American Poetry in the New Century
Poetry in this country is ready for something new. We are at the start of a century, and that, in the past, has marked new beginnings for the art. Pound and Eliot launched Modernism in the opening years of the twentieth century, in the pages of this magazine. And in the opening years of the nineteenth, 1802 to be exact, Wordsworth launched poetry's Romantic era with the second edition of Lyrical Ballads. (The centennial calendar does not go further back. The early years of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries did not mark new departures for English poetry. And American poetry found its true beginnings in Whitman and Dickinson, who did their writing in the middle of the nineteenth century, not at either end.)
But it's not really a matter of calendar. American poetry is ready for something new because our poets have been writing in the same way for a long time now. There is fatigue, something stagnant about the poetry being written today. If one could say that a characteristic of Romantic poetry was that there was way too much of it written once it became established (weekend versifiers to this day still write in Romantic modes), one could say the same of modern poetry. The manner of it has long been mastered. Modernism has passed into the DNA of the MFA programs. For all its schools and experiments, contemporary poetry is still written in the rain shadow thrown by Modernism. It is the engine that drives what is written today. And it is a tired engine.
A new poetry becomes necessary not because we want one, but because the way poets have learned to write no longer captures the way things are, how things have changed. Reality outgrows the art form: the art form is no longer equal to the reality around it. The Georgian poets wrote, coming after a century of such writing, with the depleted sensibility of Romanticism. Their poetry was in love with an antebellum England: "yet / Stands the Church clock at ten to three? / And is there honey still for tea?" The Georgians did not sense the approach of WWI, and their poetry was unequal to the horrors of trench warfare. (To see how a Georgian sensibility did respond, read Rupert Brooke: "If I should die, think only this of me: / That there's some corner of a foreign field / That is for ever England." This is a beautiful poem, but one far afield from mustard gas.) It took Yeats to give British poetry its first great dose of twentieth-century realism. It took The Waste Land to enable a poetry of chaos.
The need for something new is evident. Contemporary poetry's striking absence from the public dialogues of our day, from the high school classroom, from bookstores, and from mainstream media, is evidence of a people in whose mind poetry is missing and unmissed. You can count on the fingers of one hand the bookstores in this country that are known for their poetry collections. A century ago our newspapers commonly ran poems in their pages; fifty years ago the larger papers regularly reviewed new books of poetry. Today one almost never sees a poem in a newspaper; and the new poetry collections reviewed in the New York Times Book Review are down to a few a year. A general, interested public is poetry's foremost need.
More than a decade ago, Dana Gioia recognized poetry's disjunction from public life, in his seminal essay, "Can Poetry Matter?" The question still pertains. Lacking a general audience, poets still write for one another. (Witness the growth of writing workshops and the MFA programs.) Because the book-buying public does not buy their work, at least not in commercial quantities, they cannot support themselves as writers. So they teach. But an academic life removes them yet further from a general audience. Each year, MFA programs graduate thousands of students who have been trained to think of poetry as a career, and to think that writing poetry has something to do with credentials. The effect of these programs on the art form is to increase the abundance of poetry, but to limit its variety. The result is a poetry that is neither robust, resonant, nor—and I stress this quality—entertaining; a poetry that both starves and flourishes on academic subsidies.
Not surprisingly, poetry has a morale problem. A few years ago I read a review, in the Sunday Times, of three books of poetry. One was about the agonies of old age, one about bombed-out Ireland, one about the poet's dead father. The question arises: how does one rouse an entire art form out of a bad mood? Of course the tragic has a place in poetry. Indeed one of poetry's jobs is to descant on the worst that life can hand us. As Yeats said, let "soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing / For every tatter in its mortal dress." But art should not be only about malfunction. Poetry need not come only from impairment. To the extent it does, it makes for a poetry that is monotonic—mono-moodic, if you will. Yeats recognized this when he wrote, "Seventy years have I lived, / Seventy years man and boy, / And never have I danced for joy." Poetry's limitations today come not from failures of craft (the MFA programs attend to that) but from afflictions of spirit. American poetry has yet to produce its Mark Twain.
