The current number of one of the better magazines in Canada asks a cross-section of smart writers and intellectuals to predict the state of the arts in 25 years. These are nervy folks, not unlike the sort of type-A’s you often find sealed in astronaut suits, tottering forward in slow motion. Facing the future, after all, wants bravery. And every now and then some intrepid soul does get it right – has gotten it right. Here’s the late, great poet and critic Randall Jarrell, on the future he never lived to see:

“Sometimes when I can’t go to sleep at night I see the family of the future. Dressed in three-tone shorts-and-shirt sets of disposable Papersilk, they sit before the television wall of their apartment, only their eyes moving. After I’ve looked a while I always see—otherwise I’d die—a pigheaded soul over in the corner with a book; only his eyes are moving, but in them there is a different look.
“Usually it’s Homer he’s holding—this week it’s Elizabeth Bishop. Her Poems seems to me one of the best books an American poet has ever written: the people of the future (the ones in the corner) will read her just as they will read Dickinson or Whitman or Stevens, or the other classical American poets still alive among us.”
The best science-fiction is merely the stuff that comes true (or comes close enough to our circumstances to be relevant), which permits us to relieve it of the label ‘science-fiction’ and the mild slight sometimes associated with the label. Short of the “Papersilk” and the family, Jarrell’s apartment resembles, with uncanny similitude, the small bachelor of a friend of mine. This is a cell dwarfed by the honeycomb of its larger condo, a cell in which TV is projected onto a wall-size screen (the cell has to be kept dark) and there is no corner to retreat to that is not surrounded by surround sound (reading is usually out of the question).
But Jarrell’s real coup as an amateur futurist is the bang-on prophecy about Bishop's legacy – no small feat since at the time of Jarrell’s speculation two thirds of Bishop’s poems were cryogenically frozen in North and South, “a book long out of print.”
From time to time on Harriet I’ll be presenting some readings of poems I like. Who's to say if their authors will come to matter in the future, but soothsaying is fun, so: which contemporary poet do you think Jarrell’s "pigheaded soul" will be reading?

Originally Published: February 21st, 2009

Jason Guriel is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in such influential publications as Poetry, Slate, Reader's Digest, The Walrus, Parnassus, Canadian Notes & Queries, The New Criterion, and PN Review. His poetry has been anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English, and in 2007, he was...

  1. February 21, 2009
     Anna Evans

    This gave me chills. Only a few weeks ago *I* was sitting in the family room of my house, attempting to concentrate on Words in Air, with a copy of Bishop's Complete and Lowell's Selected for handy reference, while my family bathed in the light emanating from our wide screen TV...

  2. February 21, 2009
     Annie Finch

    wonderful post Jason. I have wished before that Jarrell were still thinking about poetry today, and this makes me wish it again.

  3. February 21, 2009

    "which contemporary poet do you think Jarrell’s "pigheaded soul" will be reading?"

  4. February 21, 2009
     Mary Meriam

    Hi Jason,
    This question of what or who will last fascinates me no end. I read this essay the other day, about MacNeice’s dubious position in the pantheon --
    Seen from without, MacNeice eludes the pigeonholing that even the most sophisticated readers need as a baseline. Though clearly more subtle than their caricatures, major poets such as Auden and Heaney nonetheless tick a lot of externally created boxes: the camp, slippered, martini-swilling Oxonian and the earthly, booted, pantheistic farmer's son. (His Master's Voice, Conor O'Callaghan, POETRY March 2007)
    -- and it makes me wonder if Bishop was overlooked in her lifetime because she wasn't comfortably pigeonholed. Bishop herself resisted being pigeonholed. Is this why she is still not considered a “major poet?” Or if she is now considered a major poet, what changed? Maybe the little pigeonholes in our brains changed and expanded, so that we feel more comfortable including the queerest kinds of poets in our roster of greats. And what about Charlotte Mew? Indubitably a great poet, shamefully excluded - because of her uncomfortably queer life?
    As for contemporary poets who’ll last... well, that would have to be me, of course, and I’m not sure who else. But I’ll keep thinking and get back to you.

