Threat Level: Poetry

February 06, 2014


We are human and know so little. We get anxious in the face of our limitations. Some of us ferret into and mine the unknown, while others struggle against it. The desperate beings who claim Poetry is dying because nothing new can be said are grappling for some semblance of control. Their anxieties reach an apex via treatises that strive to master what mercurially ignores such authoritarian muscle. Poetry is untamed in its potential and various permutations, and the cages of these naysayers are poised. The stakes are high; they are motivated by their need to affix poetry’s position in a material culture for personal gain or career acclaim. But poetry forever fails the marketplace with its messy complex tissues of connectivity and exploratory bravado, bringing together what shouldn’t be, conceiving that which hasn’t been, and undoing the certainties we’ve built lives on. It is complex and strange, despite our hope for simplicity and security via epiphanies or aphorisms that make us last forever. It is no accident that a common response to poetry is “I don’t understand.” We have yet to understand the depths and realize fully the edges of ourselves.

In line with the usual spate of critics declaring poetry’s demise and imminent death, people like Mark Edmundson (Harpers, “Poetry Slam”), Dwight Longenecker, (“Why You Need Poetry”) and some Conceptual writers have lately been pushing for a narrowing down and systemization of poetry, which is really a call for the depersonalization of poetry (i.e. strict appropriation, plagiarism cut-ups, sole use of form, etc.). These calls have come from conservative, mainstream, and avant-garde positions with uncanny similarities. The problem with such prescriptions is that they prioritize process over person, whereas poetry is process, process by person. Person can never truly be eliminated from the poetic equation. Systematization is meant to remove subjectivity, which is dismissed as “bias” or the unpredictability of individual human impulses. The author has often seemed an unruly, morphing entity. Yet poetry’s unpredictability, which surpasses rote forms or recycling methods, leads us to the unexpected. Poets continue to locate new angles to look from and language to look through; we are still actively surprising ourselves and others.

The impulse behind these critiques seems to be a desire to narrow, conquer, and harness poetry as a means to establish footholds in a marketplace that disavows the necessity of poetry; poetry is useless as a monetary and status measure, and that is also its ultimate power. These critiques have forgone the complex personhood of poetry, the one that goes on intuition, lives on emotional intellect, and senses the spiritual that even a few lines of Whitman or Dickinson evoke. They suppress and resist the development of capabilities people are endowed with.

. . . and the poem, like music, refuses to remain silent on the printed page—without the intrusion of the rational mind decreeing sense or a critical intelligence attempting explication . . . The erotic sounds and movements, as in Wagner’s music, evoke birth, love, loss, and death. —Edwin H. Miller on Whitman

Poetry offers unharnessed power and motion. It is not a weakening storm or Frankenstein’s monster on the brink of capture, regardless of measures to prescribe poetry’s next move.


Poetry is dead by capitalism’s standards—it is not an obvious moneymaking venture, despite traceable employment and readings’ payoffs via the academy—and that emboldens some folks limited by capitalist blinders to herald poetry’s last breath. If Conceptual poets can sensationally spin this mythology and position themselves as the left arm of the avant-garde, then like the phoenix from ashes, they can symbolically claim to revive and make popular a supposedly dying art.  But these mythologizers think through their wallets with an eye for mass attention as a measure of their own and poetry’s value.

