Down With "Good" Poetry

Those who follow this magazine might (in a particularly kind
moment) recall a piece I wrote for the summer issue entitled “This Is
Not a Manifesto,”in which,among other things,I asserted that a great
deal of what gets published in the metrical poetry journals is decorous
dreck. As a consequence, some months ago, Mike Burch over at The
Hypertexts
asked me to write an article about what poets should be
doing. I responded with a polite version of, “Not a chance!”There is
a tendency for such articles to devolve into the ravings of a fiftysome-
thing minor poet and adjunct professor with a hatred of slant rhyme
if one is not careful, after all. And even in the best cases, the “do as I
do, or at least think I do”factor can get a bit much. So in lieu of talk-
ing about how you should all buy corduroy jackets, take up smoking,
start drinking inordinate quantities of middling Australian pinot noir,
and move to Brooklyn, I’m going to try to answer his question in
terms that won’t stymie the emergence of anything good.

The first rule for the critic, as for the doctor, is to do no harm,
to be willing to be surprised by something that may draw on influ-
ences or subject matter the critic had not expected before he or she
stumbled across the work in question. And often, given the way that
American poetry is divided into a multitude of schools, each with its
own often absurdly specific agenda, we fail to have that necessary
openness.New Formalists are quick to take on board the rather sweet,
rather pretty, rather insipid stress-counter with her ducks in a row, the
sort of poet who, as Rose Kelleher put it, “never says fuck you.”
Meanwhile, the avant-gardists flock around the Joshua Clovers of the
world, callow types who show their “political”stripes by getting out
to a demo every now and then, but whose work, between its ironic
detachment and glib reference to the sort of Francophile theory that
even the French are sick of, is more posture than substance.

    Of course, such high, if glib weariness at least has the dubi-
ous virtue of a footnote attached to it. On the Poetry Foundation’s
Harriet blog, Fence editor Rebecca Wolff noted that while sorting
through mounds of manuscripts, the apparent trend among younger
poets in that part of the poetry universe:

…is toward a quite direct mode of speech, plainspeech, and with-
in that a lot of expression of anxiety about being involved in “the
poetry world.”Programs, conferences, teaching, publishing. Lines like
(I’m making these up) “I hate being a poet./ Poets stink./ Who judges
these contests?/ I just want to fry potatoes without fear.”

I’ll just forego further comment on this one.

In all these cases, whether through glib weariness in the case
of the fashionistas, despairing solipsism in the case of the young pro-
gram pod people, or preciousness in the case of the New Formalists
(and we could go on in this vein), we get very little darkness and
almost no danger, but rather a series of dull templates that can be set
against one another in the hope of causing some controversy. It’s not
that we need darkness and danger all the time, lest the poetry journals
start reading like a script for Mission: Impossible, but we need more. And
this is where critics and editors come in. Garbage doesn’t walk by
itself. It is the job of magazines like this one to know the difference
between the placeholder and the genuine, if perhaps more disconcert-
ing, talent—to discover it, nurture it, and promote it. And, frankly,
we’ve been doing a piss-poor job.

But to return to Mike’s request—what do I suggest? Well,
that’s the problem, isn’t it? My advice to any aspiring poet is pretty
simple—read a lot, learn the craft, try not to be boring, and try not to
suck. That’s simple enough advice to give. Past that, it gets tricky.


At the start, try to engage with the world as you find it, includ-
ing the nasty bits and the bits that have to do with things like politics
and oppression. I do not here intend to pull that routine where some
critic whose work, on balance, revolves around his children, his own
childhood, and his ex-wife, lambastes other American (or other
Western) poets for having no personal experience of having shrapnel
surgically removed from their legs. Western poets are from the West,
after all, and acting as if we were from civil war-torn regions of the
world would, in most cases, be risible. Indeed, with the political spec-
trum as narrow as it is and popular struggle at a low ebb in the U.S.,
as is the case in much of the West, directly political poetry is damn
difficult to render convincingly. From any perspective. Without it
sounding like a talking point.

This is simply a problem of our period, where the range of
public debate is narrow, and the sense that you can do something
about it seems farcical. It doesn’t mean that you can’t write a poem
about a contemporary strike, say. You can. Allow me a personal anec-
dote.

I’ve been on strike. More than once. As a graduate student
employee at Columbia University. I sure as hell couldn’t make it sound
like Harlan County, though. Let’s face it, all of us walking that picket
line between trips to the table stocked with bagels, coffee, and cream
cheese were not going to be in grad school forever. Hell, most of us
had leather side-satchels.I was probably wearing a suit at least half the
time. Indeed, most of us, possibly all of us, have moved on. The
police, gendarmes of the foul bourgeois imperialist state that they are,
looked bored. Even the inflatable rat the union brought along looked
tired.