  5. February 21, 2009
     Roberto Planos

    I, too, greatly miss Jarrell's contribution to poetry. Both his own work and his criticism continue to read refreshingly. If you have never read "A Woman at the Washington Zoo" run out now and do so.
    As far as being so cavalier myself, I would be loathe to make any such pronouncement as to who the "pigheaded" of the future will read of the current living. I am no where near as well read as Jarrell was in his time, but everyone (including the non-literary, somehow) seems to love Ashbery, and I myself am partial to Ms. Rich. Of course, these are easy picks. Because of their advanced ages we already know how their oeuvre will shape-up, for the most part. (Although I wouldn't put it past either to surprise us.)
    Maybe, since I'm younger than most people on this blog, I will know one day.

  6. February 22, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Anna, that is spooky, but I'm glad you shared it.
    Annie and Roberto, it's good to know that others miss Jarrell, too. (I often wonder what particular writers would make of our present; for example, I wonder what David Foster Wallace, who has not been gone long, would make of Obama.)
    Paul and Mary, thanks for your predictions! -- and Mary, thanks for sharing the great quote. Surely it is futile to wonder about what will last, but I love when people make the attempt. As for Bishop, I think Dana Gioia makes the point, in an old essay, that Bishop could not be pigeonholed too easily, and as a result, her work supports the readings of critics with very different interests. I'll have to check out Mew's work. Thanks for the tip.

  7. February 23, 2009
     thomas brady

    Didn’t they have TV in Jarrell’s day?
    Writing killed memory, photography killed painting, and TV killed reading; we can revel in memory again.
    Material improvements take, and then after a few thousand years, give back.
    Jarrell’s prophecy did not fall far from the tree; Elizabeth B. was Randall’s friend.
    But to be less concise: I don’t think it profits the poet to pout before the TV; the poet has always shared the world with things that undercut or overshadow poetry, objects and facts and devices too numerous to mention. The key word in the previous sentence is 'share.’ Poetry competes poorly. It will always thrive in a corner.
    The poet must pass by the TV in silence.
    Poetry, more often than not, appears as Shakespeare’s 'antique song’ (or looks so, in time); poetry will always lose the race to science, and look antique, or a mere adage, at last.

  8. February 23, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Sensible points, Thomas. Thanks for them.

  9. February 23, 2009

    Thomas's comment implies that poetry competes in the same space as other mediums. I agree with him when he says poets should not pout. In fact, I think they should celebrate television (especially now that HD TV has arrived). To watch CNN International at 8 in the evening, eating a pizza and a nice salad and drinking a good bottle of red is the perfect way for me to prepare for a night of reading or writing. And poetry will always lose the race (if it even is a race) with science; it's been doing that since Galileo. It's simply never been able to match G's law of the uniform acceleration of falling bodies, even though the average poet's life is the perfect manifestation of the theory. Only when poetry realizes that it's not in competition with other discourses does it begin to thrive.

  10. February 24, 2009
     Michael J. Martin

    Dana Levin. Yeah. Most definitely Dana Levin. I hate ordering books and everytime I go to the bookstore, I gotta order Wedding Day. This bothers me in the deepest way. But I will when I'm not so poor that I must use my EBT card.
    Anyhoo, "Fire starter" will maybe be read when I'm 67 and trying to scratch me scalp through my uneven afro.
    But also Roger Reeves. Read 'cymothoa exigua*' and try not to have ya brain fall out of your nose.
    But Jason, I think you touch on something that David Orr wrote about in the NY Times:
    'When we lose sight of greatness, we cease being hard on ourselves and on one another; we begin to think of real criticism as being “mean” rather than as evidence of poetry’s health; we stop assuming that poems should be interesting to other people and begin thinking of them as being obliged only to interest our friends – and finally, not even that. Perhaps most disturbing, we stop making demands on the few artists capable of practicing the art at its highest levels. Instead, we cling to the ground in those artists’ shadows – John Ashbery’s is enormous at this point – and talk about how rich the darkness is and how lovely it is to be a mushroom.'
    It isn't directly related to your post, only by slight association. But he mentions Bishop, figured it was a nice read.

  11. February 24, 2009
     thomas brady

    You write:
    "Only when poetry realizes that it's not in competition with other discourses does it begin to thrive."
    Poetry should never challenge TV, but might it have a chance against fiction or the essay?
    This leads to a slightly (much larger?) question:
    How much should Art compete? Does it compete by default? Does a ballad by Auden compete with popular song? Does 'the nude’ compete with 'the naked?’ Is the porn-obsessed philistine a failure of 'the nude,’ a failure of art? Does poetry’s refinement compete with life’s brutishness? Does Shelley’s 'Defense’ compete with actual legislators? Does Socrates compete with poetry? Does Shelley calling Plato 'a poet’ change the nature of that competition? Should poetry operate by stealth, hiding itself in the non-poetic, or should it be naked? Or nude?

