The following essay is adapted from Chapter 3 of “The Fortunes of Poetry in an Age of Unmaking.”
Those who love literature, or at any rate have a vested interest in making sure great works of literature are taught at universities and that radical politics are not, could only find the conquest of the English Department by liberal ideologues distressing. But complaints on the hijacking of the academy by “tenured radicals” too often lead us to overlook more pernicious problems. For a literature professor such as myself, the spectacle of some of my colleagues tends to induce fits of speechless exasperation, followed soon after by the writing of polemical essays. But there are worse scandals to which no response on my part could be effectual. From time to time, I have found myself slumped as one soul among dozens, in a large, third- or quarter-filled auditorium, listening to a renowned poet decry the decline of English Departments, only to look about me and see nodding “fellow poets,” and the recently published Cornfield State University or SUNY—Milltown Press books of those poets, as greater threats than any bizarrely and narrowly trained academic.
If literature is to persist as an interest of honest men and women in the decades or centuries to come, it must be good enough to withstand the assault of any, and every, English Department. That poetry should be primarily read in the classroom is a bad thing, whether or not the professor teaching it does so badly or in the interest of forwarding bad ideas. That poets should cultivate productive and intelligent conventions of their craft; that they should understand the traditions in which they write, and treat them with deference and care; that their poems should be quite simply good—these are far more essential matters than whether some aesthetic deaf-mute should “out” a woman novelist of the nineteenth century, or whether some brash assistant professor, with complacent zealotry, should denounce Ezra Pound’s politics for the one-millionth time.
I have little reason to believe that poetry can long continue to exist outside the academy, however, because I have observed that the vast majority of publishing poets have abandoned or betrayed everything that makes poetry a valid and valuable art form. They do so not by entering the academy, but through a far more basic, bizarrely deliberate, lack of competence in writing. The academy should help sustain poets and poetry. It should initiate students into the study of that art so that the students may go on to enjoy it freely over the course of their lives. That is part of its mission as an institution of culture. But, to complain about its poor stewardship in that purpose as the singular cause of literary decline ignores the essential passivity and marginality of academic criticism, and exaggerates the reach of those incompetent malcontents who feed upon it. It mistakes an easy target for a moving one.
I read a generous handful of new books of poems and new issues of poetry journals every year. The few journals to which I subscribe and re-subscribe include an impressive number of great poems in their pages alongside many bad ones; the books I buy, as opposed to those I thumb through in stores or some of those I receive to review, offer extraordinary riches. Indeed, if I were careful, or just more selective, in my reading, I might almost think contemporary poetry was flush with imaginative vitality and formal accomplishment. Some of Geoffrey Hill’s work, most of Dick Davis’s, all of David Middleton’s, nearly all of Mary Jo Salter’s, Timothy Steele’s, Catherine Savage Brosman’s, and Dana Gioia’s; the lyrics I have seen of Leslie Monsour, Bill Coyle, Joshua Mehigan, Amit Majmudar, Paul Lake, Maryann Corbett, William Connelly, A.E. Stallings, Alfred Nicol, Peggy O’Brien, Ernest Hilbert, Jennifer Reeser, and Adam Kirsch; the translations of Rhina P. Espaillat, Len Krisak, and William Baer; the fractured narratives of Brad Leithauser, Ned Balbo, David Mason, and William Logan; the weird classicism of Fredrick Turner’s lyrics and epics—these constitute remarkable achievements. The selected and collected editions of Helen Pinkerton, John Hollander, Elizabeth Jennings, Donald Justice, Anthony Hecht, Derek Mahon, Derek Walcott, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, and Richard Wilbur suggest no less that some few titans still walk among us, or did until yesterday, and have perfected and extended their medium over a lifetime.
But too many times—too many cringing, aching times—have I sat in some cool and shabbily furnished auditorium, with its burnt orange curtain and wood-paneled podium, set like a soporific discotheque in the heart of a Stalinist slab of concrete poured out for the training of the State’s industrious wards, only to witness a ragtag bohemian army. There they sit, the piercèd ones, the assembled mass of a generation of well-published, would-be poets who simply do not know what they are doing, crowded by their well-disposed sycophants, even now conceiving non sequiturs in lines, waiting to hear something they may steal, waiting to hear the next new thing. In their quest to be original, inventive, “experimental,” and above all, published, they have repeated and repeated the mistakes of their slightly elder elders and their illiterate classmates in myriad MFA workshops.
By “mistakes,” of course, I mean “present poetic conventions.” Do I ask them to cease being conventional in order to become great poets? Not at all. Every poem is written within conventions, even when it is explicitly against them; it is a new whole of which conventions are the parts. I ask rather that they ask themselves why it is they write what they write. I have noticed that very few poets enjoy sitting and reading other poets’ work. This is not because “most of the poetry in any age is bad,” but because most poetry written and published today is produced within a body of conventions that guide poets in banal, opaque, nonsensical directions—directions that no one, save another poet looking for something to copy, would willingly follow. It is the hack work of the incompetent yet ambitious, a professional parlance with nothing amatory about it suitable for the amateur: but literature is for amateurs or it is for nothing.
