Sunday 23 June 2013

Why is Modern Poetry Criticism so Bad?

Why is Modern Poetry Criticism so Bad?

Two articles this week on the state of modern poetry - the first from the Washington Post where journalist Ron Charles comments on Professor Mark Edmundson's essay 'Poetry Slam', or 'The Decline of American Verse' which has just been published in Harper's Magazine.  The second article, from the Huffington Post by Seth Abraham responds by listing over twelve points under the heading 'Why is Contemporary American Poetry so Good?'

Links to the articles are provided but, the following is also a synopsis of the main points of the arguments offered, along with some comments which must be raised against this very predictable and lazy attack, as reported the Washington Post.

Ron Charles, quotes Edmundson as saying that modern poets are 'oblique, equivocal, painfully self-questioning … and withdrawn' .Edmundson names names - Muldoon - admitting that he still has 'barely a clue as to what Muldoon is going on about' (at best this is a limp point to bring against any poet and at worst an own goal for Edmundson). Undeterred by his lack of understanding, Edmundson cites John Ashbery as 'say[ing] little' in his 'perpetual hedging', and thereby ignoring the interrogation of epistemology, of our ability to comprehend the tentativeness of what we think we know, which Ashberry and others interact with.

Edmundson warns that 'one can't generalize about it all' before proceeding to generalize about most of it. He regards 'Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Charles Simic, Robert Pinsky' and others as being 'good in their ways' but 'simply [not] good enough'. They don't 'slake a reader's thirst for meanings that pass beyond the experience of the individual poet and light up the world we hold in common.' In short, he succeeds in proving that like Muldoon, he barely 'has a clue as to what [they are] going on about', or has not actually read the poets that he is condemning with faint praise.

Edmundson's central complaint is however that contemporary poets are  'too timid to speak for the people, to say 'we', to strike a major note on any fundamental truth of human experience. He complains that in the face of war, environmental destruction and economic collapse, 'they write as though the great public crisis were over and the most pressing business we had were self cultivation and the fending off of boredom.' He reveals himself as a critic who is therefore looking for a premodernist homogenous view of culture, almost a person in need of absolute horizons, or absolute truths. It hasn't dawned on him that many poets question the existence of absolute truths and, like Joyce, are determined to be true to their own unique experience and to express it as such, in the hope that it will register in the hearts of others. With regard to the issues such as environmentalism, politics, economics, there are so many established and newly emerging poets who contradict this opinion that I think we can finally conclude that Edmundson is simply out of touch. The arguments which he gives must be dismissed as lazy rather than the considered opinions of someone who has made an effort to engage with poets and their work.

As if to distance himself from the stultifying influence of academia and to imply that he himself is a trailblazer for modern readers he then blames the MFA programs for teaching poets to play safe and offend no-one, linking their nefarious influence to  'liberal post-modernists' who do not allow a 'white male poet to speak for anyone but himself'. And there finally is the worm at the heart of the rot in Edmundson's argument. In these words he reveals what has motivated such an attack on a group of people who have obviously not previously impinged upon his consciousness in any meaningful way. The idea that they are liberal and philosophically aware, critically aware despite what he sees as the 'toxic effect' of modern literary theorists, that their work stems from a subtle awareness of their status as individuals in a varied political system, rather than a ruling class who need to lead the people, offends Edmundson.

If the article in the Washington Post reflects the arguments of Edmundson correctly then he has done himself more of a disservice by attacking poetry in this generalized and lazy manner. He would need to demonstrate a greater awareness of his abilities to understand the poets he criticises and then to include specific criticisms of their work rather than the sweeping statements which seem designed to make a name for himself rather than contribute to literary debate.
Ron Charles piece can be found here:

The second article, by Seth Abrahamson, was written in reply to the above. Seth Abraham's reply in the Huffington Post  'Why is Contemporary American Poetry so Good?' can be found here. In it he lists twelve reasons why he feels Edmundson got it wrong. A brief over view of his arguments shows that he feels:

1) That there are more people in the US who are committed to writing poetry and that within the next few years every American will know one of these committed writers.

2) Creative Writing courses are the fastest growing field of studies in the US and that the traditionally bohemian and non-institutionalised practitioners of poetry are being embraced by the university system.

3) Because of the greater numbers of committed writers, poetry is now more openly discussed. Slam poetry attracts large crowds and is not generally acknowledge by print media. Visual media, mostly found in galleries, also extends the reach of modern poetry out to the community.