The combined effects of public neglect and careerism, then, are intellectual and spiritual stagnation in the art form. Although poets pride themselves on their independence, when did you last read a poem whose political vision truly surprised or challenged you? Attitude has replaced intellect.
I wish I could offer a distinct picture of what I think the next poetry will look like. But predicting the future path of poetry is like trying to predict the stock market (Wall Street being my other career). Both are relentlessly resistant to being captured in that way. And poetry the more so because it arises from what is intractable in the human spirit. (Poetry—thank goodness—is the animal that always escapes.) There is, however, another way to approach the subject: by describing how a new poetry might differ from what we have today. This may not give us an exact picture of the elephant, but when we are done we will have the elephant as described by how it differs from the other animals on Noah's ark.
The place to look for the next poetry is probably not where you might look first. Modernism was born amid an upheaval in writing that was heavily technical: Pound's Imagism and Vorticism, Gertrude Stein's automatic writing, Eliot's free verse and collage, Marianne Moore's syllabic verse. It would be natural to look for the next poetry to emerge from other kinds of experimental poetry. But this has been tried, and the innovations that followed those of Modernism (projective verse, Language poetry, concrete poetry) have not carried the art form with them. (I think a dead end is the fate that awaits any poetry that is not a record of the human spirit responding.) Technical innovation for its own sake is like the tail that tries to wag the dog. Formal verse or free, a debate which a century ago was nearly religious in its fervor, has settled into a choice of which method best suits the individual poet. And many poets use either, depending on the needs of the poem. I do believe the next era of poetry will come not from further innovations of form, but from an evolution of the sensibility based on lived experience.
The malaise that lies over poetry today has no single cause, and it will take more than a single change to restore its vitality. Let me elaborate on two of the issues I seldom hear discussed.
POETRY AS A CAREER
My own experience with MFA programs, having taught in one, is that they can make of a writer a better writer. "Better" in this case means more knowledgeable in the traditions and the contemporary scope of the art, more accomplished in the craft of writing, more aware of the nimbus of critical commentary which surrounds and to some extent drives the art. That's the good news: you graduate with a better understanding of the sophistication of your audience and of other writers. At the same time, these programs carry pressures to succumb to the intimidations implicit in a climate of careerism. They operate on a network of academic postings and prizes that reinforce the status quo. They are sustained by a system of fellowships, grants, and other subsidies that absolve recipients of the responsibility to write books that a reader who is not a specialist might enjoy, might even buy.
The MFA experience can confuse the writing of poetry, as a career, with the writing of a poem as a need or impulse. The creation of art is not a matter of fellowship. Writing a poem is a fiercely independent act. It is the furthest thing from mentors, residencies, and tenure. The one valid impulse to write a poem is not to impress but to share: wonder or anger or anguish or ecstasy. But always wonder. For the poet a sense of wonder is prerequisite to afford the possibility of the displacement of language into fresh response. Will the next Walt Whitman be an MFA graduate? Somehow it seems hard to imagine.
LIVE BROADLY, WRITE BOLDLY
At an artists' colony some years ago a fellow resident turned to me at the dinner table and said, "So where do you teach?" It was a reasonable question, since all the other artists there, although living for their art, seemed to teach for a living. Now don't get me wrong: the academic life can provide a perfectly good base of experience from which to write. Witness the quantity of fine poetry that has been written by resident poets. But the effect of how we live on what we write—a linkage which seems to me very under-recognized today—suggests that if everyone teaches in order to support their writing needs, it follows that the breadth of the aggregate experience base available to poetry may suffer. In fact, with a few important exceptions, no major American poet has come from the academic world. Wallace Stevens worked as a vice president for the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. Eliot worked for a time at Lloyds Bank, then in publishing at Faber and Faber. William Carlos Williams was a pediatrician in New Jersey. To varying degrees they all did business with the community of critics based in academia, but none wrote from a lifetime experience gained there. Poetry, like a prayer book in the wind, should be open to all pages at once.
