Been reading piles and piles of poetry manuscripts, and noticing an interesting trend in what I assume are books by younger poets--very young poets, like under 25. The piles are anonymous, but after a certain age one can kind of smell youth. The trend is toward a quite direct mode of speech, plainspeech, and within that a lot of expression of anxiety about being involved in "poetry world." Programs, conferences, teaching, publishing. Lines like (I'm making these up) "I hate being a poet./ Poets stink./ Who judges these contests?/ I just want to fry potatoes without fear." I think everyone's reading Chelsey Minnis?

Originally Published: September 4th, 2009

Born and raised in New York City, Rebecca Wolff earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She authored Manderley (2001), selected for the 2001 National Poetry Series; Figment (2004), winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize; The King (2009); and One Morning— (2015). Her work has appeared in BOMB...

  1. September 5, 2009
     Miriam Levine

    Frying potatoes can be dangerous: splattering grease. No fear: no joy.

  2. September 5, 2009
     Barbara Jane Reyes

    Hi Rebecca, I've also been to a number of poetry readings and heard a lot of this poetry which I think of as overly "po-biz" self-conscious mixed in with these bits of quirkiness. I wonder if the bits of quirkiness are meant to be "deep," that in everyday mundane details of the poet's domesticity come these epiphanies (not that I agree with this). It's interesting you think of these as coming from "younger" poets; I'd generally agree with you except that the poets I've heard/seen reading these poems aren't very young at all.

  3. September 5, 2009
     Wendy Babiak

    It does make one wonder, though, if someone hates being a poet, why bother? It's not like anyone MUST write poetry. Or, if s/he MUST because her/his soul (for lack of a better word) demands it, then why not enjoy it? Does it reflect self-hate? There's more money, and thanks, in frying potatoes, I think.\r

    As far as young vs. old, I think it has little to do with age, and a lot to do with maturity, which aren't necessarily related.

  4. September 5, 2009
     John Oliver Simon

    Nine and thirteen-year-old poets, which is who I teach, don't have that angst of grunge. But it's a universal poetic phenomenon for folks in their twenties, which I've observed up and down in Latin America, Ciudad Poética Post, the funky stuff in Santiago in the nineties, sounded just like the angry kids a decade later in Mexico and the readings you go to. It probably pushes your buttons because you're just that much older and see deeper and farther.\r

    I want to apologize, btw, (who knows where that thread went) to anyone who felt insulted by my attack on the word "curate," most especially Richard Villar of the Bronx. I have run poetry reading series, Berkeley Art Center with Lew Welch, Sister Mary Norbert Kórte, COSMEP readings with Richard Krech and Charles Potts, with Susan Griffin and Pat Parker and Al Young, lots of CPITS readinga across the years and Poetry Inside out kid readings now, and I have nothing but respectful gratitude for those who, like good Richard Silberg, put on poetry readings week after week. I believe the langpos borrowed "curate" from museums, from what felt like Higher Culture, much of it dead, white and European, and certainly more institutionally supported. \r

    If this is common usage in your century, and my crusade against "curate" altogether too late and out of touch, again, I apologize.

  5. September 5, 2009
     edward mycue

    i always sit up when john oliver simon speaks. he is a serious person i first came across in 1972 at a reading by alta his former wife and another serious person and like him already senior in wisdom, intensity, learning. edward mycue

  6. September 6, 2009

    The anxiety of engaging with the biz side of poetry might resonate for a Dickinson fan.\r

    Publication -- is the Auction\r
    Of the Mind of Man --\r
    Poverty -- be justifying\r
    For so foul a thing\r

    [ . . . ]

  7. September 6, 2009
     John Oliver Simon

    There seems to be a lot to dislike in your tribute to me, Ed. But thank you.

  8. September 6, 2009

    I find myself feeling much hurt for these young, and not so young, poets who, because of career choices perhaps, feel caged in by "Programs, conferences, teaching, publishing." In their situation I too might come to hate poetry's way. Here is what the blog's description brings to mind.\r

    The Panther\r
    (in the Jardin des Plantes, Paris)\r

    His vision, from the constantly passing bars,\r
    has grown so weary that it cannot hold\r
    anything else. It seems to him there are\r
    a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.\r

    As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,\r
    the movement of his powerful soft strides\r
    is like a ritual dance around a center\r
    in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.\r

    Only at times, the curtain of his pupils\r
    lifts, quietly -. An image enters in,\r
    rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,\r
    plunges into the heart and is gone.\r

    (Rilke's famous poem and it seems awefully apt.)\r

    What have we wrought, we on the scene, if these youngsters no longer have a taste for the exquisite, even clinical pain, the duende, of poetry's possession.\r

    I think this is the saddest Harriet blog I've yet read.\r


  9. September 7, 2009
     Quincy R. Lehr

    But really, what are we supposed to make of this... are American twentysomething poets simply lame-os with no sense of proportion? Or is this something the programs did to them? Or has the desire (if an anxious one) to be "a poet" gotten in the way of actually trying to produce the good stuff? \r

    Around New York, certainly, one gets the sense that the last one plays a role (with the second wrapped up in the last bit). One can do degrees and workshops and all the rest to feel like "a poet" without it necessarily being predicated on a significant body of work (whether in size, quality, or whatever). Or producing said body of work. And when one "writes what one knows," it's all that "networking" garbage the programs seem to throw at the slightly younger than me, seemingly forgetting to mention that if one must "network," it is advisable to have something to network with.