4) Not only are there more people in creative writing courses but there are greater numbers of people now taking Contemporary American Poetry courses.

5) Poetry, like every art form, is continually evolving and there is so much of modern poetry that it is impossible to assess this evolution at the present time. It requires a retrospective view to assess the work of the era more comprehensively.

6) Here he finally mentions some of the poets who he feels disprove the thesis. Matt Hart, Abraham Smith, Heather Chester, Anthony Madrid and …

7) US poets are younger now, on average, and see poetry as a lifetime choice. The changes in publishing and online presences make this more feasible.

8) Most reviewers focus on the poetry superstars - the ones who have won awards - and yet a cursory view of the history of poetry shows that the lasting poets rarely come from this class. They are generally unacknowledged for much of their lives.

9) US poetry is now more inclusive of race and gender.

10) The current President writes, reads and hosts discussions of poetry.

11) Linguistic, philosophical and psychological insights are now available to poets, deepening the levels of meaning which they can allude to and be understood by.

12) Poetry is good for everyone.

I have greatly simplified Abrahamson's arguments here, but in fairness some of them needed to be simplified. As much as I admire his defence of modern poetry, there is a 'high fog content' which in academic articles is  generally employed to beat opposition into submission but here is a sign that the article may have been  written in a hurry.  Nonetheless, he has responded by pointing out that many of Edmundson's criticisms are in fact, a sign of the ability of modern poetry to thrive.  Where Edmundson sees the MFA programmes as having a negative influence, Abrahamson sees it as a sign of vital activity, of real demand from students who take up the courses, and as a way to make the choice of a literary career a viable one for writers. He says that many people can now make a living, get published, be read by their peers around the world.  The internet has opened opportunities and made the writing of poetry less insular.  

Around paragraph six he finally gets to mention some of the poets who he feels disprove Edmundson's opinions, and this is where Abrahamson triumphs. In bringing forward the strengths of modern poets Abrahamson begins to dismantle Edmundson's thesis, but does not carry it forward enough. However, he opens the way for readers of modern poetry to name and claim modern poetry as the innovatative and creative force that they experience in their lives.

In reading and reviewing,  modern poetry for the Anna Livia Review I have seen exactly how comprehensively and subtly Melissa Green's 'Squanicook Eclogues' addresses our need to live in harmony with our environment. Ben Mazer's poetry addresses the role of the poet in a deeply existential way which also expresses the primal astonishment at the fact of the existence of the world, George Szirtes's poetry reveals the story of  the past through personal touches and makes momentous, tiny moments of time within relationships which expose their globally networked effect.  Joe Green's poetry insists upon a Zen like need for laughter, Djelloul Marbrook's first collection 'Far from Algiers' deals with the political borders and refugee camps which reside inside the heart of someone who is not automatically acceptable, not a white male, and by doing so offers a compassionate way for the white male, the female, the integrated and non-integrated, to make sense of their journey in the world.   Michael Longley's Collected Poems exhibits the profound impact which political division and blindness to our place in the environment results in and provides a route for war-torn cultures around the globe, based on a pragmatic compassion and  personal experience. Moyra Donaldson 'Selected Poems' show exactly why dominant world views must be challenged rather than prolonged, in her revelations of the uncontested harm done to socially excluded individuals in the past. Peadar O'Donoghue's punk instincts challenge the political and economic complacency which we have descended into in 'Jewel', as does the just published 'Ripple Effect' by  Terry McDonaghPhilip Nikolayev's poetry too, informed as it is by an awareness of differing cultures, by a career and life dedicated to poetry, expresses the insignificance of the human condition and yet its ability to express the world, is new, innovative and exciting ways.

There are many I have not touched upon to show the shallowness of Edmundson's attack.   The author of the Washington Post's article, Ron Charles, ends his piece by calling for essays on the socially and politically courageous poets who write today.  We would like to extend Anna Livia Review as a forum for such essays and invite you to name and claim the poets who dedicate their lives to this work.

Ann Fallon.

1 comment:

  1. To Edmundson's initial article a person may respond: " If the only authentic meanings are those that speak to the readers specificity as a unique and singular being conditioned by a unique and singular constellation of factors - the times they were born in, the tree they climbed as a kid etc; - then perhaps he should be advising his readers to do what a poet does and go seek his own meanings, words and what nots that hold a deep fascination for his existence, since they are a natural outgrowth of that existence, unpolluted by the self-blindness that too much time in the light of shared discourse often generates." Or he may not :)