In Every Generation: A Response to Mark Edmundson

July 01, 2013

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)

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Comments

This is a wonderfully specific, focused commentary. We know we can’t trust Edmunson’s taste when he quotes with approval a passage by Robert Lowell that begins with these lines:
Pity the planet, all joy gone
from this sweet volcanic cone....
Of course, the earth is a globe, not a cone. Lowell chose “cone” merely to make his slant rhyme, which (for me, at least) undermines his otherwise powerful lines.
But Edmundson isn’t interested in pedestrian realities like the difference between globes and cones; he declares, “it was Lowell’s ambition that impressed me; he was looking at the world as though from outer space ... and pronouncing judgment.” Ironically, the rest of the passage Edmundson quotes goes this way:
[P]eace to our children when they fall
in small war on the heels of small
war—until the end of time
to police the earth, a ghost
orbiting forever lost
in our monotonous sublime.
Lowell’s poem critiques America’s overweening ambition in policing the world—an ambition based on the judgment that other peoples are disposable if their existence conflicts with our “national interest.” In other words, Edmundson admires Lowell for the very qualities Lowell condemned.
Edmundson's dewy eyed admiration leads him into all sorts of idiocies, such as asserting that Whitman and Ginsberg are akin to T. S. Eliot because they all speak “in the plural.” (“I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” begins Whitman’s most famous poem, while Ginsberg launches his early masterpiece with "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness”: not a “we” in sight!) This spurious connection, in turn, leads Edmundson to make one his silliest statements: “Eliot shares nothing artistically or politically with Ginsberg and not much with Whitman, but he does share their daring—and that on some level is what matters most [italics mine].”
Well, no wonder Edmundson isn’t bothered by Lowell’s looking down “from outer space” upon a planet transformed into a cone by the need for a rhyme. It’s just so damned daring!

 

I'm sure Steve will agree w/ me that Edmundson's appreciation of Lowell's fantastic stanza is not one of the many problems with his essaay.

Oh dear! Hiding behind literalness, "Anonymous" really fails to read Lowell as a poet. Yes, slant rhyme and even full rhyme, do require the poet to make choces about vocabulary, but the masters of the craft such as Lowell, Auden & Graves, do it so well, with such good humor & wicked wit, which all too often escapes students. Why "volcanic cone"? How else was the planet's urface constructed? Lowell had read enough Science to know the mechanics of planetary evolution, and a quick flight over Vesuvius would only help Anonymous in his eduction. "Cone" fits aptly, and correctly - the poet's mind works by having lots and lots of stray pieces of information floating around the great MindCloud, and the moment he'd scribbled down "gone", instead of "vanished" or "fled" as he lay on his summer bed, composing in between naps and walks along the beach, the visual rhyme of "cone" became available, and probably preferable to "tarnished" or banished" (too obvious), or "song" or even "some" ... Lowell's craft is a delight, it fits the pecularities of Mass. English, its flat, plain speech, its slow rhythms, its rhetoric & wit, all so diffreent to the hysterical rantings that now emanate from Washington or the crudities of Hollywood.
E. Reilly
Australia
 

Whitman equates the individual (himself) with all other people, attempting to reveal the universal nature of our simultaneously separate and collective experience. So, when he says "myself", he is celebrating humanity. The first four lines make this very clear, not to mention the entirety of the poem.

Humor is one of the many virtues Edmundson’s criteria for the best and highest poetry leaves out.
 
LEAVE out.  "Criteria" is plural.  Everyone know this but everyone forget.

One...leaves out. One is singular. Your criteria has nothing on basic grammar.

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Humor is one of the many virtues Edmundson's criteria leaves out.
 
The sentence is made up of a main clause (Humor is one of the many virtues)  and a dependent clause (Edmundson's criteria leaves out). As the subject of the dependent clause (Edmundson's criteria) is plural, the predicate should also be plural (leave out).  In Burt's original sentence, subject and predicate do not agree. 
 
