David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: Poetry Shutdown Begins – Poets and Critics Fail to Agree


A flurry of last-minute phone calls, philippics, tweets, and Facebook posts by poets and critics late last night failed to break a bitter standoff over the latest poetry-is-dead attacks, setting in motion the first poetry shutdown in the history of American poetry.

The impasse meant that hundreds of thousands of American poets were to be furloughed and more than a million others would be ask to stop writing poems altogether or to write poems without pay. The Poetry Foundation, Academy of American Poets, Poetry Society of America, office of the Poet Laureate, and the AWP jointly issued orders shortly before the midnight deadline that “poets should now execute plans for an orderly shutdown due to the absence of music in their poems.”

After a series of rapid-fire back and forth haikus, the angry, poetry-has-no-music critics and bewildered poets ended the day with no resolution. The nation’s poets ended their po-biz early Tuesday morning, turning off their laptops. Reports across the nation included a night of sleep for poetry’s many insomniacs. Don Share, editor of Poetry, dismissed as game-playing the poetry-is-dead critics’ proposal to begin negotiations.

“We will not go back to writing poems with a gun to our heads. Our music is our music is our music,” he said, echoing Gertrude Stein, and demanding that the critics accept a six-week stopgap poetry writing period which has no restrictions on subject or style, before negotiations begin.

Anti-contemporary poet critics and poets had come close to failing to find mutual understanding in the past but had always reached a last-minute agreement to head off a disruption in new poems and poetry services.

In the hours leading up to the deadline, the critics voted for approval of a new plan to tie further poetry writing to a one-year delay in a requirement that poets do more than write their best words in their best order. The proposal would deny subsidies to poets, poetasters, tinkerers, haikuists, meter-makers, versifiers, and would-be postmodernists.

But minutes later, and with almost no debate, the poets killed the critics’ proposal and sent the stopgap measure right back, free of aesthetic prescriptions. Earlier in the day, America’s poets had taken less than 25 minutes to convene and dispose of a poetry-with-more-music proposal by critics.

“They’ve lost their minds,” Joyelle McSweeney said, before disposing of the critics’ proposal. “They keep trying to do the same thing over and over again.”

American poetry was then left essentially to run out of poems at midnight, although it was understood that W.S. Merwin would be allowed to write 17 poems a day per usual.

“You don’t get to extract a ransom for doing your job,” second term poet laureate Natasha Trethewey said in front of the Library of Congress as the clock ticked to midnight. Ms. Trethewey called Arthur Krystal, author of “The Missing Music in Today’s Poetry,” whose 21 hour poetry-buster precipitated the poetry shutdown, but they spoke for less than 10 minutes, without any sign of progress.

“I talked to the poet laureate tonight,” critic Krystal said from the floor of the Chronicle of Education editorial offices. He summed up laureate Trethewey’s remarks as: “I’m not going to negotiate. I’m not going to negotiate.” He added he approved of the use of her trochees, parallelism, and rhetorical repetition, and felt there was hope.

The poetry-is-dead critics most ardent conservatives were resigned to seeing through their war on poetry to its inevitable conclusion, a shutdown that could test both poets and readers’ patience with literary critics.

Cracks in the critic alliance were opening into fissures of frustration.

“You have this group that keeps saying poetry is dead,” said David Mason of Colorado, a poet-critic, “If you’re not with exactly their plan, exactly what they want to hear, then you’re somehow for free verse, and it’s just getting a little old.”

“It’s moronic to shut down the art of poetry over this,” he continued.

It was far from certain that critics could remain unified on their insistence on poetry concessions if a shutdown lasts for some time. Asked whether critics could hold together through the end of the week, Mark Edmundson, one of the most recent anti-poetry critics, answered: “I don’t know. I don’t know.”

Earlier Monday, poets voted to kill the previous critic-based plan immediately after ending a weekend break. Poets then sent the critics’ proposal to keep poetry alive through November 15 without aesthetic prescriptions.

But critics would have none of it, again demanding a significant increase in the harmonic musical features of poetry as a price for keeping poetry alive.

Mr. Share laid into Mr. Krystal and put the blame for the shutdown solely on his shoulders. “Our negotiation is over with,” he said.

“You know with a critic you cannot let them slap you around, because they slap you around today, they slap you five or six times tomorrow,” Mr. Share continued. “We are not going to be bullied by critics.”

In addition to criticizing Mr. Krystal, Mr. Share excoriated what he called the “banana poetics mind-set” of the critics.

In one of their final moves, critics called for poets to write poetry without any foundation or government subsidies. Poets say critics are being driven by the most extreme elements to use America’s middle brow periodicals such as Harper’s and the Chronicle of Education to extract concessions on poetry that they could not win through the traditional literary process. “The scary thing about the period we’re in right now is there is no clear end,” said McSweeney, one poet with a Facebook account who is not afraid to use it.

David Biespiel is a poet, literary critic, memoirist, and contributing writer at American Poetry Review, New Republic, New York Times, Poetry, Politico, The Rumpus, and Slate, among other publications. He is the author of numerous books, most recently The Education of a Young Poet, which was selected a Best Books for Writers by Poets & Writers, A Long High Whistle, which received the 2016 Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction, and The Book of Men and Women, which was chosen for Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the 2011 Oregon Book Award for Poetry. More from this author →