Thursday, September 07, 2006

POETRY IN CRISIS??!! The blogosphere has been filled with all sorts of responses to John Barr's essay in the September issue of Poetry magazine. There's also been plenty of other hand-wringing over the "state of poetry," such as this old chestnut brought out for another run up the flagpole. Quick! Someone take poetry's pulse...the old girl is slipping into a coma again. This death knell comes around at least once a year, usually prompted by someone who says modern poetry is dead/boring/all sounds the same/MFA programs are the devil, but never really offers a solution for the resuscitation of the art.

Poetry is not dead...it's just going through a rough evolution at the moment. Poet Charles Jensen says the real problem is that -- here' s a metaphor to chew on -- poetry is basically a pie and only a lucky few have their forks in it. There's a thousand others desperately trying to get a crumb, but those greedy bastards won't move out of the way. Who are these people? They are the "name" poets who journals and mags continue to solicit poetry from because those names will move copies. For instance, Collin Kelley might sell a few copies in Georgia and LA, but he ain't gonna send the masses running to the Barnes & Noble in Wichita. Billy Collins, Ted Kooser, Jorie Graham and five or six others can ensure sales. So, part of the "problem" with poetry lies squarely with the "important" journals. The fact that many of these journals are tied to universities, where the pie-eaters make their actual living, is a whole other issue.

Then there's the MFA programs. I don't have one, don't think I want one, would probably wind up punching some professor in the nose for fucking with my music. Many of my fellow poets have survived MFA programs and come out with their voices intact. They've become more knowledgeable in history, form and the mechanics of poetry. On the other hand, there are plenty of MFA casualties who have been stripped of their voice to please the professor who swears that they "must write poetry like this" to earn their...ahem...credentials. If they want to teach, earn grants, get fellowships and be part of the elite, they must fall in line with today's poetics. You have people like Barr and Dana Gioia (who I despise politically, but occasionally has an enlightened thought about poetry) who in one breath say MFA programs are the death of new poets, then intimates that if you don't have an MFA you're a nobody. You'll always be an outsider looking in at the world of poetry. You won't get grants, win awards or be paid $10,000 to speak at a university. To sum up: MFA programs are bad...mmm'kay...but you better have one, because if you don't you're not a "real" poet...mmm'kay.

Then of course there are the poets themselves who have achieved tenure, won their Pulitzers, edit anthologies and get paid those big bucks for appearances and teaching gigs. They all know their time at the top of the heap is limited, so any whipper-snapper coming up too quickly through the ranks is going to be shown to the back of the bus. After all, the pie only has a finite number of slices and Jorie and Billy will probably want seconds. You've got poets who have achieved recognition, who have become idols of younger poets, but you won't catch them dead at an open mic. If I had a dollar for every "established" poet who's said, "I can't sit through an open mic...it's all so terrible," I'd be living in my palatial London home using 100 pound notes to light my cigars. They seem to have forgotten that their own poetry sucked ass once upon a time. If they were so concerned about the imminent demise of poetry, they'd be out beating the bushes (or open mics) looking for the next up-and-coming young poet to mentor, not waiting for the next crop of MFA students to be harvested. Sure, these poets teach and spread the gospel, but a lot of the time it seems like that scene from Postcards from the Edge where Meryl Streep's struggling actress character says to her acting legend mom Shirley MacLaine: You want me to do well, just not better than you.

There is a inherent snobbishness, elitism, etc. about poetry. The poetry you read in the usual suspect journals, for the most part, has slipped into tedium. But that's my personal taste. Others love it, rapture over it, reprint it on their blogs to show just how much today's poetry really rocks their socks. Occasionally, a new poet will break the surface (Hello, Cherryl Floyd-Miller!) and slip into Poetry. Or Barbara Jane Reyes will win a big award from the Academy of American Poets, but only get a handful of reviews because her poetry is risky and doesn't conform. It's dirty, opinionated, accusatory, and it threatens to upset the apple cart in a big, big way. Luckily, Poeta en San Francisco is selling like hotcakes, so all you tight-assed suckers can eat her dust. And don't forget the new breed of formalists, who are working hard to bring rhyme and meter back to the table, but find that many journals "don't want rhyming poetry." You're damned if you do, damned if you don't.

And then you have the spoken word poets who write that thar "slam poetry." Despite the fact that there is no such thing as "slam" poetry -- slam is a competition, folks, let's try to get that fact straight -- it continues to piss off the academics to no end. My buddy Robin Kemp (a red hot formalista!) says this argument is tired and doesn't hold water. Sadly, it not only holds water, it floats. There is still a large "US vs. THEM" mentality out there, but doesn't need to be. Many "slam poets" think the stuff printed in lit mags is total shit, while the academics think spoken word is debasing the great art of poetry. Who's right? Neither of them. As Cole Porter said, it's just one of those things. It all comes down to personal taste, and you can't regulate taste. Billy and Ted's "accessible" poetry makes some people gag, while others think it's sacred text. Mention Emily Dickinson to some and they yawn. Some still shake their heads in disgust that poets like Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath were ever allowed to publish in the first place. Masturbation and daddy issues...tell it to a shrink, don't share it with the world. Maya Angelou might still rise, but some folks want to beat her down.

