In Every Generation: A Response to Mark Edmundson
In the current issue of Harper's Magazine, the critic, memoirist, and University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson levels an attack against contemporary American poetry in general, claiming that today's most recognized poets do not live up to the standards or the goals set by (among others) Robert Lowell and W. B. Yeats. American poetry now, Edmundson claims, is largely in thrall to the academy, too private, too obscure, unable to take clear stands. Boston Review contributing editor Stephen Burt responds.
First, I’d like to thank Mark Edmundson for writing the sort of attack that provokes a defense—the sort of frustratingly passionate piece that provokes responses and that makes editors publish them. I can say till I’m blue that Joseph Massey’s short poems are the best thing to happen to the sense of vision since the invention of photography; that Angie Estes has recently created some of the most beautiful verbal objects on the planet, or at least on the part that reads English; that Allan Peterson’s meditations on domestic tranquility and ecocatastrophe are so smart that they could actually make you smarter; &c. But only the people who already read book reviews devoted to not-very-famous single authors will notice. Now that Mark Edmundson has attacked contemporary-poetry-in-general in a national magazine, though, other national magazines and websites and blogs can get attention with pieces—like Seth Abramson’s in the Huffington Post—that recommend individual poets by coming to poetry-in-general’s defense.
Second—as Edmundson must know—attacks on contemporary poetry in general as too obscure, too private, in thrall to specialists, have been taking place for centuries. About Wordsworth’s Excursion, Lord Byron wrote, “He who understands it would be able / To add a story to the Tower of Babel.” Late nineteenth century critics made a constant practice (J.T. Newcomb wrote a good book about it) of complaining that poetry was dead, that its best practices all lay in the past, and our poets (poor sops) didn’t measure up. The twentieth century brought us Edmund Wilson’s “Is Verse a Dying Technique?” (1928), Joseph Epstein’s “Who Killed Poetry?” (1988), and Dana Gioia’s “Can Poetry Matter?” (1992), in which the future head of the National Endowment for the Arts concluded that contemporary poetry could matter, as long as the poets wrote more like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (This wasn’t a joke—nor was Longfellow, who should have been namechecked in Edmundson’s screed.)
Complaints against contemporary poetry arise, like vampire slayers, in every generation, and it’s easy to see why: when you compare your very favorite famous artists from the past with almost any quick or large or secondhand selection of contemporary work, the past will look better. That’s called selection bias, and it can be remedied not by better close reading, but by elementary training in statistics. As for the claim that our poets are in thrall to the academy, by comparison to the poets of the past, that’s less true than it was in 1980, because we have more small presses and Bohemian communities of serious poets who don’t care what their teachers think: I mean not only the performance (or “slam”) poetry communities, but the people who publish chapbooks in deepest Brooklyn, who might be teaching writing at art schools today, and who get adopted by the academy, if at all, rather tenuously, and at later stages of their (cough) careers.
It’s easy to skim Edmundson’s essay and conclude that he’s simply recycling complaints as old as modernism, or perhaps as old as Alexandria. But Edmundson is making a more specific—though equally familiar—claim. He believes that some great poems of the recent past— Yeats’s “Easter 1916,” Lowell’s Near the Ocean, the Ginsberg’s Howl—spoke to and for a large public, a “we” roughly identified with the nation; these poems spoke of public, political matters, in language that a large public could comprehend. They were what the classicist W. R. Johnson called “choral lyric,” poems that extended beyond the merely individual; and they were forceful (perhaps even manly), taking clear sides in existing controversies. Edmundson believes that poets do not do so now.
He’s not the only one. The call for a clearer and a more public contemporary poetry was made, and answered, by Robert Pinsky, when he was writing the essays in Poetry and the World (1988), and the verse that became (wait for it) An Explanation of America (1979), and the later verse of Gulf Music (2007), which is nothing if not an attempt at a grand, democratic, synthetic, accessible, and partisan reaction to public events, among them Hurricane Katrina. Pinsky has devoted half his career to becoming exactly the kind of poet whom Edmundson says no longer exists, though Edmundson or anyone else could always claim that Pinsky’s ear isn’t up to the job: after all, poets require music too, and it’s possible to find Pinsky even at his best talky, or stentorian, or unmusical.