 

To the anonymous comment above: I think you are misreading the line from "Waking Early Sunday Morning" that you quoted. In the lines "Pity the planet, all joy gone/from this sweet volanic cone," Lowell is not using the word "cone" only because of the off-rhyme with the word "gone." He's comparing the Earth to a volcano that's about to errupt (a metaphor for Lowell's fear of a nuclear war). Since volcanos are "cone"-shaped, there is nothing illogical about Lowell using that word.

pity the poet, all joy gone
from his sweet volcanic con: 
old man of the mountain
thunderheaded
past his prime
(eyeslant pine
and yeller's'tones
fifull geyserings) 
ashland euroption
diverting flights 'o fancy
(grounded again in london)
 
pity the poet his vulcan's own
lameness, his artifice, his cuckold's 
horns-by-the-bull-of-language,
 
pity the poet his magmatic musings
dribbling from his chin or a leaky pen,
pity the poet his leering sulphuric mouth
and his gradually whimpering whiz-bang--
 
pity the poet, a vesuvius in the guise
of a beggar, till the last breath's exploding.

Poetry: squared
Observation
Energy, words
Mensuration.

Poe eats trees: scared
Operation--
Elegy, birds'
Ministrations.
(edgar allen with a mouthful of spruced-up anguish, wandering in the wilderness like elijah, prophesying in a freshman english textbook, fasting his penance in yet another lackluster anthology)
 
 

critical readings by the secret police:  1)denounce the poet in his or her particulars-- do not become entagled in "general style". do not attempt to weave a web where a simple noose will do. 2)in our judgements we must be as jove-- strike like lightning, irreproachable, capricious. 3)let the poet wear a crown of laurels, but hang him from an old oak tree. 4)whatever creature has a neck is fit to be hung; if the creature lacks a neck, like a fish, or can hide its head within a shell, like a tortoise, then we must employ a net, hook, or the barb of a spear or arrow.   5)a poet can be trusted to bite a hook, if the bait is the poet's own tongue. 6)a tortoise can be overturned and left to die of its own haplessness 7)if a poet attempts to hide by taking the part of the old oak tree: any axe will do, as will fire, drought, wind or blight. but lightning's always best of all. 8)if a poet attempts to hide by taking the part of the lightning: then let him flash and thunder, to better serve jove's own glory, even as the poet hangs himself across the breadth of the sky. 9)the forbidden fruit was lightning 10)lightning's the sign of our own flaming sword. 

Despite this response, Mr. Edmundson is still absolutely correct.  For many years, poetry has been reduced to self-medicating emptiness with little regard for the reader. 

"Absolutely correct"? "Poetry has been reduced..."?
Where does this need come from, to make such sweeping, ironclad judgements about something as infinitely varied as poetry?
I could cite 25 poets whose work flies straight in the face of Edmundson's pronouncements (and yours), not that I think those pronouncements are necessarily words to live (or write) by.
Pick up any book by Ted Kooser, for example, and show me the "self-medicating emptiness with little regard for the reader." Read Naomi Shihab Nye and defend Edmundson's complaint about the lack of a "we" in contemporary poetry. David Ray's anti-war poems, Charles Simic's marvelous exhortations against tyranny, the wit and wisdom in just about everything Amy Gerstler writes, the thrilling, crazy-ass, vernacular  verve of Albert Goldbarth—you have to ignore all these poets and dozens more in order to claim that poetry has been held hostage by the academy and relegated to obscure mutterings into its own coatsleeve.
Sure, there's obscure, dull, academic poetry. But can we not agree that there's also a lot of contemporary poetry that's accessible and exciting and abundantly alive?

I agree that there's always poetry being written that's vibrant, relevant and exciting, but the majority of stuff that gets (any) serious critical attention is produced predominantly by academics in positions from which it is a lot easier to fashion a foothold onto the rungs of public consciousness than the less visible platforms on which a majority of the 100,000 in the American Poet Army fight for an audience in the trench of modern art.
 
It's a rich person's capitalist model of entry. The route in is to shell out dough to enter competitions created for the money they make more than finding raw talent, and, until recently with the one man Foetry campaign, a model that seemed openly corrupt from top to bottom.
 
A hitherto hegemony of middle class white academics publishing inward looking poetry of the unearned personal epithany - Edmundson's basic argument -  with the odd exception, is undeniably the case. American poetry's flagship foundation is dripping in the rich kid ethos, and talent is measured in the public realm by the amount of prizes and money any particular poet wins. It reminds of the news chanel commentators, well away from the front lione action, droning on with their takes and interpretations in a small closed exclusive village where social skills are more important than talent.
 
