service of the sinful king, was the brain behind the horror of the labyrinth, quite as readily can serve the purposes of freedom. But the hero-heart must be at hand. For centuries Daedalus has represented the type of the artist-scientist: that curiously disinterested, almost diabolic human phenomenon, beyond the normal bounds of social judgment, dedicated to the morals not of his time but of his art. He is the hero of the way of thought–singlehearted, courageous, and full of faith that the truth, as he finds it, shall make us free.
    And so now we may turn to him, as did Ariadne. The flax for the linen of his thread he has gathered from the fields of the human imagination. Centuries of husbandry, decades of diligent culling, the work of numerous hearts and hands, have gone into the hacking, sorting, and spinning of this tightly twisted yarn. Furthermore, we have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of out own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with the world."

  5. September 12, 2007

    Brian's essay is pretty abstract. Therefore I may seem to be projecting onto it. But my theory is that he has spent a lot of time and effort in formal reviews for _Poetry_ and received very little feedback or support from the audience at large. Or even from the poets he reviewed.
    I'm just speculating about Brian Phillips's motivation. But I know from my time editing and writing for the Poetry Project Newsletter that reviews do not spur passionate dialog in the community. I have only seen such dialog on the internet, and then rarely in response to mere reviews.
    I wish I could cross-post this with Rigoberto's exhortation to more reviews. I don't disagree with him -- sure, more reviews will make authors immensely happy. (Their publishers too.) But I sense Brian Phillips got isolated. Even I, at the supposed ur-community at the Poetry Project, felt extremely isolated. And I have heard this from other ex-editors there too.

  6. September 13, 2007
     Don Share

    The entire Brian Phillips essay is now online at the Poetry magazine website.

  7. September 13, 2007
     Harriet Oliver

    Casting Swelling Spell for Spelling Swell
    Plurals i.e. obnoxious - obnoxious
    1. The plurals of most nouns add –s to singular form
    Recommended: Suggested:
    Toy – toys annoy – annoys
    Wave – waves kiss –kisss
    seal – seals steel – steels
    hospital – hospitals soapy - soapys
    But when plural creates extra syllable, add –es:
    Recommended: Suggested:
    Box – boxes ox – oxes
    Church – churches Churchill –Churchilles
    Jones – Joneses Gates – Gateses
    2. Plurals of compound nouns are usually formed by adding –s to most important
    Part of the word:
    Recommended: Suggested:
    Brother-in-law – brothers-in-law mother-in-law – mother-in-laws
    Lady-in-waiting – ladies-in-waiting man-in-waiting – mans-in-waiting
    3. When nouns ending in –o are preceded by a vowel, add –s, Do not add –'s:
    Recommended: Suggested:
    Radio – radios Romeo – Romeos
    Cameo – cameos trio – trios
    Rodeo – rodeos deliciou – delicious
    But several exceptions take –es, among them being:
    Recommended: Suggested:
    Cargo - Cargoes mango - mangoes
    Echo – echoes hallo – halloes
    Potato – potatoes toe – toees
    Hero – heroes zero – zeroes
    Tomato – tomatoes photo – photos
    4. When a noun ends in a consonant followed by –y, drop the –y and add ies:
    Recommended: Suggested:
    Fairy – fairies scary – scaries
    Story – stories history – histories
    Battery – batteries my –mies
    Picnic – picnics mimic - mimics

  8. September 13, 2007
     Simon DeDeo

    My experience has been very different. Not to repeat myself, but when I write reviews and review-essays, I find myself continually engaged with an audience that challenges and cares.
    Not to put too fine a point on it, but if Brian is not engaging an audience, then -- well, maybe he shouldn't be blaming the community. Maybe he should be questioning what he's writing, in the same way we'd question our poems if they inspired little in our readers -- no matter how "formally correct" they were.

  9. September 19, 2007
     Eric Berge

    "we find ourselves unable to form intuitive aesthetic judgments, unable to know the ground on which such judgments could legitimately be formed,"
    So this is why rejections cover my wall....

  10. September 22, 2007
     Don Share

    A last little quotation, and just for fun: "Most writers have no other quality than the reader: taste. But the latter has the better taste, because he does not write--and the best if he does not read."
    -- Karl Kraus (1874-1936), tr. by Harry Zohn

  11. February 27, 2009