It’s also possible to claim that Frank Bidart’s poetry lacks musical interest, that you can’t hear it (if so, too bad for you); but it’s just uninformed to imply, as Edmundson does, that Bidart never seeks a collective voice. He became famous for the alienated and extreme speakers in his dramatic monologues, thirty years back, but open Watching the Spring Festival (2008) and you might find “To the Republic”:
I dreamed I saw a caravan of the dead
start out again from Gettysburg. . . .
Risen disconsolate that we
now ruin the great work of time,
they roll in outrage across America.
You betray us is blazoned on each chest.
To each eye as they pass: You betray us.
If that isn’t public, political, collective, forceful poetry, what is? And if that music cannot satisfy, what music short of Yeats’s own would do?
But it’s possible that Edmundson has not read Frank Bidart’s “To the Republic”: he writes as if he got his sense of our most famous (non-avant-garde) poets from some mix of random New Yorkers and recent anthologies. How else to explain his idea that Madoc—the most difficult of all Paul Muldoon’s long poems—represents the long and short of Muldoon? How else to explain his implication that W. S. Merwin— who just turned 86—has always and only been a poet of inward-turned and sheepish privacy? I mean not just The Lice (1967), with its savage indignation against the war in Vietnam (perhaps, for Edmundson, that was Before the Fall), but also his many poems of the 1980s and 1990s asking, despairingly or politely, that Americans pay a little more attention to the ecocatastrophe that we continue to cause.
The poets whom Edmundson attacks for failing to write forceful poems of choral lyric have in fact been writing, or at least trying regularly to write, such poems. My colleague Jorie Graham has rarely sought the demotic gravity of a Pinsky, and she certainly writes about the individual, the abstract, the philosophical, but lately she’s been writing about our collective responsibility towards the planet too. The first poem in Sea Change (2008) notices how “the in-/ dispensable plankton is forced north now, & yet further north,” and asks whether Graham’s poems, or any poems, can help; the last poem concludes “There are sounds the planet will always make, even if no one is there to hear them.” That’s not a private lyre; that’s an alarm bell.
Humor is one of the many virtues Edmundson’s criteria for the best and highest poetry leaves out.
And those are only the poets Edmundson names. I am tempted to quote good public, political poems on matters of national moment by eminent midcareer poets whom he did not mention, beginning with D. A. Powell, but maybe he read them and didn’t like them; or maybe he read them and wasn’t paying attention, just as he might not have paid very much attention to Adrienne Rich’s terrific poem of sexual naïveté and disability politics, “Seven Skins,” which he complains isn’t musical: the lines he quotes are intended as versified dialogue. Late Rich is uneven, sometimes she sounds shrill or clumsy, but often she sounds like nobody else, and sometimes she sounds amazing; often she makes exactly and concisely one point that Edmundson wants to make, the point that a poetry of private individual reflection seems diminished, overprivileged, and morally culpable when juxtaposed with the biggest events in the world. “In those years, people will say, we lost track/ of the meaning of we, of you,” Rich wrote,
But the great dark birds of history screamed and plunged
into our personal weather
They were headed somewhere else but their beaks and pinions drove
along the shore, through the rags of fog
where we stood, saying I
Notice how that “I” echoes the predatory birds; notice how what she says about “us” is more or less what Edmundson tries to say.
But Rich might have a problem with Edmundson’s implications for what counts as public, for what kind of public poems we ought to have: they’re all poems by white guys writing about shooting wars. If you want an unquestionably “accessible”—nothing recherché or professorial about it—poetry that is at once powerful in its cadence (it could not have been a piece of prose) and directly relevant to obvious issues of public debate (health care, anyone?), you might try Brenda Shaughnessy’s Our Andromeda (2012), rightly praised in (among other places) the New Yorker for its writings about, and to, and for Shaughnessy’s disabled son: in them, “There is no such thing as sacrifice, / though the bleeding doesn’t end.” Shaughnessy’s poems say, among other matters, that one child’s troubles, one mother’s practical difficulties, are as important as space exploration, as shooting wars. And they are right.
Though (contrary to Edmundson’s implication) there are boatloads of poems about 9/11, truckfuls of poems against what Robert Hass, in one poem, entitles “Bush’s War,” much of the most effective—and most musically interesting—public, political poetry of our day does not take a nation at war as its subject, nor as its “we”: it attempts to speak to and about—and not to neglect the divisions among— mothers (as in Shaughnessy, or Rachel Zucker), or Southerners (as in C. D. Wright, or Yusef Komunyakaa), or Christian believers (as in Donald Revell, or the very traditional Melissa Range), or members of more familiar census categories. Often enough they speak from their position, as Lowell spoke from his (New England Brahmin), with the aim of addressing us all.
