by T.S. Kerrigan
American Reporter Correspondent
Los Angeles, California
September 25, 2006
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO AMERICAN POETRY?
LOS ANGELES -- Some people (especially those of us who've been around longer than we'd like to admit) continually lament what we perceive to be the decline in American poetry. We don't mean the diminished numbers of readers of poetry in this century, which is not subject to argument. It's purely a matter of arithmetic. What we're talking about is a decline in the quality of poetry written today.
Contemporary poets like Dana Gioia (Can Poetry Matter?) and Timothy Steele (Missing Measures: The Revolt Against Meter in Modern Poetry) argue that modern poetry is for the most part lacking in the traditions of rhyme and metrics, making it less appealing to the American people, who used to take pleasure in memorizing and reciting it. Poetry now, they argue persuasively, no longer lends itself to these pursuits.
Furthermore, the largest group of readers of poetry today are poets themselves, not the general public for which poetry was so meaningful at a former time. Poetry, these writers say, has become obscure and elitist and no longer aspires to attract the attention of the general reader.
One needs only to look at the work of two of today's leading poets to properly appreciate the nature of the problem.
Today as I hang out the wash I see them again, a code
These extracts from poems by, respectively, Jorie Graham, a poet-professor at Harvard, and Robert Hass, a poet-professor at the University of California at Berkeley, are typical of what now passes for poetry. Imagine reciting snatches of either one of these poems around a campfire on a summer night. Yet Graham and Hass have been hailed as among the leading poets of our time.
They have great influence with respect to the poetry published by the prestigious presses at their respective universities, judge many of the most important poetry contests and have a hand in selecting the poetry that appears in the annual anthologies of the best American poetry.
Recently, Graham was accused of favoring former students for book prizes, one of them being the man she was engaged to and later married There is now even a Website on the Internet which regularly reports on corruption in these competitions (www.foetry.com). Where poetry is concerned, we live in the world of the teacher's pet who produces his work not for a readership but essentially for his mentor and for himself.
There are always those who complain about the obscurity of modern poetry. Those arguments appear to have more validity of late. The old test that a poem should be accessible to any intelligent person with standard reference materials at hand is most honored in the breech. Again, this is because the modern American poet is no longer writing to be understood.
How did this state of affairs happen? It all goes back to the 1920s when Iowa University decided potential poets did not have to study history, philosophy, or anything else for that matter but the writing of poetry. In the succeeding years more and more universities have adopted this approach in widespread programs across the nation granting Masters in Fine Arts to the aspiring poet.
The argument that education in the humanities was essential to the background of every writer, be he a poet or novelist, has, in the process, fallen by the wayside. These fledgling poets have been taken under the wings of a number of established poet teachers, who regularly recommend their work to leading journals and publishing companies. Poetry has become an incestuous enterprise and the result has been the kind of poetry admired by teacher-poets like Graham and Hass, and that doyenne of modern American poetry, Helen Vendler.
Louis Simpson remarked half-seriously to a group of English majors several years ago that in view of the efforts of China to create "a thousand flowers" of poetry per annum, young American poets would have to redouble their efforts to keep up. His words have proven to be prophetic.
David Alpaugh, in an essay in the Houston Poetry Review, has pointed out that 20,000 aspiring poets received their M.F.A. degrees in poetry during the last decade, and that he estimated they would be joined by another 25,000 in the next ten years, all presumably marching under the banner of mentors like Graham and Hass.
Writing in the U.S. issue of Agenda recently, Greg Delanty stated that "an accurate overview of American poetry is impossible today." He refers to the fact that on average 18 books of poetry appear in this country every week. Poets who are writing meaningfully are simply lost in this flood of mostly generic poetry which consists essentially of imitations by students of their professors. The demand for such a mass of poetry books is completely internal, meant more to provide a venue for the growing number of poets than to satisfy a need among readers.
This is not just a battle between formal verse and free verse. Much of the best French and German poetry of the past hundred years has been almost exclusively written in free verse, but it is a poetry rich in insight and experience by men and women who know something of the world.
Too much of American free verse is chopped-up prose which does nothing more than tell us how the author feels about himself and his life. If modern poets could write with the wit and power of Guillaume Apollinaire or Leon-Paul Fargue, there would presumably be less complaints. But modern American poets, for the most part, seem incapable of this kind of poetry. Are there signs of hope for a return to poetry that can truly involve its audience? Michael Burch, who operates the Hyper Texts website, a sampling of the best of old and new poetry, reports thousands of visitors a year. Other, smaller but similar types of websites report intense public interest. The very fact that so many of them exist on the Internet is a positive sign for the future.
The demand at public libraries for poetry that can make a difference in one's life has not diminished. Poetry that appeals to a large audience has endured, after all, for more than three thousand years. It is not likely that current fads or fashions will obliterate it now.
T.S. Kerrigan's poetry has appeared in magazines on both sides of the Atlantic and has been anthologized in Literature and its Writers ((Bedford/Saint Martin's Press, NY, 2006), Off The Record (LSJ, Indianapolis, 2004), and in Garrison Keillor's Good Poems (Viking-Penguin, NY, 2002).