Whaddya Mean, "Down with Good Poetry"?

    In recent issues of The Raintown Review, associate editor
Quincy Lehr makes claims about the state of contemporary poetry
and publishing that are rather negative, sprawlingly broad, and mostly
unsupported by specific examples. The claims need some sort of
answer, if only to demonstrate that somebody’s reading. The essay I’ll
focus on is “Down with ‘Good Poetry’!” (Vol. 8, issue 2).
    The claims seem to be these: A lot of what gets published in
poetry journals is well-crafted, predictable, and risk-free, while too
little of it has “darkness” or “danger” and almost none of it “strives
for greatness” or tries to say things that are “interesting or, indeed,
profound.” Too little of it counts. Too little of it matters. It will be ob-
vious to most readers already that I’m going to take issue with these
enormous and undefined terms.
    For the sake of fairness, let me admit that negative statements
like Lehr’s are theoretically impossible to prove, and that I give my-
self an advantage by going at their positive opposites. Another unfair
advantage is that one doesn’t make friends by pointing a specifying
finger at a bad poem or a wimpy journal, which might be why Lehr
hasn’t. But a critic who is going to call for greater daring will have to
be daring enough to point. I’m going to try to do that, and to supply
the specifics to back up my positive and negative claims.

What do we mean by “greatness”?

    Poets are encouraged, in Lehr’s essay, to go for more “great-
ness.” There seem to be two meanings for “greatness” in the essay,
as I gather from the two positive examples he praises: David Mason’s
“The Collector’s Tale” (thirty-three seven-line stanzas of rhymed
iambic pentameter) and Ray Pospisil’s “Insomnia,” (144 lines of iam-
bic pentameter). One meaning is ambitious length and/or innovation
in technique. The other is moral and political forthrightness: Mason’s
narrator decides not to turn in an Indian who has committed murder;
the poem studies middle-class complicity in past evils. Pospisil’s poem
takes off on several variations of the ugly, oppressive qualities of
American political media.
    On the subject of innovation in technique, well, there formal-
ism will be at a disadvantage on Lehr’s very terms. Using a received
form means that one doesn’t stray too far from it, assuming one is
trying to appeal to the readers for whom it’s a value to stick to the
form. So I concede one point: let’s invent more forms and tech-
niques, like Pospisil’s echo-repetition.
    But what I glean from Lehr’s writings in other places is that
by “greatness” he most essentially means ambitious scope—of the
“expansive poetry” sort—and the making of a Major Cultural State-
ment. There are two elements to address, then: Does it really make
sense to Supersize your poetry order? and are morality and politics
really the right tools for getting at greatness?

The length thing

    Yes, there should be some big poems. Verse novels are ter-
rific—David Mason’s Ludlow is both moving and a page-turner; Vi-
kram Seth’s The Golden Gate is an effervescent delight. Urging poets to
dream big dreams sounds grand, and it places one in the camp of the
great Hall. It may be worth remembering, though, that Hall’s famous
essay on ambition was first published in 1983, a year when home
computing was a marvelous new invention involving the Commodore
64 and games with huge pixels and four colors. We no longer live in
that world, and a notion of greatness that depends on the old models
needs updating.
    As the major publishers turn more and more away from poet-
ry, and as poetry publication turns more and more to digital versions,
the chance for large works to be published on paper decreases. Are
long works really read on the Web or on digital devices? The received
opinion among IT professionals is that human beings do not read
Web pages; they scan them. (If you want this claim substantiated,
read almost anything by Jakob Nielsen. Or read Letting Go of  the Words
by Janice Redish.) The first-generation Kindle and other digital-book
devices made a hash of poetry, mucking up the line breaks when type
size was changed. The second generation’s cure is to allow the screen
to be turned landscape; there’s still no guarantee that the poet’s deci-
sion about the linebreaks will be respected.
    Speaking of screens in general, screen reading is twenty-five
percent slower and far more tiring than page reading. Length does
not play well with the screen. And it might be worthwhile to remem-
ber that the long poem, as an initial concept, was meant to be heard,
in the days when the court audience had little else to do in the eve-
nings.
    If one writes poems in order to be read, surely the advice
should not simply be “Think big” but   “Plan works that will stand
screen presentation.” And those will necessarily be in small chunks. A
more practical way to urge bigger thinking might be this: Start earlier
to conceive of collections rather than of individual poems.