One of the most exciting poets writing today in America is Franz Wright who, like Manning and Snowden, is talked out of being a great American poet purely because of what are seen as his flaws of personality.  When someone does come along with the real deal goods that stand on their own two feet, such as the soldier poet Brian Turner's Come Bullet collection, the world takes notice. It doesn't take notice of most of the stuff the money is usually lashed at precisely because it is bog-standard, run of the mill white middle class academic outpourings of the private tortured soul inflating everyday occurences of confessional human life into some huge drama a majority of people would find overwrought melodramatizing if their interest was sustained past the first few lines of what is often impenitrible private riddles of middle aged academics living a privileged existence with nothing of interest to communicate to the average literate person.
 
From this distance at the eastern Atalntic edge, poets who are spokespeople for their community, such as Amiri Baraka, are rarely uttered from the lips of the anguished sixties hippies, precisely because, I suspect, he has lived the most Yeatsean of lives of any contemporary American poet alive now. In the sense that he was an important formentor in the cultural crucible of important times and went through a range of political phases and wore numerous poetic masks.
 
The bland leading the bland. If you lick the right ass, write the same sort of stuff and play the game you will be ok in the presnt but utterly binned by the future poetic historians deciding on what is actually any good and what is the product of the mediocre model policed by the well educated, utterly normal middle class smug people who just happened to fall into the pots of dough that buy poetic 'fame' in America these days.

Chris, "one" is not the subject of the verb "leaves out". The subject is "criteria" so the correction to "leave out" is correct. 

Mr. Burt: Thanks for drawing attention to Mark Edmundson’s essay, which is great. But it’s too bad you did it so idiotically.

Edmundson does not imply that Bidart “never seeks a collective voice;” that Muldoon “has always and only been a poet of inward-turned and sheepish privacy;” that we need more public poems which are “all poems by white guys writing about shooting wars.”

Nor does he complain about poets being “difficult, idiosyncratic, private, learned or just weird” or misquote Shelley.

Nor does he present criteria for “the best and highest poetry.” Basically, Edmundson only wishes contemporary poets would be more ambitious. You little weasel. You may be able to name 700 poets and write with style (sort of) but you have no substance and no integrity.

formula: begin by mumbling a mild cliche, outwardly polite if perhaps a little jittery. then: explode at the last breath, spittle-spraying ad hominems, abhorrences, wild detestations. call a man a weasel, or any other animal, perhaps to strip him of his human agency. why not call him a mouse in a maze, or a rat in manhattan, or a verbal vole, or a postmodern mole. perhaps call him the cat that ate the canary, or the cow that jumped over the moon. alternative approach: scribble a definitive collection of insulting adjectives and nouns (from your own perspective), each entry on an indvidual strip of paper: scatter them like confetti, and write them down however they should happen to fall. but remember that the words are chiefly foul because of the taste in our own mouths whenever we say them: remember that the actual weasel may have its many virtues-- as may the actual man (or woman) whom we would cast-down in rhetoric.  

 
Mr. Burt:
 
If you can’t take it, don’t dish it out...
 
You called Edmundson frustrating, uninformed and behind-the-times. You implied that he is an ignorant and unread bully (note the correct use of “implied”). You called his essay a screed. You called Adrienne Rich “shrill” and “clumsy.”
 
You repeatedly accused Edmundson of inaccuracy, inaccurately (see my previous post). Your tone is smug and your humor is lame. I’m not at all surprised that you’re a professor.
 
 
P.S.
You’re not “a rat in manhattan” or “a postmodern mole.” You’re a hypocritical, dithering moron. And a douchebag who doesn’t even realize that he’s a douchebag. 
 

I meant blithering moron. Definitely blithering.

interesting that you imagine that i am stephen burt-- now, i would suggest that you wipe the spittle from your face, and try to manage an argument like a sane and reasoned human being. points to ponder: wrathful and insulting words don't amount to much more than the barking of a dog, or the hooting of an ape, if those statements lack any fundamental motivation beyond mere insult. i understand that you really, really want to sink your teeth into stephen burt-- perhaps this would validate your ego-- and now, no doubt, you would like to sink your teeth into me, for having in any way challenged your delusions of grandeur and/or omnipotence. perhaps you should seek the help of counselor, who could help you manage these emotions of rage? note that: loudness does not confer proof of rightness: i understand that your ego might have been stung, but you could shout this to the very height of heaven and neither man nor angel (nor certainly God) will be in any way convinced that your bruised ego had been worth anybody's bother. 
and on that note: i will not bother with you anymore, angry person. but please don't be confused: you are not actually having an argument with stephen burt. which of course had been my point from the very beginning. 
do try to have a nice life, and to be nice to the people around you. adios. 