The naysayers of poetry’s vastness seem to be primarily fueled by declaring poetry’s defeat or impotence instead of engaging in the more difficult work of creating beyond what they know. “The limits of my language are the limits of my world” is not Wittgenstein’s defeatist end; it is his challenge to set out boldly and with curiosity to expand and explore through the language we think through. He didn’t stop with the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus where that statement appeared; it was his first of many books, such as the Philosophical Investigations, that explicated his theory of “language-games” and complexly broadened his considerations of language use overall.What a lazy, pretentious approach to think we’ve located our limits and can now only recycle and shuffle what’s been said before as cut-and-paste, as the Conceptual poets would have it, or by squeezing words into forms without any sense of language’s expansiveness or trust in the person using it, as traditional formalists would claim. It is far simpler, and nullifying, to call to order poets who don’t adhere to the latest prescriptions in the name of saving or reviving poetry. Note how these doomsday proselytizers use insult to promote their poetics: today’s poets are “oblique, equivocal, painfully self-questioning . . . timid, small, in retreat . . . ever more private, idiosyncratic, and withdrawn” (“Poetry Slam”). “It is the easiest thing in the world to write free verse. Seventh grade girls do it all the time.” (“Why You Need Poetry”) “Are you not all walking citations? To the extent you see yourself and your Duracell soul as snowflakes, crystalline, fragile and exquisitely and individually wrought, recall that snowflakes seem quite different shoveled en mass on the sidewalk…” (“I”). Putting down a fantasy of sensitive individuality is a misguided attempt to shame poets who explore and expand notions of self beyond appropriative and formalist methods. It also reveals a limited view of the variety of poetries at work right now in order to promote a handful of techniques and forms already in use by numerous poets.

Further, the writers of poetry’s obituaries are aligning themselves with a capitalism that is patriarchal by default: it is more beneficial to divide and conquer or imperialistically claim, in sound-byte fashion, than to identify and envision beyond perceived limitations or some institutionalized formulaic trend. They are instead keen to mythologize the immaturity of ‘seventh grade girls’ and ‘snowflake’ poets trapped by their own ‘painful self questioning’ and lack of popularity. This presumed impotence needs a hero, a liberator. But the savior complex hides another facet—an inability to imagine beyond the culture these writers choose merely to mirror, simply acquiescing to the power structures we inherit. Frankenstein’s monster is off in the darkness needing capture and taming, and the darkness, to them, is neither navigable nor perceptible – it is their end. It is safer sticking to the capitalist monolith we know; the returns, they hope, can be counted with measures we’re accustomed to: jobs, money, fame. Poetry cannot be harnessed by such straightjackets (hence the oft-heard refrain that “poets starve”); it is not accountable to those values. That is the real radical worth engaging. In an increasingly dimmer Conceptual age, poetry is the punk that limns the dark.


Guess what poets do. Whatever we want with language. Despite grammar and outlined traditions, there is no set-in-stone social contract that constricts poets. As long and as hard as some have written on what poetry has done, what it ought to do, what forecasts predict, no one has systematized what poets must do. Where scientists follow specific guidelines for conducting experiments and maintaining “controls,” poets can knock off into the wilderness without prescribed imperatives or outlined goals. We can look to many futures without imposed blinders. In fact, poetry can help us identify those blinders and avoid them. The impossible is ours to plunder – and make the most of.

Poetry is performative utterance. Poetry is kinesthetic language. It can startle in visceral ways and take the top of your head off in the process. Do we really grasp the magnitude of that potential? I can speak in the shape of a lilt. You can be the color of winter. I can look for you under my boot soles and conceive the complexities of that notion (“Song”). I can feel and explore what poetry evokes. Poetry tells me my emotions can be smart and discerning.

Ironically, some claim that there are more people writing poems now than ever before as if this is an argument against poetry. Those who warn that everything has already been said have fashioned gimmicky cautions of a glut of language premised on a western-split called “thinkership” where the intellect is split from and trumps feeling. If their aim is to broaden poetry’s reach or challenge its perceived limitations, surely there are better ways than to misleadingly boil the vastness of poetry down to a singular definition of the lyric, spin tales about its imminent demise, and repackage and sell poetic techniques already in use as their own liberating methods. These conceptual writers’ critiques parallel conservative ones—both writers define just how poetry should be written in order to save itself, much like the call for a return to form is a means to return to the power of poetry that once was. Add in their shared denigration of poets clumped together as “withdrawn” “snowflakes,” and an alignment of conservative and avant-garde positions appears. That both camps bolster themselves via cyclical group referencing does not negate the multiple ways poets explore through and with language. Mutiny will not capture the ship. They mistake the ship for tiny views.   