  12. February 24, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Thanks, Martin, for the comment (sounds like you have a fun evening ritual), and thanks, Thomas, for the great follow-up questions, which I need to think about....
    Michael, I appreciate the suggestions, especially the Reeves poem, which is remarkable, and available for others to read on the Poetry Foundation Web site.

  13. February 24, 2009

    I’m reluctant to follow your leads, just because we are taking up space on Jason’s thread, without addressing, at least directly, the issue he brought up. But it happens that your series of questions dovetails with issues I wanted to take up with Jason in his last post. So I’m sure he’ll indulge us, and I hope he sticks his nose in.
    First of all very few or the commentators in J’s previous thread actually took up the remarkable poem he was talking about, or his equally remarkable commentary. Jason’s close reading of Suzanne Buffman’s poem “Play” provides us with a perfect example of what I think we should consider to be our work in progress, bringing substantive and elegant criticism into the blogosphere. By elegant I mean a kind of failure of economy, like Wittgenstein’s attempt to design a house.
    Your questions seem both rhetorical (as in, are these questions that it is possible to answer, or are they not really statements in an argument?) and practical (as in, it would be good to know the answers). Perhaps my notion of autonomy (that poetry is somehow apart, othered by its retreat from a viable marketplace) is outdated – and I think I will probably contradict myself in my next post. But I truly believe that the only competition in poetry is among poets themselves. No one else, except perhaps a diminishing pool of professional critics and essayists, really cares.
    Your “binary” approach to these issues is also out of date (Sontag, Barthes and Warhol took care of those distinctions in the last century), though still I think it’s an admirable strategy when we really need to cut to the chase. But you must admit that it shirks the grey zone. It’s fishing for apodictic truths. It undercuts the possibility of our responding in a mitigated fashion. They are very good questions. My favorite one is: Does Shelley calling Plato “a poet” change the nature of that competition?”
    One thing you don’t ask, which could easily be added to the list, is does the critic compete with the poet. There is a violence at work in your larger question, a violence of thought, which we all, despite ourselves practice. The truth is, that after Jason’s most eloquent reading of “Play”, “Play”, the poem, must seek its revenge, probably in the form of another poem, since certainly, the last thing the poet wants to do is to leave the critic with the final word.

  14. February 24, 2009
     Michael Martin

    Poetry competes with everything. Art competes with everything, as everything is art. And therefore dissected from the public image into more amicable bites. You always hear people say, "Its poetry in motion" "Oh that's poetry" (from Righteous Kill, the Al Pacino/Robert DeNiro flick). Poetry is the blood, the visual arts are the body framework around that blood -- creating even the veins. This does not mean that the other aspects of art are the forces causing the blood to course, but they are the structures supporting such activities.
    Poetry is in TV, the words, the themes, the arcs of it all. I think the trick is inviting people to rediscover how ingrained it is, providing them to skewed vision to see what has always been there, you know? These things shouldn't be in competition because these things you mention ( Is the porn-obsessed philistine a failure of 'the nude,’ a failure of art? Does poetry’s refinement compete with life’s brutishness? ) these things you mention are poetry. They should be in unison --- using poetry to write about the refinement of art amalgamated with the brutishness of life, or how the accessibility of porn has changed sex and love, in, I dunno, relation to life's brutishness. Everything in life has the possibility to be incorporated into the craft and reflected back to society, hopefully, you know, allowing people to see a different side. The only possible failure of art, I think, is in relation to illiteracy. But even then you can deliver an artistic message using post-literate devices.
    Poetry should be nude, naked, and starkly so. This does not mean it is utterly open, utterly wide open to be touched down to the nerves. Some people, when they get naked, are still very much clothed and defensed and not easily accessible. Others are very comfortable, very much an open book --- their bodies are them and they are their bodies.
    I say allow Poetry to be what it needs to be, which is, cheesily enough, everything.

