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The Backlash Is in for Mark Edmundson’s Harper’s Article on the Decline of Am. Verse

By Harriet Staff


At his site Days of Notes, Daniel Nester has responded to the hot potato Harper’s article that portends the end of poetry. And the Washington Post has also covered Mark Edmundson’s piece. Some choice excerpts below.

From Nester:

1. Another Fucking Essay of Complaint, all directed toward the writerly impulse: the autobiographical impulse.

2. Classic American-versus-Europe-genteel-tradition tropes in 3, 2, 1…

3. Sure, to employ Emerson as an anti-Emerson is clever. Let’s call for American poets to be more European!

4. “Metre-making argument” is about sound, not meaning.

5. It’s precisely about ambiguity.

6. Heaney’s boobs’ nipples getting hard in the cold wind—what argument does that make?

7. Anne Carson is talking about the mind/body problem, about eros, about life as sometimes too much to bear. She is not talking about the merits of becoming a FRICKING cyborg.

8. We can make meaning from a technical manual as well as a poem. The trick is is pleasure, extravagance.

9. I agree that so many of our poets don’t have anything to say. There. I said it.

9a. But having something to say (i.e., material, sense, mission) is not the same as ambition. Ambition, from the Latin ambitionem, means to go around, its cousin-word ambient. To be somewhere.

9b. Poetry doesn’t need honor, doesn’t need ambition. Poetry doesn’t need to be anywhere. It already is everywhere.

10. (And here we fall into the same ‘Two Cultures’ shtick, the desire to make poetry a science, an objective and researched double-blind, placebo-controlled experience. Philosophy has already gone down that road, picking apart connotations’ carrion. It’s a fool’s game mapping out experience as if there was some unified field meaning to arrive at.)

11. Maybe the majority of American poets in their 50s, 60s, and 70s have retreated from mass culture. Maybe that’s true.

And from Ron Charles at the Washington Post:

That is Edmundson’s central complaint: Our poets today are too timid to say, “‘we,’ to go plural and try to strike a major note . . . on any fundamental truth of human experience.” Unimpressed by or unaware of any poets who might contradict his blanket condemnations, he claims that in the face of war, environmental destruction and economic collapse, “they write as though the great public crises were over and the most pressing business we had were self-cultivation and the fending off of boredom.” All that matters to these narcissistic singers is the creation of a “unique voice.”

Wouldn’t you know it: The old hobgoblins are to blame for this failure. MFA programs force brave young students to stoop and shuffle to please their worn out masters. “You must play the game that is there to be played,” Edmundson writes. To get the fellowship, the first book, the teaching job, the new poet “had best play it safe, offend none.”
And then, naturally, there’s the toxic effect of literary theorists working right “down the hall from the poets.” With their insistence on the impermeable barriers of race, gender and class, these liberal post-modernists keep anyone from saying anything about anything but his own private world. “How dare a white male poet speak for anyone but himself. . . . How can he raise his voice above a self-subverting whisper?”

Could this essay in Harper’s spark a real literary wrestling match? Possibly, although poets are pretty inured to these well-worn grievances. Edmundson admits early on that Ralph Waldo Emerson preached essentially the same complaint 170 years ago. The very best result might be some illuminating essays on all the politically and socially courageous poets who are, in fact, publishing today. Edmundson’s careful omissions make that a fairly easy list to compile, starting with our newly reappointed poet laureate, Natasha Trethewey.

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Posted in Poetry News on Friday, June 21st, 2013 by Harriet Staff.