Monday, January 16, 2017

The social value of contemporary American poetry

"Fiction is expected to make money, and so there is a notion in it that some stories are better than others," my advisor in my graduate writing program once told me, revealing what I would later learn was a common feeling in writing schools, although one that was mostly kept politely unexpressed. She added that "but because nobody expects poetry to make any money, it's impossible to say what a 'good' poem is."

 The ruptured connection between audience reception and presumed quality in poetry has been a concern for some time in contemporary poetry circles. Adam Kirsch, in his review from the Atlantic of Ben Lerner's The Hatred of Poetry, states that there has been at least one major article bemoaning the state of American poetry every year for the past 25 years, and much of it has to do with the lack of readers.  

I originally entered grad school on a poetry portfolio. I changed to fiction partly because I wanted to have some chance of being read. But I had a more humanistic reason: I also wanted to understand and be understood. In those days, I used to read Poetry magazine--then and now considered the best poetry journal in America-- in the college library cover to cover every edition. But I felt like I didn't "get" at least half of the poems. Maybe I just didn't have time. I was busy with schoolwork and my own writing, a wife who was doing the same things in her own graduate program. But even with some of the poems that intrigued me enough to work on them for a while, I sometimes gave up  before I'd really had any breakthroughs.

I may have been guilty of two of the false assumptions about poetry Edward Hirsh lists in his "How to Read a Poem" introduction: "The first is assuming that they should understand what they encounter on the first reading, and if they don’t, that something is wrong with them or with the poem. The second is assuming that the poem is a kind of code, that each detail corresponds to one, and only one, thing, and unless they can crack this code, they’ve missed the point."

 But even given that poetry operates off of a different semantic system than other forms of writing, I could never get over the feeling that I ought to be able, after a reasonable amount of effort, to walk away from a poem with some idea of what it meant that I could express in terms other than those of the actual poem. Those terms might be incredibly banal when juxtaposed with the original poetic expression, but it would be a very rough estimate. For example, when I say that "Birdhouse in your Soul" by They Might Be Giants is a song about a boy looking up at his nightlight with an active imagination, or that "Frank Sinatra" by Cake is a song about the end of the world, I've made very rough semantic estimations of those songs.

In poetry, the restatements are going to be even rougher estimations. There are some forms of exposition that are easier than others to do. In high school, you may have gone line-by-line through poems, and your teacher may have done an "interlinear" reading--a line from the poem, then that same line in plain English. But this is more just a way of dealing with older language--Shakespeare, say, or the Romantics with their inversions no longer popular today. The teacher might proceed, "To one who has been long in city pent/That is, 'to someone who has been stuck in the city a long time...'"

But most poetic exposition comes with more work than this, particularly if the poem is contemporary. An influential idea in poetry for a long time has been for poetry to work like a painting or classical music, where the meaning is conveyed non-linearly, non-logically, almost even non-verbally through things like tone and association. It ascribes, in some sense, to be "non-discursive," as the jargon sometimes goes. So the reader has to imaginatively put herself in the place of the poem's narrator, letting the feelings evoked by the language wash over her and allowing feelings to become the guide to meanings that are merely suggested, never explicit. There are more or less extreme examples of this. With the more extreme versions, if you're looking for one of the approximation-type statements like I wrote above for the two songs, you're barking up the wrong tree.

I believe literature of all stripes ought to be primarily aimed at intelligent lay people. It can and should challenge readers, but not to the extent that a lay person of good intent and reasonable intellectual resources is likely to give up. If the work is beyond the time constraints, intellectual background and parsing capacity of too many lay people, it won't have any social utility. That is to say, I believe in the radical proposition that a text which is incomprehensible to a vast majority of its possible audience has limited social value.

There's a precarious tension here. Poetry that doesn't challenge at all isn't poetry. This is why your friend's mom's rhymed couplets about how important it is to never quit is shitty doggerel, not poetry. This is not a poem. But too challenging, and you have no audience. I would like to claim that American poetry has, for some time, been too challenging, too esoteric. I have an M.A. in English. I outscored 88% of all students taking the subject GRE for English literature in the year before I started graduate school. I outscored 97% of them in the analytic reasoning section on the general GRE. If I can't parse your poetry, it's probably too hard for too many people.

The question of how, exactly, poetry is a socially useful form of art is never more apparent than at poetry readings. Most of the poems in contemporary journals are difficult to comprehend even when sitting quietly for a long time and reading them over and over. How is anyone supposed to get anything out of hearing one of these poems read aloud one time, unless everyone there has already read the poems? In a culture where there is almost no interest at all in contemporary poetry, who will have read them? On the other hand, one might also confront "slam poetry" or other fairly predictable, non-challenging fare, because at least the audience can "get it." This isn't a good answer, either.

I don't even try anymore. The only poetry I come across is when I read the Pushcart anthology. Pushcart includes fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry. I read it all. But if I come across a poem that intrigues me, like "The Spring Forecast" by Shelley Wong, one where I have some guesses about how to read the poem but I'm not fully there, I'm always disappointed that there is no place in the virtual universe where I can find these things being discussed. If I am trying to get my head around a song lyric, I can go to half a dozen sites with posts from fans about the meanings. There is one site I know of where a woman blogs her way through the Best American Short Stories and The Pushcart Anthology every year, albeit in more of a personal, almost devotional way. But there is no community of poetry enthusiasts helping one another with deciphering contemporary poetry that I know of. And that really says all I need to know about poetry as a social force in America.

Next post: I attempt to decipher the poem "The Spring Forecast," opening myself up to potential ridicule for being much stupider than I realized.


  1. Most modern poetry is garbage, little more than prose recast in different form. It seems that the esthetic has arisen from a serfeit of quality among earlier, often formal poets. To get away from what was actually good, one had to make of obscurantist or simply uninteresting drivel a new kind of esthetic. Think Tom Wolfe's The Painted Word, but applied to this moribund genre.

    I am struck by the notion that you immediately dissociate song and poetry when their connection ought to be immediate and obvious. But that is the problem, isn't it? Fundamentally, poetry is an act of arcane snobbery at this point, which points up its spent nature. Roman poets could claim the word, vates or prophet, as a way of endowing them with some special quality: but they still knew what they were about no matter how much they alluded and allegorized. Modern poets, well, poet doesn't even apply: they are mere writers and scribblers in love of odd formatting.

  2. I was going to do a summary of the poetry in the Pushcart Anthology when I'm done with it, analyzing the truth of your very proposition. Anis Shivani wrote an essay over a decade ago called "Is this the best American poetry?" in which he pretty much said what you just said: "Primal screams of horror at their helplessness issue often and loud from our best American poets." In another place: "The poets seem to say with one voice they are skeptical of reason, because it is often utilized for totalitarian purposes. But without the backbone of reason, not even the solace of fighting totalitarianism remains, only resignation to it. Art as handmaiden to primitivism has been overdone, and a retreat to classical proportion wouldn't hurt."

    One reason I picked the poem I did is because I usually think that the Puschart anthology is more geared to laypeople than the Best American Poetry and Best American Short Stories series. So if a vital poetry of the people is to be found, I would find it there. I suspect what you've said is still at least largely true in the academies, but who knows? I haven't looked into it in over a decade.