The moral-content thing

    The point I want most to contest is the point about the role
of cultural and political statement in poems—the apparent claim that
there is too little of that in contemporary poetry.
Suppose for the moment that it’s true. Say that contemporary
poets, formal and not, do make too much use of domestic material,
the material of family and interpersonal relations. There is a very
good reason for sticking to that material: It lasts.
    First of all, the material of the family is the material of myth
and the depths of the psyche. Check out A.E. Stallings’s poem with
the refrain, “All, all of the stories are about going to bed.” Or Bruno
Bettelheim’s important book The Uses of  Enchantment. The canon is
not just a collection of nice old stories; it’s the ugly underside of our
minds.
    Moreover, that personal material remains powerful through
the centuries without the need for footnotes, while material that has
to do with today’s politics and power and oppressors and oppressed
will need, as years pass, more and more explanation about who did
what to whom. That obscurity blunts the force of the poetry.
    Let’s look at a specific example: the poems of the trouba-
dours, the Old Occitan poems that inaugurated the genre of courtly
love. The troubadour poems that have to do with sex appeal are
translated over and over again and never lose their pull on audiences.
By contrast, the political/satirical poems, the ones in the sirventès
genre, get far less attention. As I’ve found in struggling to translate
some of them, it’s difficult to make them appealing to modern read-
ers. Bertran de Born, for one, lived and wrote mostly in the 1100s,
and what he wrote was still a live issue when Dante composed the
Commedia—and put Bertran in hell for fomenting discord. But nine
hundred years have made the politics obscure. In Bertran’s sirventès
compositions, nearly every line needs a note. Who was Henry of
Aquitaine? How is it that his son was also in line to be king of Eng-
land? What was Bertran’s role in all this? And why did Bertran want
one of Henry’s sons to rebel against him? These are not exactly mat-
ters that stir us now. How do we know our red-hot political struggles
will have any greater staying power? The lesson seems to be that if
you want a really long life for your poems, politics is not the way to
go. If the goal is to “reach for greatness more often than we do,” or
to “count” or to “matter,” I am not persuaded that sweeping social
and moral pronouncements are the best tools.
    They’re among the possible tools, and what they’re best for
is not endurance, but immediate impact. They are, in fact, used a lot.
I’ve used them. For just a few examples of grand moral and cultural
statements, see Geoffrey Brock’s “John Brown’s Body” or many of
the poems in Adam Kirsch’s Invasions. I have just plucked one maga-
zine from my shelves, the 2006 issue of Margie, and I can find moral
and political content there just about anywhere I look: Jane Lane’s
“The Water Baby,” about newborns abandoned in restrooms; Ste-
phen Gibson’s “Domenico Ghirlandaio’s The Massacre of  the Innocents
about war; Sharon Cumberland’s “Recipe,” about racial inequality;
and many others. (Yes, Margie mixes free and formal; if Lehr meant
to exclude such journals from his statements, that wasn’t specified.)
Surely the existence of The New Verse News and protestpoems.org
demonstrates that poets are not shying away from political state-
ments. It also demonstrates that there is no intrinsic greatness about
poems that arise from political statement.

What do we mean by “danger”?

    Whatever a poet’s firmly held political views, they may even-
tually get laughed at. That risk might be the “dangerous” element
that Lehr is referring to. Mostly, poets on both ends of the political
spectrum are avoiding danger by submitting risky poems to journals
they know will be sympathetic. “Traditional values” poems (formal
or not) go to First Things, The National Review, The New Criterion, and
others. Gay and lesbian poems have their own journals; so do overtly
religious poems (and if you think those poems are “safe,” spend
more time reading the statements in Poet’s Market about what editors
don’t want to see). The take-a-stand poems are less likely to get sent
to the general journals than are the softish poems. That explains why
that kind of danger is less likely to be in the Raintown’s slush pile. But
I question the claim that too few people are writing such poems at all.
    But perhaps—and I glean this from his discussion of the Co-
lumbia strike and the bourgeois accoutrements of leather side-satchel
and suit—what Lehr means by “dangerous” is bohemian, outlaw,
beyond the pale of the suburban middle-class lifestyle. I have to ask,
does it make sense to claim that such material is dangerous? It’s the
nightly fare of prime time broadcast television and checkout line tab-
loid journalism. It’s consumed by mass audiences all over the West.
Dangerous? Only in the sense that many poets don’t live that life and
may feel morally estopped from writing about it, a point Lehr himself
brings up. But enough people are not so estopped. As an example of
someone who has the moral right to deal with such material, see the
poems about domestic abuse shelters in Anna Meek’s Acts of  Contor-
tion
—not formalist, but not evasive either—or more recently, Brian
Turner’s Here, Bullet, on the direct experience of the Iraq war.

What do we mean by “darkness”?

