Poetry News

Amy King on the Naysayers of Poetry's Vastness at Boston Review

By Harriet Staff


Amy King brings the right and the left to hold wallets in full circle in a new essay for the Boston Review. Is poetry dead, how so, what marketplace, etc.? She writes:


...In line with the usual spate of critics declaring poetry’s demise and imminent death, people like Mark Edmundson (Harpers, “Poetry Slam”), Dwight Longenecker, (“Why You Need Poetry”) and some Conceptual writers have lately been pushing for a narrowing down and systemization of poetry, which is really a call for the depersonalization of poetry (i.e. strict appropriation, plagiarism cut-ups, sole use of form, etc.). These calls have come from conservative, mainstream, and avant-garde positions with uncanny similarities. The problem with such prescriptions is that they prioritize process over person, whereas poetry is process, process by person. Person can never truly be eliminated from the poetic equation. Systematization is meant to remove subjectivity, which is dismissed as “bias” or the unpredictability of individual human impulses. The author has often seemed an unruly, morphing entity. Yet poetry’s unpredictability, which surpasses rote forms or recycling methods, leads us to the unexpected. Poets continue to locate new angles to look from and language to look through; we are still actively surprising ourselves and others.

The life of the poetry threat depends on many factors:


Poetry is dead by capitalism’s standards—it is not an obvious moneymaking venture, despite traceable employment and readings’ payoffs via the academy—and that emboldens some folks limited by capitalist blinders to herald poetry’s last breath. If Conceptual poets can sensationally spin this mythology and position themselves as the left arm of the avant-garde, then like the phoenix from ashes, they can symbolically claim to revive and make popular a supposedly dying art. But these mythologizers think through their wallets with an eye for mass attention as a measure of their own and poetry’s value.

The naysayers of poetry’s vastness seem to be primarily fueled by declaring poetry’s defeat or impotence instead of engaging in the more difficult work of creating beyond what they know. “The limits of my language are the limits of my world” is not Wittgenstein’s defeatist end; it is his challenge to set out boldly and with curiosity to expand and explore through the language we think through. He didn’t stop with the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus where that statement appeared; it was his first of many books, such as the Philosophical Investigations, that explicated his theory of “language-games” and complexly broadened his considerations of language use overall.What a lazy, pretentious approach to think we’ve located our limits and can now only recycle and shuffle what’s been said before as cut-and-paste, as the Conceptual poets would have it, or by squeezing words into forms without any sense of language’s expansiveness or trust in the person using it, as traditional formalists would claim. It is far simpler, and nullifying, to call to order poets who don’t adhere to the latest prescriptions in the name of saving or reviving poetry. Note how these doomsday proselytizers use insult to promote their poetics: today’s poets are “oblique, equivocal, painfully self-questioning . . . timid, small, in retreat . . . ever more private, idiosyncratic, and withdrawn” (“Poetry Slam”). “It is the easiest thing in the world to write free verse. Seventh grade girls do it all the time.” (“Why You Need Poetry”) “Are you not all walking citations? To the extent you see yourself and your Duracell soul as snowflakes, crystalline, fragile and exquisitely and individually wrought, recall that snowflakes seem quite different shoveled en mass on the sidewalk…” (“I”). Putting down a fantasy of sensitive individuality is a misguided attempt to shame poets who explore and expand notions of self beyond appropriative and formalist methods. It also reveals a limited view of the variety of poetries at work right now in order to promote a handful of techniques and forms already in use by numerous poets.

True enough. Read the entire missive at Boston Review.

Originally Published: February 7th, 2014