In 1933 Ernest Hemingway went on his first safari, hunting big game in East Africa. Then he came home and wrote short stories ("The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," "The Snows of Kilimanjaro"), the non-fiction Green Hills of Africa, and an unfinished novel, True at First Light. It is a commonplace among creative writers that we should write what we know, but Hemingway took that a step further by seeking out fresh experience in the service of his writing: ambulance driving in the Spanish civil war, marlin fishing off Cuba, running with the bulls in Pamplona. He sought to live more in order to write better. That's not to say that one has to be chased around Pamplona by bulls to gain experience. It could be something as slight as the difference between the poem one might get from a poet strolling past a construction site versus the poem one might get from the poet who is pouring concrete. Either could produce the better poem, of course, but the latter's will be more deeply informed by experience. "To change your language," as Derek Walcott says, "you must change your life."
But when did you last meet a contemporary poet who takes this approach, seeking out fresh experience or new knowledge specifically for the benefit of his or her poetry? I personally don't know many who would think to cross the street, let alone do what Hemingway did, in the hopes of getting a poem out of it. Rather it is the unconscious habit of poets to wait for the poem to come to them. (In the words of a poet friend, "You don't choose the poem, the poem chooses you.") Most contemporary poets align their role as writer with that of witness. (Mary Oliver: "I don't know exactly what a prayer is. / I do know how to pay attention." Or William Matthews: "I plan to notice everything.") They think of the artist as one more acted upon than acting. This is not to say, of course, that great poetry cannot come out of the most meager repository of lived experience. (Think of Emily Dickinson: all those years of writing in a still house, in the grip of a constant intensity.) The point rather is that poets today don't seem even to be aware that what they write will be influenced by how they live. As Auden wrote:
God may reduce you
on Judgment Day
to tears of shame,
reciting by heart
the poems you would
have written, had
your life been good.— From Thanksgiving for a Habitat
When poets come to pay as much attention to how they live as to what they write, that may mark one new beginning for poetry. As a Zen tea master, long before the ceremony of making tea, prepares the garden for his guests, sweeps the walk, cleans and composes the room, so poets should give their first attention to the lives they lead. Indeed, if they do not, on what authority can they claim to be Shelley's "unacknowledged legislators of the world?" Indeed, if they do not, how can poetry be a moral act? How can poets answer for the effects of what they write on how their readers live? Poets should live broadly, then write boldly.
Poetry, in its long history, has been all things to all people. For warrior peoples, Beowulf and the Icelandic Njal's Saga told the stories of their heroes. Homer's subject, in his twin epics, was that prior world when the gods lived just over the horizon and came to visit men. Lucretius put his science and philosophy into books of hexameter verse. Virgil used the epic to give his Rome a mythical past and divine sponsorship. Chaucer brought the high and low of English society into his pentameter couplets; with his narrative gift and love of human nature he was our first short-story writer. The Elizabethan verse dramatists created an entertainment industry based on the iambic pentameter line. In all these manifestations—epic, elegy, meditation, religious devotion, satire, the public poem, verse drama—poetry was something other than the lyric poem. Yet the lyric poem by far dominates as the kind of poem written today. And the sole function of the lyric poem, ubiquitous as its footprint has become, is to personalize the subject at hand.
Stated more generously, the aim of the lyric poem is to realize what it is to be human. Lyric poets understand the world through themselves; a great lyric poem may end in a button of self-knowledge. It was lyric poetry Frost was talking about when he made his famous, understated claim for a poem as "a clarification of life—not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but‚ a momentary stay against confusion." Lyric poets pursue knowledge of and through themselves; epic poets, at the other extreme, require a knowledge of the world and how it works. That is because the epic poem renders a world order, and does so with a moral urgency.
