In Defense of—
I have an extremely stubborn resistance to entering debates about poetry that occur in mainstream publications. So while blogging this month for Harriet, I’ve stuck to my own interests and obsessions, pushing, too, toward some new thinking (as in things I’d not thought before) on poetics. That was exciting. While I was doing this, I was actively ignoring the article in Harpers by Mark Edmundson titled, “Poetry Slam Or The decline of American verse” (which frankly just seems like a provoking for the sake of, what, luring more temporary subscribers to the magazine?) and its attendant responses including Seth Abramson’s of HuffPost and Katy Waldman’s piece on Slate. So, today, on this last day of blogging I thought I’d take a peek outside of my own mad head.
The problem with an article like Edmundson’s is that it’s really clear that he doesn’t read contemporary poetry even if he does teach at the University of Virginia. Contemporary poetry, as we know, has a range of complexions, is a field of art so diverse it often seems to comprise multiple genres. You know who does read contemporary poetry? Johannes Gorannson. When Johannes, for example, writes on the “accessibility debates,” he moves outside the binary of accessibility and difficulty and instead says this: “There is to me always an excess in the poem; that is part of its allure, its fascination. The poem is too much. That’s part of what I love about art.”
But then again, Johannes is a poet-scholar and what you know from the inside of poetry is very different from what you know from the outside. To be inside a poem and making it yields a knowing about the seductive possibilities of the poem in ways the one who doesn’t write poetry never could. It is the knowing of making. Johannes writes that our discomfort with allure or excess or lack of agency “goes a long way to explaining the appeal of ‘close reading’ of the kind that finds a meaning (even if that meaning is ‘ambiguous’ or ‘indeterminate’).”
When I think about the poetry that appeals to me most, it is that poetry that resists closure, urges the reader to participate uncomfortably (sometimes without resolution) in its meaning-making, and stimulates our sense of linguistic possibilities. In short, it works against master narratives. This latter thing, I believe, is revolutionary. It does not surprise me then, that the critique from the outside of poetry is often that poetry is “obscure” or abstruse.
We—many of us—live in the United States so we know that Americans tend to like their art a little on the, shall we say, entertaining side. So what? All song and dance to mask the complexity endemic to all content. We know, too, that underneath questions about “goodness” and “deadness” are related capitalist assumptions of exchange value and use. What is it good for? The ways the poetry that interests me most attempts to speak, however, disrobes these assumptions and presents instead alternative languages to, in Erica Hunt’s words, the “dominant modes of discourse, the language of ordinary life or of rationality, of moral management, of the science and the state, the hectoring threats of the press and media, [that] use convention and label to bind and organize us.” In poetry as in other art forms, there is at least, the potential for liberation.
Good night, June. Thanks for the month.
Poet and activist Dawn Lundy Martin earned a BA at the University of Connecticut, an MA at San Francisco State University, and a PhD at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her poetry collections include Discipline (2011), chosen by Fanny Howe for the Nightboat Books Prize, and A Gathering of Matter/A Matter...