  10. September 7, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Ignorance is the cancer on poetry, but arrogance is the poison that kills it.

  11. September 7, 2009
     John Oliver Simon

    Hey Terreson, a plug for translators... if you're using Stephen Mitchell's version, credit him. \r

    Twenty-something poets are always insufferable, whether or not they're in MFA programs. I and my buddies in Berkeley in the late sixties – Charles Potts, Richard Krech, Alta – we were insufferable. One of our obnoxious features was elaborate scorn for anybody associated in any way with academia.\r


  12. September 7, 2009

    I was charming as a 20-something poet -- I have surmised this because the established poets I met tended to like me. Now I'm cynical, irascible, dogmatic, and irritating. I used to be much more sufferable.\r

    I wouldn't have realized this, though, if you hadn't pointed it out, John Oliver Simon. So I owe you a debt of gratitude for this nugget of self-knowledge.\r

    Thanks. :-( \r

    I must change my life or something. (Please forgive the allusion-goof.)\r

    Poets complaining about the culture of institutional poetry is a long tradition, as you've confessed, Mr. Simon. It must be striking to see those complaints in stacks of poems, as Ms. Wolff has, but the phenomenon in itself is neither pitiable nor alarming nor cause for tut-tutting. Complaining about our society's poetry institutions has little to do with one's being a poet, one way or the other.

  13. September 7, 2009
     John Oliver Simon

    Let's see. We could have one school of twnety-something poets that's Charming, and another school that's Insufferable. They could write manifestos back and forth and despise each other.

  14. September 8, 2009
     noah freed

    Speaking of schools: interesting post on the New Chicago School here, by the ever provocative Kent Johnson:

  15. September 8, 2009

    The enemy of my enemy is my friend: "In conclusion, what I’m proposing (it would appear I am beginning to repeat myself) is something that’s beginning to have a sense of the self-‐‹evident to it already, I think, and no doubt others have noticed it, too: that Chicago, right now, is home to the most interesting and vital avant 'poetic cluster' in the country."

  16. September 9, 2009

    I think everyone in this world is independent to do what he feels better for him. Poetry reflects identity of our soul and it should not be stopped.

  17. September 9, 2009
     Eileen Myles

    I think I missed the curate crusade but want to put my two cents in on the word. And maybe a little wondering about the lanpo word. The curate which is totally what I do when I do I think intends a wider space for the poet. Put a poet with a filmmaker for instance and then another kind of poet. I think it's about mixing audiences and even mixing practices (like you said museum but it doesn't have to be that staid). People in the 80s in the poetry world started to curate because people in the performance world did it and I think the word suggested wider choosing too even if it was all poets we (the poets) were watching what you (the performers, the artworld) were doing as well. It seems postmodern for poets to be like artists and musicians either picking up other people's instruments literally or borrowing their conception so its not just all us chickens in here. The langpo thing always bugs me because it's so othering. If you say langpo who are you. I so often feel on the same "side" as you (John) around this or that poetry/political issue but this one throws me. Language poets like most groups would deny their own membership yet most of us could agree on who a few are and those few would not deny it, but I don't know by the next generation the influence was vague and by the one after that, the students of some of the original folk the influence got intenser again because people were graduate students and were learning an aesthetic in school. I think. But from the relative inside - I came up w language poets and am in some journals and have many friendships - with Rae and Charles and Bob but I wasn't in anthologies which is where lines do get drawn. But my quarrel today is the language poetry or lang ]po that sometimes gets used and seems to cover everything from ashbery to I don't know, anything not strictly included in the poetry mainstream. Like all experimental schools are now langpo. Mostly what bothers me about it as a word is that its erasing of the subtleties of poetry influence. You mention Lew Welch who is an influence on some of these writers I think. It's just not that clear and what I resist is totalizing words when poetry is always atomizing. \r

    I think poets in their 20s see the awp coming at them like a train. They should just run.

  18. September 9, 2009
     John Oliver Simon

    Good thoughts, Eileen, especially on opening the poetry performance space to large mixed concepts. I've learned from this discussion. I love your last sentence. \r

    The "langpo" crack is left over from my own buttons getting pushed too many years ago. I'm translating Eduardo Milán right now, who is the closest thing to a language poet in Mexico. His echolalia gives me a lot of freedom to go for sound rarther than sense.

  19. September 11, 2009


    I run a Poetry club called, "The Poet's Brain" in Second Life and I have seen and heard the same; but it comes from all ages. I think this is just a time in life that none of us have seen before, some forced to transition their jobs after 20 years; it's like starting over. Some are young that haven't been able to express themselves in the home and some are just lost hoping that whatever they put out there someone will speak up and say, "yes I feel that way too". \r