 
Mr. Burt:
Are you supposed to be a sane and reasoned human being? Obviously you’re not. Read again everything I’ve posted and try to convince yourself that it’s all “mere insult.” Try to dispute one of my points, instead of just saying “loudness does not confer proof of rightness.” Try to point out evidence of delusions of grandeur or a bruised ego. Do you even know what these words mean? Perhaps you’re the one who needs a counselor, or a brain transplant. I can’t do anything for you, but I do urge you to have some respect for the truth. 
 

I am inclined to side with Edmundson that modern (post WWII) poetry us indeed 'too private, too obscure'.
I don't know if this is a post-Freudian phenomenon, or a sociological one in the sense that every generation of intellectuals has its fads and prejudices and only publishes poetry that fits the in-crowd ethos. For my personal taste (a Yeats fan), too much of modern poerty requires me to do too much psychic deep sea diving in order to understand the very private, introspective world of the author. I condemn much of modern fiction for the same reason. If you speak a private language I cannot hear you, and will eventually turn a deaf ear to whatever you say.

respectfully: every poet speaks a private language, and his/her "public" will have been the best of fictions and metaphors-- best, in having been (potentially) the most useful to his/her actual, accidental, solitary public, which is to say the individual reader/listener/viewer/stroller/extoller/inebriant/employee/scrapbooker/specimen/hacker/policeman/supplicant/conqueror. 

 
I appreciate Steve Burt’s emphasis here that contemporary American poetry often does exactly what Edmundson says it doesn’t do (i.e. try to express some larger public truth with an ambitious “we”). I think it’s also worth emphasizing (even more than Burt already does) that many contemporary poets have no interest in these goals and actually feel liberated from that authoritative speaker-position (seeing it as elitist, oppressive, tedious, etc). Rather than writing from a sense of loss, these poets have found great opportunity, great imaginative and communal power in being honest about the instability of language and the subjectivity of truth. And these poets are not alone, of course. The same impulses have become pervasive throughout the arts in recent decades—take the fiction of Grace Paley, the painting of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the photography of Cindy Sherman, and the films of John Cassavetes, to name just a few examples. Perhaps Edmundson’s next critical move will be to dismiss all of contemporary art?

This article in the University Bookman is a more cogent expression of why contemporary poetry fails contemporary America:
http://www.kirkcenter.org/index.php/bookman/article/responsibilities-of-known-american-poets/ 
 

contemporary poetry sez: it's true, kids, i have let you down: didn't make the jump to talkies in the twenties, or to movies themselves for that matter, i was never quite comfortable with this illusory time's arrow business, where everything's a spectacle of falling forward, buster keaton on his backside, jimmy stewart with a bad case of vertigo, CGI explosions like the roar of a drunken crowd-- i'm sorry kids, i just couldn't do it, because poetry's the art of falling into and out of time, freeze frame, buster running backwards, scenes indefinitely repeated. as for comparing poetry to journalism: the televised newsman smirks at what he doesn't bother to understand and we love him for it, for his "savviness"-- but poetry attempts to give voice to the mystery, and must therefore sweat and stutter where a newsman will simply smile (or cry his crocodile tears). anyways: sorry i've bankrupted the business, not that poetry's ever been able to post a reliable quarterly earning.
contemporary poetry sez: this burton fellow is awfully kind, making reference to my occasional good moments, my still dapper days, my bon mots, my compelling anecodtes; as well as my heartbreakingly palpable banana slips of confusion, my frightful seasons of pale misfeature, my incontestable humanity.
still: you kids are probably right that i deserve to be "let go", surely i've just become a burden on you-- expecting you to read and empathize and doubt, while you had been striking yet another pose in your digital mirror-- anyways, i'll try to find myself an ice-floe to float out to sea on, like an old eskimo, except that i hear the ice is mostly melting. perhaps another whiskey on the rocks might do the same trick: cheers.
 

Thank you for that reference.

Thought-provoking. But I don't see "A terrible beauty is born" as hedging.
What gets "hedged" is not a statement, but a voice. The voice that speaks that line is not undercut by irony or of-course-there's-another-side.
The voice risks everything, and is unprotected.

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