Poetry is the water, the planetary pull, the sky’s embrace, and the song of oars; it is the potential of all that is human, which is comprised of atoms from farthest reaching stars, and will not cease until, perhaps, the last person no longer knows words, says the Romantic humanist in me. It is in the margins, the fray, and the common places too. Some poets may attempt to harness and use the “PoBiz” for personal or professional gain, but it is at their own expense that they fail to grasp that poetry’s power extends far beyond one’s career or notions of fame. Poetry has the potential to undo us. That is its promise and its threat too. Adhere to a western-minded safety, as if this or that prescribed poetry is the only way to art, and you will succumb to a futile capitalist caste system that has no terms for the value poetry offers. It does not recognize poetry’s value—poetry is off its charts.

Further, poets on the edge, the ones not gunning for academic standing via simulated avant-garde status, perform a kind of exercise in alchemical fecundity for which there is no precedent—they are not afraid of the impossible, bringing together and cobbling the unexpected. These moments either shock us into a new awareness or reveal something we’ve only glimpsed or felt was possible. You know that moment when an observer says, “That’s so poetic!” No guidelines or rules can dictate exactly when those moments occur, but you know them when you see them; it requires no training to know when your entire being has been surprised and moved.


Poetry is as large as language. Just as language pushes its limits, poets can make connections where connections are frowned upon. We might engage with our intuition or emotion or even that mysterious and popularly denounced “spiritual” part of ourselves. We can juxtapose the arbitrary with the arbitrary and invoke a maddening sense of the reality we’ve inherited. We can move from our depression or fleece a corrupt order with a vision of existence that incites responses varying from the call to question to the responsive insurrectionary. We can also highlight the beautiful-ugly among us that everyday language would insist is either one or the other.

Orderly minded folks may look askance at or denigrate poets who overlap incorrect things, unsanctioned, as if order is the rule of the day and sentiment cannot be turned out in any other way beyond the frivolous (i.e., the seventh-grade girl mentioned earlier writing free verse). If you didn’t arrive at that image or concept via a school of poetics from the industrial academic complex, then you may be in line to be named in the next “Why Poetry Is Failing” redux. You might be denounced as someone who plays in the lower realm of lyrical epiphanies, or as one ignorant of how language systems function. These are all coded ways of dismissing those poets who are changing—via slow burn—the landscape of thought and language in our current economy and cultural climate. Because many prophets of poetry’s death don’t render language beyond systematized methods, they feel comfortable insulting those who do as a way of jockeying for position in what they see as a marketplace poetics. If they insult the poets, they needn’t grapple with poetry’s particulars – or even read them.

Imagine if Walt Whitman, the journalist, steeped in reams of the printed word daily, told Walt Whitman, the poet, that there is too much, it has all been done, there is nothing new under the sun: now find a gimmick and ride that to the bank. American poetry would suffer from the absence of his work. He didn’t waste time denouncing the formulaic work going on around him; Whitman the poet-journalist wrote like no one had before, undaunted in the face of just how much work had preceded him. It is time to stop giving credence to competition and to poets who make spectacles that simply firm up the dominant order. Let’s look to poets who throw us off our game and make us think in unsafe ways, violations that enlarge us instead of parlor tricks of privilege that keep the disenfranchised invisible. Fear of the unknown is our greatest asset, not a cause for cutting other poets down or condemning their efforts. Noam Chomsky, known for observing that language has its limits, also famously notes, “What is mysterious to me is not an argument that it does not exist.” Cue the poets. 

Read more: 


I am utterly gobsmacked. I cannot believe what I've just read.
And on the other hand (she cursed aloud and at length) who could possibly make this stuff up?
Ms. King's is a concise and brilliant essay to which I will return. Excellent work.