Unless I misunderstand him, Edmundson would like poets to address a collective, an “us all,” but it has to be the right collective: not an ethnic group, or an interest group, but a nation. “A language is a dialect with an army and navy,” as the linguist Max Weinrich quipped; a public, collective poem, in Edmundson’s argument, might be an interest-group poem whose interest group has a flag. But which flag? The Irish tricolor will do—it did for Yeats, and it does for Seamus Heaney, whom Edmundson oddly calls “American, as it were, by mutual adoption”: but when Heaney retired from teaching he settled in Ireland, and for all his service to American letters (and to my employer), he is no more American than I am French.
Heaney gives Edmundson at once a stick to beat contemporary Americans with (he’s better than we are) and a sign of how far things have fallen (he’s less committed, more of a hedger, than Yeats). Edmundson complains, about Heaney’s “Punishment,” that “Heaney can’t find a difference he won’t split.” Heaney has written about himself that way, as in his wonderful poem “Terminus”: “Two buckets were easier carried than one./ I grew up in between.” It is not a bug but a feature, and one that deserves some moral approbation, especially since it emerged in a climate—the Troubles—when writers kept on being asked to support one, and oppose the other, violent side.
Yeats’s “Easter 1916,” which Edmundson likes better because it “does not hedge,” in fact does hedge: its last line, “A terrible beauty is born” means not “I support the Easter Rising and its revolutionary martyrs unconditionally” but “They displayed nobility of spirit; and things are going to be different now, though nobody yet knows how” (and in 1916 nobody did). W. H. Auden defined poetry as “the clear expression of mixed feelings”; Yeats is working out mixed feelings too. He, and Heaney, also come from environments where children grew up with plenty of meter and rhyme; American poets today may not, and so their invention, their music, is more likely to take place in some form of free verse—which doesn’t make that verse, at its best, less “musical.”
Some American poets today are indeed, as Edmundson complains, difficult, idiosyncratic, private, learned, or just weird; others are trying very hard to make and remake a common language in which to say “we,” to sing of what we, some version of “we,” might share. Edmundson says that contemporary poets do not “slake a reader’s thirst for meanings that pass beyond the experience of the individual poet and light up the world we hold in common,” and he must be right, if he is the reader he means; but contemporary American poets do try.
He also says that “contemporary American poetry . . . does not generally traffic in the icons of pop culture; it doesn’t immerse itself in ad-speak, rock lyrics, or politicians’ posturing,” which was a very reasonable complaint about the print-based, New Yorker–supported, academically approved poetry of 1985. Mark Edmundson, meet Michael Robbins, Albert Goldbarth, Lucia Perillo, Terrance Hayes, Denise Duhamel, Thomas Sayers Ellis, H. L. Hix, Juliana Spahr, Harryette Mullen, Charles Bernstein, and a ten-headed hydra named Flarf, and also Paul Muldoon. “No one [today] would attempt an Essay on Humanity,” Edmundson continues—apparently An Explanation of America is too old to count; I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that any of all of the poets I just named had attempted a poem with just that title, and if it were Hix or Goldbarth they wouldn’t be kidding.
They might, however, be funny. “Humor saves a few steps, it saves years,” wrote Marianne Moore, and humor is one of the many virtues Edmundson’s criteria for the best and highest poetry leave out. Is a poem better because it “speaks in the plural,” or because it takes a side? Is a poem better because it addresses a nation, rather than addressing the poet’s daughter, or a beautiful stranger, or God, or the poet herself? Yeats did not think so: the author of “Easter 1916” was also the author of the equally admirable, and equally ringing, and equally canny “A Prayer for My Daughter,” and—almost twenty years later—of “Politics”: “Maybe what they say is true/ Of war and war’s alarms,/ But O that I were young again/ And held her in my arms.” There’s something admirable in a call for almost any kind of poetry, because it can prompt rereading, and poetic creation; but there’s something bullying in Edmundson’s particular call for a particular kind of poetry, as if it were the king of the rest. Edmundson ends by slightly misquoting Shelley, who wrote that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” W. H. Auden retorted that poets had better things to do; the unacknowledged legislators are the secret police.
Photo: Apple tree rings / Brett Jordan, Flickr (cc)