    So no, we don’t all have access to “dangerous” non-middle-
class living. And yes, there’s a limited shelf life to political statements.
Those are both reasons that contemporary poets, formal and other-
wise, cleave to the personal. But another reason they do is that there
really is not such a bright line between the personal and the political.
And where the personal bleeds into the political, or the sociologi-
cal, the stains are pretty dark. I have no doubt that Lehr knows and
agrees, given the dark lines he has written himself about the discrimi-
nation encountered by his German immigrant great-grandparents.
    I almost used the old slogan “The personal is political,” but
that has too many associations specifically with feminist causes. Let
me say instead, “The personal stories of a large enough number of
persons are the stuff of sociology and politics.” Consider Rhina
Espaillat’s “Song,” about her mother’s dementia and loss of language,
and David Mason’s New Yorker poem about helping his father use the
toilet. Those poems speak to more than each poet’s personal pain.
They’re popular and resonant because of demographics: the huge
number of middle-aged children now watching over the disintegra-
tion and death of parents in the “greatest generation.” Alan Shapiro’s
“Country Western Song” (published in Best American Poetry 2007)
resonates because so many people have felt, or watched, destruction
by alcohol.  And is there a more cutting satire on commercial speech
than R.S. Gwynn’s “Among Philistines”? More examples of the inner
and outer darkness include Julie Kane’s poems about the destruction
of New Orleans after Katrina. They include David Mason’s Ludlow,
ambitious doubly because of its verse-novel length and because of its
exploration of a government attack on union miners. (Granted, Lud-
low
is outside the universe of “poems published in journals.”) They
include the very dark poems in Joshua Mehigan’s The Optimist. They
include the explorations of an adoptee’s experience and of family se-
crets in Ned Balbo’s The Trials of  Edgar Poe and Other Poems. Today, as I
write, Jehanne Dubrow’s “Recess” is on Verse Daily; it’s about a child
being brutally beaten in the schoolyard. Why on earth would these
not count as works that “observe the world that confronts us, in both
its miraculous beauty and mind-numbing horror”?
    Plenty of personal-cum-social darkness is there on the
surface of those poems; even more is just underneath. To complain
about the absence of darkness in poems is to miss the role of the
reader in the creation of the poem. Sometimes the social and politi-
cal element is the ghost of the poem rather than its visible body;
sometimes it’s present more in the background knowledge the reader
brings to the piece than in the poem’s words. Ray Pospisil’s “Little
Eye,” about killing a mouse indoors, isn’t about pest control and
kitchen sanitation; it’s about cruelty and power and regret at having to
use them, all explosively packaged in that last line: “mute/submission
as I lifted up my boot.” Rhina Espaillat has a body of poems about
her father’s dictum that only Spanish was to be spoken at home.
Those poems have to be read with knowledge of the reasons people
fled the Dominican Republic in the 1930s—their political ostracism,
and their dreams of return, which never became real. Those facts are
not spelled out in the poems, but they are not absent from them. The
darkness is reader-supplied.

So what sort of poetry are we putting down?

    Yes, many poems aim low. The brief and well-crafted insight
is all many readers want from poems, and many will not give the
poem time for more—especially not the on-screen poem. Witness
the standard format of The Writer’s Almanac as well as of Poetry
Daily, Verse Daily, 3 Quarks Daily, Swindle, and so on, in which the
poem is expected to get about the same concentration as an online
cartoon. And yes, there are whole journals that eschew the political;
The Lyric, for example,  makes plain in its submission guidelines that
its editors want to read about “grief but not grievances.”
    Nevertheless, I can find a lot of memorable poems that,
while brief, are sharp and dark. I see plenty of material that makes
strong statements about matters personal and social—that counts,
that matters, and that has the greatness of a lasting effect on me, at
any rate. If the claim is that readers of poetry journals on the whole get
“very little darkness and almost no danger,” then I find myself mut-
tering, “Huh?” If the claim is something else, we’re owed a clarifica-
tion.
    So are we looking at different universes? I look at what is
already published in anthologies, books and journals, formal and not-
so-formal, and see plenty of darkness, a reasonable amount of dan-
ger and risk (maybe not of the type Lehr favors), and a not-bad bal-
ance between comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.
Is Lehr being over-influenced by novice poets, and by the Raintown’s
submissions pile, and by poems that don’t get published, even though
he talks about “decorous dreck” in journals of all stripes? Or is he
remembering too well the bulk of what he dislikes, while I am more
efficient at forgetting it? Or am I, with other readers, valuing things
in this poetry that he’s dismissing? Whatever the reason, I have to say
that the contemporary poetry universe looks different to me.

—Maryann Corbett
St Paul, MN

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