A wonderfully  constructed article, which I whole heartly  agree with , but the language was complex in places , but never the less a sound rebuke of those who think poetry in any form is dead, as for those  who wish to  pigeon hole or  label well they will always be with us,  and if  you look behind the veil  you will find a marketeer, all poetry and  all creative use of words should be cherished with out  rules  formats or worse critiques  from vested interests

Deep, hard hitting and sublime! 
Re-affirmed my belief in human expressions, emotions, words and the wordless.
Felt evoked and ended up writing the following,
"Belonging to anyone, anything, anywhere,
yet being alone and fragile,
who am I, where am I, why am I,
cries the man in exile."



You write:
"The limits of my language are the limits of my world" is not Wittgenstein's defeatist end; it is his challenge to set out boldly and with curiosity to expand and explore through the language we think through. He didn't stop with the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus where that statement appeared; it was his first of many books, such as the Philosophical Investigations, that explicated his theory of "language-games" and complexly broadened his considerations of language use overall.
Actually, the Tractatus was his only book -- the Investigations and all of the other writings (which derived from notebooks and student notes) were posthumous. And Wittgenstein didn't write about "language-games" in the Tractatus, which was a decidedly anti-"poetry" description of how language could serve the fields of logic and science (though it was quite poetically written). ("Explicate" doesn't make much sesne to me at all, either, he didn't explicate anything.)
I'm "on your side" in some ways about poetry as a or the central art but going on about capitalism and trying to read the minds of poets (or conceptual writers, or critics or whomever) without quoting them makes for bad polemic. It's not so difficult to create passionate arguments without (being a writer) quoting from whomever it is you are arguing against. Otherwise, it just sounds like a screed that is simply too easy to ignore.
Indeed, Walt Whitman the journalist did think there was too much of the printed word daily, which is why he quit journalism (he also typeset his own newspapers, which is quite a commitment!). And did he really "denounce" the work around him -- isn't that what Poe did?
The best solution to poetry's woes if there are any is to write good poems. "PoBiz" -- please. Is there a "PaintBiz"?
Maybe you should read Shelley's "Defense of Poetry," he hits the right note of indignation, social critique and philosphical depth.

This is the most realist perspective on poetry that I have come across on poetry for a long while now. 
As a published poet myself, I find poetry cathartic, therapeutic and the most freeing modes of expression, if there is one. 
Ms King has covered all the aspects that affect poetry today with remarkable practicality and relevance. 
Well done! :) 

This article is written by a very educated person for a very educated audience.  Unfortunately, that audience aim vitiates much of the discussion.  Few educated people denigrate poetry because it is not profitable or because "too many people write it."  To be honest, I feel very uncomfortable with this article about poetry because it seems to create a set of straw men in order to expend a big and complex grammar and vocabulary.  Furthermore, its call for novelty just seems off the mark.  e e cummings and John Donne--not to mention Shakespeare.Sappho, Catallus  and Chaucer--can create novel poetry with ingenious word play. The use of novelty, however, is no more good poetry than the rhymiest doggeral imaginable. Mere experimentation does not make a poem.  I will repeat that e e cummings and Gerard Manley Hopkins, universally recognized as good poets, were innovative, but their value is in the poetry--the creation of a musical, beautiful, insightful, humane and truthful comment that resonated with human nature. Much modern poetry in particular is witty and innovative, exploratory of grammar and form, etc.--but worthless, in my opinion, for the far more significant value of poetry to communicate the human condition as an awakening, a discovery of one's soul. Literature, as I have argued for many a year is about "felt, common truths" of our living, and not just about forms, formulae, and other accidents of communication.

Bravo, Ms. King.

My favorite essay of 2014!

Disambiguation: the comment above under the byline "Joris" is not by me, "Pierre Joris." I do not feel uncomfortable at all with Amy King's article, in fact like it very much & agree with her vision of poetry is & can do. — Pierre Joris

U spoke so eloquently from your heart and from your head to mix the two and make sense! Bravo!
So many points, but the one that hit me over the head, and yes I adress you with the I: my POV, is  that of patriarchial dominance and the accompaning  monetary perspective that spells success for many, you go even farther the academic snobery that limits imagination rather then expanding it.  you illumed the dark You gave us a deluge of snowflakes, Frankenstein snowflakes, I will stick with the monsters, the strange and celebrate the avalanch! Thank you Thank you! I will hang with Frank in the dark. I write becaue I have to, I write to know myself, my world and then to share. You open eyes!
Yours in Pen
Donna Pecore

Just fabulous, Amy. Thanks so much for writing this.

