David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: The Cynicism of Mark Edmundson, Or Poetry Is Still Not Dead

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Mark Edmundson’s take down of contemporary American poetry, “Poetry Slam,” (currently behind the paywall) in this month’s issue of Harper’s, is not so bad really. He’s right about the insularity of the American poetic idiom, the stranglehold of deconstructive theory on the imaginations of younger American poets, the influence of William Wordsworth for two hundred years on American poetry’s sense of ambition as a private rather than public art, the proliferation of teaching the writing of poetry and therefore the difficulty in discerning what might be the, quote-unquote, poetry of the age — notwithstanding that we will never know who those poets are or what those poems are for certain until the age is over. More on that “we” and on the idea of “the age” in a moment.

I found myself in agreement with Edmundson a good deal of the time this morning as I read the essay for the purpose of coming out of my summer break from writing this column. I read it while having a coffee at Common Grounds coffee shop in Portland, Oregon, a place much frequented by this city’s poets — indeed, two poets I’m acquainted with sat nearby wondering why I was taking so long with the essay because they were eager to have a look for themselves. Because it’s not online, I have only small quotes to use for this.

Overall I find myself impressed with how much Edmundson cares about poetry. Or, at least, cares about the kind of poetry that is an example of what he believes poetry ought to do, and what kind of poetry exonerates the limitations of his own tastes. Surely Edmundson will be excoriated for attacking the poets (been there!) generally and for smearing many of today’s most influential poets such as John Ashbery and Robert Lowell and Jorie Graham and Seamus Heaney (Edmundson’s reasons for discussing at length the Irish poet Seamus Heaney among his attack on American poetry defies logic, defies common sense, and defies physics).

And, wait for it, ding-ding! Already there exists one major defense of contemporary American poetry — against both Edmundson’s attack and Ron Charles’ hope or prediction that the essay will stir up the poets — by the Huffington Post’s poetry rabble rouser Seth Abramson.

But what Edmundson mostly reveals is that he’s disinterested in the idea that a thriving contemporary art has, hmm, how shall we put it…good poems, not so bad poems, decent poems, below average poems, and downright crappy poems, and worse. Same with rock and roll songs, no? Same with jazz. With visual art. With baseball players. Same with, yes, oh, definitely the same, with literary critics.

Edmundson laments that poets avoid speaking for the ‘we.’ Well, I will. We all say to anyone who suddenly realizes that contemporary American poetry is a mess, a botch, and a clutter of talent, that contemporary American poetry is confusing and full of mayhem and even monstrosities, that contemporary American poetry is untidy and inconvenient and exists continuously between floundering and semi-visibility, that contemporary American poetry self-mutilates, that contemporary American poetry is a swarm, a thicket, a caboodle, and (oh, I’ll just say it, for God’s sake) a multitude, well, we say back to you, Professor Edmundson, so fucking what?

Poetry is an art, and art is messy. It’s messy in the making, it’s messy in the product line, it’s messy in the distribution, it’s messy in the reception, and it’s messy in its ability to please everyone, nay, anyone, especially readers who expect all poetry to be shat out as marble monuments. Contemporary poetry in any age is a dynamic, organic, unstable enterprise. The future determines the greatness of the past. I love Robert Lowell above so many poets of the 20th century. I find that most younger poets do not read him. It’s the kind of thing to make one scream.

And it has always been thus. Edmundson praises Percy Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” and Robert Lowell’s “Sunday Morning” and Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” as exemplary of the art of their time, as rare gems that today’s poets do not even aspire to create. But most poetry of any age is wretched. It was during the 19th century when Shelley was writing in England. It was during the 1950s-70s when Lowell and Plath wrote in America. Contemporary Italian poetry was downright unreadable in 13th and 14th centuries when Dante was writing in Florence. Yes, poetry sucks. Always has. Always will. Not every poet can be Sylvia Plath, and thank goodness for that, given the price she and her family have paid, and not even Sylvia Plath can write “Daddy” in every poem. Even Mariano Rivera blows a save from time to time.

But that is not really Edmundson’s complaint. His complaint is that today’s poets don’t have the ambition to write X, and X, and X. His call for American poets to move outside their self-development I agree with. We are an insular lot. But the jig will never be up. Not in America. I have trodden this route myself. First, here, in Poetry magazine, when I called on poets to shake off our self-absorption and enter the public, civic arena as citizens. Then, here, on these pages, when I called on poets to ditch their poetics.

Welcome to the dire fate of the poetry club, Professor Edmundson. That’s Plato over there in the corner. That’s Wordsworth and Coleridge by the fire. That’s Walt Whitman still revising his 1855 preface on the floor over there. That’s Ralph Emerson keeping his distance from Whitman (still peeved about the blurb to Leaves of Grass). That’s Edmund Wilson smoking on the balcony. That’s Joseph Epstein in the smoking jacket. And Dana Gioia staring out the window.

Problem is, for all the lamenting, guess what, breaking news! Poetry is still not dead. Because: Let’s get real. Let’s think like an artist not a professor. Even Shelley couldn’t write “Ode to the West Wind” every time, even Lowell couldn’t write “Sunday Morning” (or even better, “For the Union Dead”) every time, even Plath couldn’t write “Daddy” every time (well, maybe Plath could).

