Poetry News

Stephen Burt Responds to Mark Edmundson's Harper's Article

By Harriet Staff


Check out Stephen Burt's response to the Mark Edmundson war on words from a week or so ago. At the Boston Review, Burt thanks Edmundson for providing an attack that provokes a response. And, wow: "I can say till I’m blue that Joseph Massey’s short poems are the best thing to happen to the sense of vision since the invention of photography." Moreoever:

Complaints against contemporary poetry arise, like vampire slayers, in every generation, and it’s easy to see why: when you compare your very favorite famous artists from the past with almost any quick or large or secondhand selection of contemporary work, the past will look better. That’s called selection bias, and it can be remedied not by better close reading, but by elementary training in statistics. As for the claim that our poets are in thrall to the academy, by comparison to the poets of the past, that’s less true than it was in 1980, because we have more small presses and Bohemian communities of serious poets who don’t care what their teachers think: I mean not only the performance (or “slam”) poetry communities, but the people who publish chapbooks in deepest Brooklyn, who might be teaching writing at art schools today, and who get adopted by the academy, if at all, rather tenuously, and at later stages of their (cough) careers.

It’s easy to skim Edmundson’s essay and conclude that he’s simply recycling complaints as old as modernism, or perhaps as old as Alexandria. But Edmundson is making a more specific—though equally familiar—claim. He believes that some great poems of the recent past— Yeats’s “Easter 1916,” Lowell’s Near the Ocean, the Ginsberg’s Howl—spoke to and for a large public, a “we” roughly identified with the nation; these poems spoke of public, political matters, in language that a large public could comprehend. They were what the classicist W. R. Johnson called “choral lyric,” poems that extended beyond the merely individual; and they were forceful (perhaps even manly), taking clear sides in existing controversies. Edmundson believes that poets do not do so now.

[. . .]

Some American poets today are indeed, as Edmundson complains, difficult, idiosyncratic, private, learned, or just weird; others are trying very hard to make and remake a common language in which to say “we,” to sing of what we, some version of “we,” might share. Edmundson says that contemporary poets do not “slake a reader’s thirst for meanings that pass beyond the experience of the individual poet and light up the world we hold in common,” and he must be right, if he is the reader he means; but contemporary American poets do try.

He also says that “contemporary American poetry . . . does not generally traffic in the icons of pop culture; it doesn’t immerse itself in ad-speak, rock lyrics, or politicians’ posturing,” which was a very reasonable complaint about the print-based, New Yorker–supported, academically approved poetry of 1985. Mark Edmundson, meet Michael Robbins, Albert Goldbarth, Lucia Perillo, Terrance Hayes, Denise Duhamel, Thomas Sayers Ellis, H. L. Hix, Juliana Spahr, Harryette Mullen, Charles Bernstein, and a ten-headed hydra named Flarf, and also Paul Muldoon. “No one [today] would attempt an Essay on Humanity,” Edmundson continues—apparently An Explanation of America is too old to count; I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that any of all of the poets I just named had attempted a poem with just that title, and if it were Hix or Goldbarth they wouldn’t be kidding.

Read the full piece here.

Originally Published: July 1st, 2013