Now, I know this next statement is going to make some of you go screaming into the night, because it's one of those things you never really admit. You know what I'm talking about. If you can't handle the truth, you might want to stop reading now and go watch a rerun of Project Runway. It's sorta like The Matrix... take the blue pill and you wake up snug in your bed with a copy of The Paris Review tucked under your pillow. Take the red pill and down the rabbit hole you go. Ready? Okay...here's the red pill:

There is no such thing as "bad poetry."

I know, I know...it's a hard, bitter pill to swallow, but deep down inside, you know it's the truth. That high schooler reading her angst-ridden ode to an uncaring world, so full of cliches it would choke Tori Amos, will strike a chord with other boys and girls in the audience. They will love it, identify with it, and think it's brilliant. Some old man reading a rhyming poem about picking flowers in his garden and little birdies flying past the window, will make some folks weep for the beauty of nature. He, too, has touched a nerve. And some ghetto fabulous woman will scream about the glories of her unappreciated vagina in a slam, and the audience will be shouting their approval and clapping until their hands are raw. These poets -- because they are poets -- have found fans, like-minds, have touched heart and soul...and probably just sold 10 copies of their chapbook. Isn't that what poetry is supposed to do? No matter how shitty someone else thinks it is? Will it win the Pulitzer? Probably not, but then 99 percent of poets will never do that anyway, and some of ya'll (and you know who you are) just need to accept that fact now. You might have a good teaching job, have a contract with a big publisher and write pretty decent poetry, but somebody up at the Pulitzer office is gonna think it's mediocre shit. Deal with it!

As we move deeper into the 21st Century and more and more outlets for poetry appear -- self-publishing, online journals, etc. -- poetry is going to continue to evolve. More people are going to go to open mics, new poets are going to eventually push Ted and Jorie away from the pie with their forks poised. Some great poets will toil in obscurity, trying to snatch a crumb. Some will go to an MFA and lose their voices, some will finish with a stronger one. Spoken word will continue to flourish and literary journals (whether in print or online) will continue to publish. Professors will give their former students first book prizes, hundreds of manuscript submissions will be thrown in the trash, feelings will be hurt, teeth will be gnashed, and yet poetry will continue. Even while another old fart writes poetry's next obituary.

25 comments:

Nick said...

Re: "Even while another old fart writes poetry's next obituary."

Agreed! If you're not part of the solution then you're part of the problem!

Louise Robertson said...

AMEN!

Carl Bryant said...

Preach on, Brother.

The only thing doomed to die is a personal (and narrow) definition of what constitutes "poetry."

Change is scary when you're over forty.

M. Ru Pere said...

I pretty much agree, Collin - nice post! - tho i do believe there is "lazy" poetry as opposed to "bad" - in Zadie Smith does an incredible job with this whole issue in On Beauty when the Ivy Academic poet takes her class to a Boston slam - omg, I want to read that chapter onstage at Java Monkey!

BLUE said...

gots me hanker, gots me reared back,
gots me locs slung out of whack.

(whose name didn't you call here??!!! lol.)

in the words of Good Times' Florida Evans: Dayum, dayum dayum! you don' said it now, Pee Pee.

lovin' every dern minute of it. when Capote goes off, he gets down.

amen ... a-woman.

light!

jenni said...

Kick ass post Collin!

You've got me all worked up now. I think everyone should read this post. Have you ever published maifestos/criticism before? you should.

This is really good.

and I agree with you, poetry is neutral. what one person hates another loves.

it's a business. just like the movies. you can have a great script but you still need a big name to sell it. the big name attracts those who might not ordinarily watch/read it.

once again, fabulous post!

Sam of the ten thousand things said...

Brilliant Collin. Brilliant. I agree with every point.

The monsters are killing us all, or are trying to. Worse... they're trying to kill the words.

But meanwhile-- cheers to Barbara Jane Reyes. Truly deserving.

michi said...

yes. thank you for this post.

Montgomery Maxton said...

"poetry is not in a crisis, it is in an expansion. finally." -me

SarahJ said...

what a down n dirty uplifting post. thanks on this saturday morning...

Helen Losse said...

Great post. Thanks for reminding us that writing poetry, like living life, is not a competition.

Peter said...

There is no such thing as "bad poetry."