I think we (=likely hyper-educated, likely enfranchised readers) can all be wooed by an essay that rails against the modern-day detractors of poetry by throwing out words like "patriarchal" and "capitalist" and "western-minded" to belittle their criticisms. But doesn't casting her detractors into these monolithic identities undercut Ms. King's very message here--that poetry is not monolithic, not bound by linguistic convention? that indeed there are as many poetries as there are contours of the human imagination? It is quite easy to dismiss criticism when one deploys neat identities such as these, but one would expect more from Ms. King given the content of her essay. If she wishes respect, open-mindedness, and perhaps some sort of non-capitalist/non-patriarchial currency for the exchange of artistic expression (still waiting for her to explain that...), she would do well to acknowledge that just because others have different conceptions of poetry, they need not be dismissed as misguided scientists imprisoned by their objectivity or slaves to the "industrial academic complex." The essay is quite remarkable for its attempt to insulate its subject matter from criticism by deploying the same fraught identity politics that it purports to dismantle. We all know (or can all gather) that Ms. King is a consummate poet (in her definition of that word), and obviously quite brilliant on the page, but one can't help but feel as though one were addressed by a pedant here, chastising us (whoever we may be whose tastes perchance may vary from hers) for our adherence to "a western-minded safety" and succumbing "to a futile capitalist caste system." What does that even mean? Surely a society exists--ours?--wherein people reasonably differ in their preferences and in the value they ascribe to those preferences; this need not imply, as Ms. King extrapolates, that such society has "no terms for the value poetry offers."

King writes:

 "But poetry forever fails the marketplace with its messy complex tissues of connectivity and exploratory bravado, bringing together what shouldn’t be, conceiving that which hasn’t been, and undoing the certainties we’ve built lives on. It is complex and strange, despite our hope for simplicity and security via epiphanies or aphorisms that make us last forever."

If this truly is the function of poetry, then poetry fails the marketplace simply because the capitalist marketplace already does these things better than poetry ever could. For what is poetry, as King describes it here, but an agent of the same "creative destruction" celebrated by the defenders of the market?

Think that's hyperbolic? Compare the words of King's manifesto with these from a better-known example of the genre, published in 1848:

"Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind."

If poetry is capable of "undoing the certainties we've built our lives on", it can only do so at a conceptual level; the marketplace (as Marx and Engels understood, and as we have all experienced in our day-to-day lives) does it in immediate, practical, material terms. Indeed, the kind of conceptual revolutions King credits to poetry are, to a dogmatic Marxist (which I'm not, just playing devil's advocate here), only by-products of concrete ones, of revolutions in the relations of production.

I'm only a bemused onlooker in these poetry battles, one who doesn't know what poetry is, or what it's purpose is or should be; but I suspect it may be the opposite of what King thinks it is; that people began arranging words in pleasing patterns of sound and rhythym not to destroy, escape, or discard old things, but to preserve them, to make them stick in the memory. But that's another discussion entirely. I merely wanted to point out that King's idea of poetry isn't as inimicial to the values of the market as she assumes.

Amy King makes some valid points in this essay, but the overall tenor seems to me to be awfully shrill and defensive. The so-called conceptual poets that I'm familiar with do not have the "us vs. them" mentality that she sees as absolute and defining. In fact, I find them to be more inclusive about poetry's diversity than so-called traditional poets. When she claims that so-called conceptual poets are "gunning for academic standing via simulated avant-garde status," I can't help but focus on her aggressive language. Perhaps she's upset that poetry isn't as "pure" as it was when it lived and operated safely in the confines of literature? Describing so-called conceptual writing practices as "parlor tricks of privilege that keep the disenfranchised invisible" doesn't move the discussion forward. Maybe she would make the same claim about Marcel Duchamp or Dan Flavin or Ryan Trecartin? Actually, this essay seems to move the discussion back about 30 years to the debates about Language Poetry and what Charles Bernstein termed "Official Verse Culture." 