My suggestion here is that the ubiquity of the lyric poem today, to the exclusion of other modes of poetry, is another sign of poverty in the art form. The limits of the poetry of any age come not from things the poets perceived but were unable to attain (that would be failures of craft), but rather from the things they never thought to include or never thought of value to their art. It's not just the poets; this is how one age differs from the next. In the eyes of those who succeed it, an age of poetry comes to be defined at least in part by what it was not. You cannot know an era—say, Kafka's Europe—until half a century later, when it no longer exists, when you can see what it was not, and what came out of it and displaced it. If the present era comes to be viewed by future readers as a time of worthy but not compelling poetry, it will not be for failures of craft.
At this point it is perfectly reasonable to ask that the public bear some responsibility for the plight of contemporary poetry. As a friend puts it, our culture conspires to deny us our privacy, the quiet time it takes to read a poem. But I don't agree. The human mind is a marketplace, especially when it comes to selecting one's entertainment. Elizabethan theatergoers always had the option to go watch bearbaiting instead of one of Shakespeare's plays. A study completed earlier this year, commissioned by the Poetry Foundation and conducted by the National Opinion Research Center, finds that a strong majority of readers in this country think well of poetry and will read it when they see it.
I think the responsibilities of the public to poetry are nil. No one should read poetry because they are supposed to. That's like listening to tony music that puts you to sleep when no one is looking. How often do you go to the movies out of a sense of duty? Rather, I think the responsibilities are all on the part of poetry to its public. (Poetry excuses nothing, least of all the lives of the poets.) Samuel Johnson, echoing the ancients, said that the end of art is to instruct through pleasing. Movies, novels, popular songs: the best of this entertainment survives because it has art. We are drawn back to it because it tells us about our lives; we are instructed as we are pleased. Poetry, coming from the other direction, must meet a standard of pleasure as well as profundity if it is to recover its place in American culture.
Poetry needs to find its public again, and address it. Poets can help accomplish this by bearing in mind the influences of how they live on what they write, and of what they write on how their readers live. They can rethink the traditional oppositions both within poetry (as they have done with formal verse vs. free) and between poetry and the rest of the world. They can revisit inherited attitudes regarding art for art's sake, art as therapy, and lyric poetry as the only kind of poetry. They can, like the first Impressionist painters, embrace the importance of being wrong in the eyes of the status quo—and thereby take back poetry's given ground.
The Poetry Foundation, for its part, is committed to using Ruth Lilly's historic gift to give poetry more visibility and a vigorous presence in our culture. Through its numerous programs, the Foundation seeks to discover the best poetry and place it before the largest possible audience. This is not to say that we want to "dumb down" poetry for the masses; the legacy of Poetry compels us, in all of our programs, to seek out and celebrate the best poetry we can find. Nor is it to say that readership is the sole criterion of merit. Poetry is important to the extent it embraces experience in its full complexity; for some kinds of poetry, "the largest possible audience" may be a very few readers indeed. Every poem implies its audience; our goal is to get that poem in front of its largest intended audience.
No one knows if poetry has a golden age ahead of it any time soon, but it's hard to imagine one without an audience. If you look at drama in Shakespeare's day, or the novel in the last century, or the movie today, it suggests that an art enters its golden age when it is addressed to and energized by the general audiences of its time. In a golden age of poetry the audience will not be just the workshop, where poets write for other poets, or the classroom—both of which have provided crucial sanctuary to poetry during the past half century. Its audience will lie also in that world of non-poetry readers who come to discover its deep sustenance. "To have great poets, there must be great audiences too," Whitman said, and then he wrote for them.
Groundbreaking new art comes when artists make a changed assumption about their relationship to their audience, talk to their readers in a new way, and assume they will understand. When Melville wrote, "Call me Ishmael"; when Whitman wrote, "I celebrate myself and sing myself, / and what I assume you shall assume"; when Baudelaire wrote, "Hypocrite lecteur"; when Frost, in the first poem of his first book, said, "You come too": each seemed to make transforming assumptions about his audience. Their direct address was address made somehow more direct. It held, succeeded, and literature was changed.
John Barr served as the first president of the Poetry Foundation from 2004 to 2013, where he worked with the board to develop the Foundation's strategic plan and to build a permanent home for Poetry magazine, the first in its 100-year history. He has taught in the graduate writing program of...