Part of me wants to say "Oh no," and part of me wants to say "Right on!" Hmmm, I guess I'll take the red pill today.

Justin Evans said...

Really great post! I really like it.

Thank you for sharing these thoughts.

M. Shahin said...

>>There is no such thing as "bad poetry."<<

This was an incredible rant, but very effective. I enjoyed reading every minute of it, and you changed my perspective a great deal.

You are right about what some people love in poetry and what others do. Like you said some yawn at Dickinson, but I find her great. I also like the formalists, and write some in rhyme and meter, but some people will think it simple and no good.

The point you made is correct: we all have different tastes in poetry, and there is no "bad poetry". Not what I used to think, but I agree now after reading your post.

Like your blog. I'll be back.

Ron Mohring said...

"The fact that many of these journals are tied to universities, where the pie-eaters make their actual living, is a whole other issue."

Collin, I know that you're referring to the "important" journals here (however one defines THAT), but one of the reasons that many journals are tied to universities is that so few people subscribe--without the kind of budgetary assistance that a university (or some other form of sugar daddy/mommy) can provide, many print journals would go belly-up.

The journal that I help to edit, West Branch, is a good example. If not for our university funding, we wouldn't be able to pay our contributors (big name, small name, who gives a fuck, just wow us with your poems and stories and you're IN).

Ginger Heatter said...

Donald Hall published his essay "Death to the Death of Poetry" in Harper's seventeen years ago. It's still an incredibly rich read.

http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16222

Collin said...

Thanks for your comments everyone. I do agree with Ron that some journals would not survive without funding from the universities and, of course, I did not mean all journals are the same. There are plenty of good journals out there...both affiliated with colleges and not...that seek new work and new voices. Search them out.

...one pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small...and the ones that mother gives you, don't do anything at all...

C. Dale said...

Yes, today is a red pill day. Mmmmmm. Tasty red pill.

Nice rant here. Loved it.

barbara jane said...

excellent rant, indeed, collin. thanks for this and for the shout out. brilliant post.

Penultimatina said...

Poetry is like pizza...

Fantastic post, Collin. You've articulated many important things so well here.

Cleo said...

Rolling Stone just did a very interesting and related article on the Rebirth of Music. How after declining record sales and all the moaning and groaning in the recording industry how Music was actually transitioning into a whole new beast.

Thanks to itunes, podcasts, and media savy bands the market's changing. More people are attending live music events and getting "into" music than ever. It's just the traditional music industry is losing it's gatekeeper status.

The same thing is going to happen to poetry. It's transforming. With YouTube, blogs, slams, readings and who knows what else coming down the pipe.

I think you'll see literary journals and academia similarly lose their gatekeeper status on poetry.

Poetry's going to be a raucus confusing mess for a while (but in a good way) as it transitions with the times.

Rosemary Nissen-Wade said...

Right on!!!

Julie Carter said...

Nope, I have to disagree in part. There is such a thing as bad poetry, and that's when the poem doesn't do what I meant it to do when I wrote it.

I want a solution to the problem of poems being like mayflies, with just a tiny amount of time in the sun before dying off. The best poems being written are only being read by a few people--I'm not talking non-poets or uninterested people. I'm talking about people like me being able to find the truly great poems. How? I don't have time to read every journal, and I sure as hell don't trust that those journals would even be able to pick out the great ones in the first place.

I think there is more good poetry being written than ever before, and I love it and hate it at the same time. There isn't enough time in the world to read even a healthy fraction of what's being produced. There has to be a way, dammit. There has to.

nolapoet said...

Hi, Collin--just ran across this entry from last month and saw your claim that my argument is flawed. Would you please delineate your understanding of what said argument is? It's kind of hard to know how to respond otherwise.

To your larger point, that there is no bad poetry: clearly this is not the case. For example, you claim that there is something called "academic poetry" and then imply that it is bad *because* it is "academic" (whatever that means). It would be helpful for me (and others) if you were to define your terms here.

Is it better to have bad poetry than no poetry at all? Perhaps. (I refer you to what Francine Prose says about that other canard: whether creative writing can be taught.) I missed this tempest-in-a-teapot in last month's issue of _Poetry_, but sounds as if the author was trotting out the same tedious cliche' that gets trotted out every ten years. This has been done to death, and long ago. It's not worth agonizing over.

I am one who does not believe in the false divide between so-called "academic" and "street" poetry as currently conceived. If by "academic poets" you mean those who teach in universities, don't fall for the stereotype. Poets who teach usually do *not* have cushy endowed creative writing chairs (usually, they do endless rounds of introductory composition and surveys of literature), and the overwhelming majority write free verse suffused with the lyric "I." They also teach quite a lot of what I think you'd define as "street" poetry. I resemble that remark.