Bravo Amy!

Who are these conceptual poets to which Ms. King refers to as "gunning for academic standing via simulated avant-garde status" ? The academic-minded English departments that I'm familiar with do not appear anxious to expose their students to more open-minded multi-media approaches to the concept of "language".  ARE there conceptual poets in English departments who crave avant-garde status? More likely they reside in Art departments (e.g. Ann Hamilton) rather then in English literature. (Here is a link to one of my videos to illustrate one direction of multimedia poetry. ...and regarding the so-called "parallel" traditionalist, we should not say that traditional verse forms are not still used today by poets in surprisingly innovative language that is full of "power and motion", and able to find beauty where others see ugliness. Consider the "eastern-minded" haiku or even the cinquain, which was invented by the American poet, Adelaide Crapsey. I often write with the cinquain form in a collaborative way by alternating lines with other poets. The 'restrictive' syllabic form leaves our thoughts more free to roam, and collaborating with the thoughts of others can take us down paths we wouldn't have found on our own. So, I guess I'm saying that both sides have their merits and also intertwine. Also, "avant-garde" novelty forms do not automatically result in good poetry - as Joris expressed so well in a previous comment, but one can't totally discard them as pretentious because experimentation is a good tool for delving into one's creative depths.
Yes, everyone has a blog and can publish there own poetry, videos, music, or art online or publish a book via publish on demand sites like Create Space, Lulu, etc. and there are those who lament that fact. Yet, technology is a democratizing tool that needs to be embraced. It does not mean the "demise of poetry" anymore than E-books mean the demise of the physical book or free music downloads mean the demise of physical CDs (in fact, even the vinyl record is making a come back!). It is simply an evolved market structure based on "the times", and we need to sort it out when looking for the expressive "art" of fellow humans - be it music, poetry, art, literature, video, etc. If critics and academics really want to help us "sort it out" and to promote the marketing of poetry, they need to get busy and cover what's out there online as well as in the traditional venues of published poetry-- because poetry is exploding far beyond those traditional venues.
The essay's ending quote by Noam Chomsky prompted me to google it for the context (the double negatives had me confused!) and so I read the NY Times article about his lecture series a few months ago under the auspices of Columbia University's Philosophy Dept. Again, many reader comments beneath the article show a lack of recognition of the huge breath of possibilities regarding what should officially constitute "language". So naturally, it does appear that language has its limits -- but the limits depend on the writer and the reader and the flux of the mind in its environment during the period chosen to read or write that language.

This essay is like a bird: It soars. Name this bird. This essay is like a poem: it stands as if it were a person made of paper. It stands out.
"Poetry is the water, the planetary pull, the sky’s embrace, and the song of oars..." Yes, bless this mess that is the poet's bed.
Whether Conceptual poetry is the likeness of building blocks used by children playing in a temporal sand box or a deconstruction of PoeMo, emotion and its uses within the context of verse; a description of language as a form of attachement...  Humans are never done. They do themselves up every day, as Ms. King opined. Subject or object? Hmmm. I have neither degree nor poetic license to judge. Only poetic lithe sense, like this essay. I just wanted to say that I felt, as Ms. King had said. Moved.

'Tinkership.' My fortuitous misreading of your neogolism, Thinkership. Unsinkable Poets exploring the swamps of lingo lube. Go, Amy King.

Briliantly put. Awesome poet

Christ on the Cross, this woman cannot write for the life of her. Sometimes the proper word in a sentence is one not everyone may know, but Ms King seems to make a sport out of throwing in as many obscure words as possible, with the effect of producing incomparably awkward sentences. And a full six appearances of the avoidable word "via"!
Do she and her followers realize how out of touch they sound with... basically everyone else in the entire world?

mocked as special snowflakes, they chose

from blizzard, avalanche

or glacier

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