As strikes go, it was a bit crap. The leadership called off the
thing as soon as then-Senate minority leader (and current New York
State governor) David Paterson asked them to, resulting in a meeting
between union and administration that then resulted in squat. We all
filed back onto campus, and things remained much as they were.
Could I get a poem out of it? Perhaps. It wouldn’t be an easy poem
to write, though, and certainly would not carry an especially hopeful
message.

The point is that the answer isn’t simply writing about “the strug-
gle,”whatever that might mean nowadays. What one can do, however,
is observe the world that confronts us, in both its miraculous beauty
and mind-numbing horror, as well as, naturally, all the gray and
fecal-brown shades that blend into one another between those poles.
This period of history is, in many ways, an unfortunate one, but it is
not without its contradictions and possibilities. Whatever one’s take
on the period, though, it is an abdication of intellectual responsibility
not to have some take on where the world outside one’s suburban
block, urban garret, or wherever it might be that one lives.

The writing of poems is, in fact, an intellectual activity. While this
doesn’t necessarily mean that the abstruse poem that requires diction-
aries in three languages, a complete set of The Encyclopedia Britannica,
and a Ph.D. in astrophysics to figure out is necessarily a good one, it
does mean that there’s more to the exercise than crafting some pretty
sounds in lines that make sense in a given order. We have a responsi-
bility to try to say things that are interesting and, indeed, profound—
not all the time, perhaps, but more than most of us do.

This isn’t easy, so in the name of Jesus, apple pie, your mother,
and anything else one may hold sacred, don’t be too afraid of screw-
ing up. The problem with ducks-in-a-row poetry isn’t that it’s bad.
Quite the contrary. It’s just doesn’t go anywhere. And we are awash in
perfectly good poetry. There is, in fact, a deluge of it. And it’s getting
tedious, with mounds of unchallenging stuff piling up in the slush
piles of a thousand literary journals and frequently making it into their
pages.

It’s not just the sheer volume of it, but the sameness of it—the
expected techniques (depending on the school—they all have them),
the typical subject matter, the deft movements from point A to point
B that all seem to trace the same route. What Donald Hall called the
McPoem has spawned the McMetric, the Language Nugget, and Flarf
Fries. One knows precisely what to expect; it’s filling without exactly
being satisfying, and it’s starting to have a bad effect on my digestion
as each supersized literary journal lands in the mailbox.

Craft isn’t enough! The poems that count are rare enough, both with-
in a given poet’s work and as a proportion of what gets published,and
we (editors as well as poets per se) are too rarely willing to insist on the
higher standard of something mattering. But if one doesn’t try, it prob-
ably won’t happen.
 
It hasn’t happened very much of late. While one can think of
many very good poems in the New Formalist canon, the number that
have a reasonable shot at greatness is quite low. David Mason’s “The
Collector’s Tale”jumps out for not only its narrative and prosodic
skill, but also its moral complexity and generally high level of intelli-
gence. One can, perhaps, think of a few others. But even among the
“leading”authors who have emerged since the 1970s, certainly among
the metricists, there’s rather little that pushes its way through a sea of
good to really force itself into the reader’s consciousness.

Under the circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that most of the
work that really aspires to something more than… well, particularly
poised adequacy with which we as readers are bombarded has
emerged from relatively marginal figures as far as grants, kudos, and
conference readings are concerned. I would be hard-pressed to think
of a recent poem from the American Establishment that comes near
the sheer emotional firepower of Ray Pospisil’s “Insomnia.” The
poem, which is at once humorous and harrowing, strange and struc-
tured, could easily have gone completely haywire. Its main conceit,
after all, involves disembodied heads hovering above the narrator’s
bed, berating him for myriad perceived inadequacies before they dis-
solve, leaving the narrator:

to mute the echoes with a cable show
on offshore drilling,
drilling through the sea
to punch a hole into the crust of earth.
I wondered why the ocean doesn’t all
run down the hole into the molten core
and turn to steam, and rise up through the cracks
in streets and cellar floors. We’ll heat our homes
while cars with little vacuum cleaners suck
it up to move their pistons. Power plants
could draw it through their turbine blades to spin
all day. We’ll never have to drill again.
We’ll never have to drill a rolling sea
arrayed before the light when everyone
is warm and all the wars have ended, all
the pretty sea is warm and all the fish
are thriving, and we never have to drill
again while everyone is warm and all
the fish arrayed before us shine, and all
the turbines turn and all the cars run on
in silence through the pretty sea where all
the fish are rolling and the wars are done.

It could have failed, but it didn’t, and while the West Chester Poetry
Conference and the 92nd Street Y never asked Pospisil to read for
them, he wrote “Insomnia”and pulled it off… and none of the rest of us
did.
But we should try.

We actually need to reach for greatness more often than we
do. Sod what’s popular with the graduate seminars, with the nabobs
and contest judges, with the creative writing professors, or even with
editors of journals like this one. Go on, surprise us. We need to be
surprised more often.

And maybe I’ll get around to that poem on the Columbia
graduate student strikes at some point.

by Quincy R. Lehr
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