The current situation is not the same raw-versus-cooked recipe of the Anthology Wars era. I think it's counterproductive at best for us to redraw this battle line based on 50-year-old intelligence.

I have always written both formal and free verse (about 50/50). I do have a great love and respect for the history of poetic form and meter, in English and in other languages, and for the techniques that have brought us here over hundreds (and thousands) of years. It pains me to see that, once again, the fact that I happen to know "form" comes into this particular constellation of po-biz issues, even if intended as a compliment. While I appreciate your "red-hot formalista" assessment, some folks around town continue to labor under the misguided notion that I am some sort of iambic fascist, based on the fact that I read metrical verse at open mics (and actively promote other metrical poets' work to those who book features). The nearsighted who mistake me for a Republican Belle of Amherst might take a peek at the recent piece on the New Orleans Review in salon.com for an assessment of my free verse (or read some of it!).

No musician should be content to play half a scale. No painter should be content to use half the color spectrum. No poet should be content to write one style of poetry.

Too often, "form" becomes a convenient shorthand for "flow-free zone." Imaginary hostilities are imputed to differences in styles, to the detriment of poets everywhere.

I think that there are a lot of urban legends circulating about what it actually is that poets in academe do. Mainly, they read poetry and write poetry and (if they're damn lucky and win the lottery) teach poetry to people who want to learn poetry. People fear what they don't understand. The thing is, anyone who wants to understand poetry will have to read widely and deeply, and that usually goes on in the university. I'd put my money on the fine poets in the GSU workshop any day. They represent a wide range of styles and experience, but what they have in common is a passion for craft coupled with a highly-developed critical intelligence.

Gawd, this is long enough to be an entry on MY blog. Just wanted to chime in and perhaps give you/others some things to think about. Each of us goes about this in his or her own way.

P.S. In case you haven't caught it, check out the new radio show on WRAS 88.5 at midnight Friday-into-Saturday. Thanks to Kathy Kincer's hard work, you now can hear some of these fine yet underappreciated Atlanta poets read their work and talk about their poetics.

nolapoet said...

Ah, yes! I *did* skim it a couple of weks back on the Poetry website. What gets up MY ass is the corporate model of poetry pedagogy. This guy is singing from Dana Gioia's hymnal, but in a minor key. I don't know if he grew up working-class, as Dana did. I do know that I'm tired of (white male) popular poet-critics who clearly suffer from corner-office guilt telling those of us who are struggling to pay for two or three years of concentrated writing studies that we need to get out and live more so that we can generate some subject matter worth their attention. How the hell would they know? The most interesting, well-read, creative-thinking, risk-taking people get into creative writing programs: just look at the jobs any of US have held and the evidence speaks for itself.

I'll venture that he's not gotten to know any students in creative writing programs, much less their work, much less how that work evolves within a very short time, and certainly not its fruition a few years later. He probably has his own stereotype of what it means to have an MFA. An MFA means that someone has taken the time to put his or her work before others for often-blistering critique, spent a concentrated period working on his or her technique, read and written and thought deeply about particular aspects of poetry, and came out on the other side with a body of "publishable" (YMMV) work and a better sense of his or her strengths and weaknesses.

One thing you've got to give Dana: at least he (and Mike Peich) made it possible for someone like me, who's spent the better part of my adult life working full-time while putting myself through the state u., to benefit from the Ivy League and Oxbridge discussions that go on at West Chester. There are plenty of highly talented and intelligent poets who cannot possibly afford such an education. We piece it together any way we can, and an MFA or Ph.D. program can be part of the patchwork. We're the ones who are changing the face of American poetry--I think for the better--take Jeffrey Levine (Tupelo Press by way of Warren Wilson College) or John Poch (GSU grad; Iowa's loss, U of North Texas' gain, who with Deborah Ager brings us _32 Poems_), or any number of others. I remeber when John used to drive a forklift as an undergrad in GSU's creative writing program. I walked away from a great deal of money and opportunity at CNN in order to pursue my poetry.

In short, if some Daddy Warbucks is willing to pay for me to go study Spanish metrical poetry abroad, my bags are packed, baby. Until then, I'll have to keep plugging away at my day job and my Ph.D., and find adventure (and inspiration) where I can.If anything, HIS argument sounds like a thinly-veiled class attack: if anyone can gain access to literature (read: proliferation of MFA programs), then the infidels are at the door (read: diss MFAs).

Now the CONFERENCE cottage industry, of which some MFAs are a part, THAT'S another story... when the same 12 people are the "workshop leaders" at multiple vacation destinations all over the country all year round, THAT'S a scam. Mix it up more, I say. I know some people have cult followings, but starpower does not a workshop leader make.

Collin Kelley: Modern Confessional

Welcome to Collin Kelley: Modern Confessional, the website for poet, novelist, playwright and journalist Collin Kelley.