But it’s the cynicism that makes me so, well, disappointed in Mark Edmundson’s essay. He tries to veil it with good breeding and good manners. And I appreciate the effort to be as fair as he can be. His criteria for important poetry writing is as follows: A poem must have a “lyric gift, a serious theme, passionately addressed; real ambition (which one might also call courage).” No kidding.

But, is that all?

In the end, I’m just left thinking of poets Edmundson doesn’t write about that certainly aspire to meet his criteria, and in some instances surely have. These younger than Ashbery and younger than the late Adrienne Rich fellow travelers of mine would include Christian Wiman, A. E. Stallings, C. D. Wright, Linda Bierds, Wendy Willis, Richard Kenney, Natasha Trethewey. One could go on. But they each possess the “lyric gift,” a serious theme, passionately addressed; real ambition (which one might also call courage)” in their poetry as well; certainly in some poems more than others.

That’s the thing. To be as cynical about contemporary poetry as Edmundson is, is to expect every poem to reach and exceed some vague horizon line of greatness. Every poem. Poem after poem. By each and every poet. To expect every poem to advance our (here’s the business about the “we”) knowledge and wisdom of human experience and pop culture and politics and war and sex and death and raising teenagers in every poem.

What Edmundson wants, he says, is for poets to find their “fiery muse.” Um. Their…what? Fiery muse? Last time I read about a fiery muse, it was in a sex advice column in GQ that I found at my barber shop about how men can stimulate a woman’s…well, you can imagine.

You see this weak “fiery muse” misuse in Edmundson’s willful misreading of the Robert Hass’s poem, “Meditation at Lagunitas.” He writes that the poem is about the battle between poetry and philosophy. That’s just too easy and too much Poetry 101 nonsense, my friend.

Because, whatever one thinks of Hass’s poem, in phrase after phrase, line after line, the poem dramatizes (and here is an idea Edmundson ignores, poems as dramatizations of experience not just commentary upon them from outer space), the poem dramatizes the difficulty of language to articulate what the mind, what the body, experiences, that as soon as words are brought forth, they are “elegy” to what they signify.

And yes, the poem is an argument against Edmundson’s criteria, criteria I have no argument with. They’re good criteria. But they are general, not specific, criteria and many, many other criteria exist. Let’s put communion among them for instance. And, I agree with Edmundson, myth-making.

But they are not the only ones. There are so many more. And every poet in every poem selects or discovers or stumbles over the ratio of what part of his criteria of writing a poem he will places his chips on. Sometimes it’s the lyricism. Other times it’s the courage.

Edmundson simply favors the poems that are exemplary of his criteria. Period. No crime in that. But write poetry every day, Professor, and you will see that an artist’s interests are in the dazzlement of failure far more than the allure of perfection. Perfection is easy to spot after a poem is finished and been published, praised and critiqued, taught and made into a marble monument. For all the perfections of Keats’s urn ode, or Whitman’s lilacs elegy, or Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck,” or Plath’s “Daddy,” each and every one of them is about failure. Private failure. Private collapse. Private ruination. In as much as they are about art, assassination, empowerment, and historic identity.

Hass’s touchstone poem is a touchstone for Hass (if indeed it even is, how would I know?). But one reason poets have looked to it of late is not to emulate its discovery (who would want to write someone else’s poem again?) but to see it as a ballast for the courage to write, even with all the challenges at hand that Edmundson dismisses.

So when Edmundson says that today’s poetry “does not traffic in the icons of pop culture,” I have to ask, have you read an entire generation of poets born after the 1970′s who writes as if pop culture were the only subject to encounter? Nothing limits their imaginations so much as pop culture does. It’s a false god. To write about the present requires a poet to aim for the future.

And yet I agree completely that we poets use “too few resources” in our writing. We limit the scope of our imaginations by accepting the limits of language, of tone, of subject matter. But America’s poets are also, collectively, presenting an argument against the debasement of language in our pop culture, in our partisan politics, in our advertising, in excesses of commerce. The near-whispering styles that dominate our art today are hostile to the shouting elsewhere. Edmundson regrets that fact and despairs of it. He’s right to do so.

But there’s a reason American poetry became so interested in “voice.” It’s because we abandoned the cultural bloodline of meter and rhyme and “meter-making arguments.” Abandonment is not permanent. It is not universal. It is not a problem. Because it’s not that American poets make a diverse art, it’s also that the American audience for poetry stratifies to appreciate only what it wants to. A self-selected audience for identity poets. A self-selected audience for white poets. A self-selected audience for poets of color. A self-selected audience for abstract poets. A self-selected audience for formalist poets. A self-selected audience for poets who value “lyric gift, a serious theme, passionately addressed; real ambition (which one might also call courage).”

I exaggerate. I oversimplify. I generalize. But there’s no cynicism here. American poetry is a mess. Long live American poetry.


David Biespiel is the author of five collections of poetry: Charming Gardeners, The Book of Men and Women, Wild Civility, Pilgrims & Beggars, and Shattering Air. More from this author →