  15. February 25, 2009
     Roberto Planos

    HI, Jason
    Maybe I can bring this thread back to the original posting, which now makes more sense having read "Going Negative" in the new print issue. Your case for the "necessarily skeptical" definitely hearkens back to the days of Dickey's and Jarrell's criticism. While I do not always agree with your assessments, there is much truth to be found there. So much of contemporary criticism (perhaps from the sit-in-circles ethos of the workshop) has become a little "I'm okay, you're okay" for my tastes.
    I respect you for attempting a return to the time-honored tradition of criticism whereby the critic attempts a prediction of what will be "great poetry" not just "good poetry," in Dickey's terms. Truth be told, the only reason I can see that Dickey has fallen so far out of favor is that he was wrong about so many poets we love today (Ginsberg, Ashbery, etc.) not that there was something inherently flawed with his methodology. To my mind, your reviews of Mead, Powell, and Poch were quite even handed. These are three poets that I personally respect. But those whom we respect, we must hold to a higher standard. Thank you

  16. February 26, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Thanks to all for tuning into, and joining, this spirited discussion. I appreciate the exchange between Martin, Thomas, and Michael. All have good points. For what it's worth, I do enjoy TV and, much like the "pigheaded soul" in Jarrell's prophecy, have often sat in front of the TV with a book of poetry or an issue of Poetry. Sometimes what's on the screen wins my attention; sometimes the poetry wins it. I'm comfortable with this stalemate.
    Roberto, I appreciate your even-handed remarks. Thanks for them. And Martin, I'm glad you liked the reading of "Play." I dig the idea of poems seeking revenge against the critic in the form of other poems.

  17. March 4, 2009
     thomas brady

    This analogy might help us think about poetry and competition. The poets are flowers which compete for the attention of the bees (the readers).
    But actually groups of flowers, flower beds, compete with each other, since Nature never shakes the dice with one, but with many. Flowers do not compete individually, since a group of flowers help one another to attract a host of bees. In nature, some sort of competition is always going on.
    Schools of poetry, comprising of like-minded poets, compete with each other for the attention of readers. The poets do not know this as individuals, perhaps; Lord Byron could not have guessed that he would have been grouped with boring old Wordsworth as a 'Romantic,’ but this is how the mysterious thing works. If you want to get put in the Modernist anthology, you either hang out with other Modernists or write against the Romantics; individually, you’ll fall by the wayside, but if you can be identified with some movement that seems to characterize your era, you’ll have a better shot of being grouped in with some important group that will ensure your own survival.
    Schools of poetry are proof that non-poetic elements do exist in poems, because schools are distinguished by this. “My poetry is more like real speech,” and so on.
    So poetry does compete within itself, but only by appealing to the non-poetic.
    Where does the critic fit into our analogy? Nowhere, since a critic competes for the attention of the bees, and is thus a flower, but is also the reader (or bee) to the poetry, and since one cannot be both flower and bee (no such creature existing in nature) we have to assume the critic is a flower, appealing to the bees, and competing directly with the poet.
    This is why, as Martin says, “the last thing the poet wants to do is leave the critic with the final word.” Quite true. No flower likes seeing a bee visit another flower. A critic wants to read poetry, but mostly he wants to be read by readers.
    This is also why Martin says, “But I truly believe that the only competition in poetry is among poets themselves. No one else, except perhaps a diminishing pool of professional critics and essayists, really cares.” Note he includes critics (though they are diminishing, sadly).
    On the other hand, Michael says, “Poetry competes with everything.” Yes, poetry “competes with everything” because poetry, as I have said, participates in the non-poetic, for this is how schools of poetry arise, and how poems compete, not by the fact that they are written by poet X or Y, but by the fact that they are haiku, for instance, and use simple descriptions of nature, and if you want to have readers when haiku is all the rage, you write haiku, because this is what the bees see as poetry. The bees (readers) fly to the flower beds; they don’t see individuals; they see schools; the haiku is what the bee sees, not you, you vain poet! And how could a critic thrive when haiku is the rage by not praising the idea of the haiku? Critics run in schools, just as poets do, and they compete this way, not, finally, as individuals.
    Michael is right: “Poetry is in TV, the words, the themes, the arcs of it all.” However...I don’t know if we should go this far, for if “poetry is in TV” it is not competing with TV; now we lose too much of the flower’s identity; I fear Randall Jarrell, the poet, instead of remaining in the corner, in front of the TV, will disappear, like Alice through the looking glass, to never return.