When someone (in this instance Wayne Koestenbaum in Fence 17) publishes disjunctive declarative sentences followed by an extract from Theodor W. Adorno as if it were poetry, one understands that certain conventions are in place. They are simply bad conventions that manifest a theory of poetry entirely conformed to the practices of a modern consumer society, even as they pretend to move against them:
I might benefit from supplemental testosterone.
My arm is missing a wedge.
My girlfriend had a much-touted abortion.
I'm not emotionally expressive.
Adorno: “He who offers for sale
something unique that no one wants to buy
represents, even against his will,
freedom from exchange.”
The reasonably intelligent reader would be unlikely to spend much time puzzling out the connection between the first lines and the quoted passage from Adorno. Granting that he could, he nonetheless is not meant to do so, because poetry of this nature is constructed according to conventions that have nothing to do with the craft of poetry and everything to do with the publishing of poetry as an event, or rather, as the proof-of-purchase of itself as an event. This poem was intended to appear in a journal, perhaps to be glanced at by other young “poets” of certain ambition so that they will know it is there. It serves to reaffirm for them that poetry consists of little more than a series of ill-configured disjunctive sentences; so affirmed, they will proceed in manufacturing their own formulaic variations to appear in future issues, other magazines.
The compositional practice here derives historically from the surrealists, but has only the most superficial connection with actual surrealism. Such a practice is usually justified implicitly—though in the present instance, it is explicitly justified—according to a Western Marxist conception of art as resisting the reifying logic of modern capitalism. By refusing to be absorbed in the marketplace, art in its very uselessness and apparent ugliness enacts an isolated liberation from the “exchange” relationships that dominate market societies.
I do not like having my life reduced to its economic value any more than the next guy. But, unhappily, this poem and the thousands like it published each year attempt no such liberation; rather they serve as counters of cultural capital with no more intrinsic value than a dollar bill. This very “valuelessness” makes them available for ever-quicker consumption, as poet after poet skims journal after journal, in the impossible hope of keeping ahead of the market and, through imitation, getting another, similar poem published. This is what I mean by the poem as a kind of proof-of-purchase of the event of its publication. The poem is never meant to be seen in itself, and it will not be. It is meant to indicate that so-and-so has been published and this validates the continuation of publishing just this sort of thing. It is a species of that academic specter called a “credential,” a line on a CV.
Such a literary culture neither resists modern market culture, nor merely subsists within it. Because of the absolute marginality of contemporary poetry to that culture, it perversely exaggerates the inherent instability of the marketplace. The old Marxist saw that, in capitalism, “all that is solid melts into air,” seems an understatement here. Contemporary poetry of this sort was never solid to begin with; it was never meant to subsist and is already out of date the moment of its appearance. No one but the poet’s classmates, students, and imitators would shuffle into an auditorium to listen to such a poem. And even they would consider it a burden, for all talk of pleasure, interest, appreciation, or, in Adorno’s terminology, “shudder,” is beside the point here. The poem exists solely to be accepted by an editor and to reside unread on uncut pages of one journal or another. A poetry reading would merely slow down the rate of consumption, and one’s time is better spent either mailing out one’s own poems—or, perhaps, skimming a “post-avant” journal in search of something to steal and reformulate as “post-post-avant.” If poems were worth money, one might have to think about them awhile; but, as it is, the only sign of a poem’s value is its publication and the publication of more like it.
If penurious hyper-capitalism drives the small heavens of contemporary poetry in their ambit, this need not be so. An abundance of polemical essays in the last two decades have explored the importance, fate, and material of poetry in hopes of saving it from its practitioners. Dana Gioia’s Can Poetry Matter? (1992) is perhaps the most concisely perceptive and is certainly among the most well-known and unjustly maligned. William Logan’s prose, especially in his volume, The Undiscovered Country (2005), offers a copious supply of sharp (if not always as sharply worded as one would like) insights on the nature and failure of recent poetry. I hesitate therefore to suggest that the small readership of poetry criticism needs mine. At the risk of appearing to claim an authority I only doubtfully possess, I would nonetheless like to catalogue a handful of the losses from which poetry currently suffers. Because I so much enjoy reading poetry, perhaps my account will indicate what at least one enthusiastic reader looks for when he opens a book and what, to his disconsolation, he so seldom discovers. In my book, The Fortunes of Poetry in an Age of Unmaking, I undertake a thorough consideration of the failures of contemporary poetry, but then proceed to a defense of the new formalism, a movement that has helped revive our tradition and so has, in a sense, made poetry plausible again for the serious writer and, above all, the casual reader. In the book’s second part I engage in a more systematic critique of modern poetic theory and practice, praising where I can, condemning when I must, before concluding with a series of seven definitive notes on what is the art of poetry and why it has mattered and should matter. I hope those notes will serve as a kind of nest, where the interest of a new generation of readers might be born and nurtured.
James Matthew Wilson is associate professor of religion and literature at Villanova University.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?