Tag Archives: Contemporary Poetry

Go Set a Poet

“The first discipline is the realization that there is a discipline—that all art begins and ends with discipline, that any art is first and foremost a craft. We have gone far enough on the road to self-indulgence now to know that. The man who announces to the world that he is going to ‘do his thing’ is like the amateur on the high-diving platform who flings himself into the void shouting at the judges that he is going to do whatever comes naturally. He will land on his ass. Naturally. You’d think, to listen to the loudspeakers that surround us, that no man had ever tried to ‘do his thing’ before. Every poet worth reading has, but those really worth reading have understood that to do your thing you have to learn first what your thing is and second how to go about doing it. The first is learned by the difficult labor of living, the second by the endless discipline of writing and rewriting and rerewriting. There are no shortcuts. Young writers a while back, misreading Bill Williams, decided to ignore the fact that poems are made of words as sounds as well as of words as signs—decided not to learn the art of words as sounds, not to be bothered with it. They were not interested in poems. They were interested in doing their thing. They did—and that was that.”

                                                            –Archibald MacLeish

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It’s hard, when daily you’re forced to witness the works you treasure, to which you’ve devoted patience and breath, abused and devalued most by those who should be staunch advocates and defenders. I lean on Guy Davenport: “All of this points to our having a society that reads badly and communicates execrably about what we read.” We get what we deserve. We force-feed our children “pleasant, undemanding reading” and do everything to make sure that it positively stays down. Dare to object. Flannery O’Connor’s observation remains spot on: “It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they are reading a children’s book.” That’s To Kill a Mockingbird, incapable of aging—of aging well. “Most recently, librarians across the country gave the book the highest of honors by voting it the best novel of the twentieth century.” How is that possible?

“The case against intellect is founded upon a set of fictional and wholly abstract antagonisms. Intellect is pitted against feeling, on the ground that it is somehow inconsistent with warm emotion. It is pitted against character, because it is widely believed that intellect stands for mere cleverness, which transmutes easily into the sly or diabolical. It is pitted against practicality, since theory is held to be opposed to practice, and the ‘purely’ theoretical mind is so much disesteemed. It is pitted against democracy, since intellect is felt to be a form of distinction that defies egalitarianism.” That’s Richard Hofstadter decades before our great awakening, bolstered by the internet. “I will refuse.”

I lean on my friend and former mentor, Douglas Smith: “Writing and reading always swim together.”

Because an age may fail to recognize genius, or erringly (and stubbornly) approves some lesser talent—is hardly the determining factor: Shakespeare remains foremost…peerless, eminent, unrivaled. To those convinced all writing is equal (as all painting, music, etc.), and that judgment is arbitrary and wholly idiosyncratic (personal/subjective)—there’s really nothing much I can say.


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Dark and I Walk in

                                              i.m. Mark Strand

It wasn’t until the next day, the morning after, when I read the reported loss of Mark Strand. I maintain much respect for him, without ever having met him in person. Several years ago I mailed him a poem I had written in response to one of his, “The Night, The Porch.” And he was kind enough to write a short note in return. His work will go on.

The Night, The Porch

To stare at nothing is to learn by heart

What all of us will be swept into, and baring oneself

To the wind is feeling the ungraspable somewhere close by.

Trees can sway or be still. Day or night can be what they wish.

What we desire, more than a season or weather, is the comfort

Of being strangers, at least to ourselves. This is the crux

Of the matter, which is why even now we seem to be waiting

For something whose appearance would be its vanishing—

The sound, say, of a few leaves falling, or just one leaf,

Or less. There is no end to what we can learn. The book out there

Tells us as much, and was never written with us in mind.


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“In almost every relationship with his fellowmen the artist will encounter a preponderance of shallowness, conceit, envy, jealousy, profit-seeking, treachery, and dumb resistance.”

                                                        –Jacques Barzun

“Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul.”


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Mirrored Halls

“Why read, if what you read will not enhance mind or spirit or personality?” I take great issue with Donald Hall’s claim of a widespread increase in competently written poems. Why sanction competence? Then again, advanced readers—superlatively engaged—are required, desperately necessary, ones who can actually discriminate beyond a mere like or dislike. “A vast concourse of inadequate works, for adults and for children, crams the dustbins of the ages. At a time when public judgment is no better and no worse than what is proclaimed by the ideological cheerleaders who have so destroyed humanistic study, anything goes.” The term “competence” saturates commentary, and to retain any distinction must be divorced from technical aspects of craft and tradition. There exists a terrible disconnect—between the study of forms and technique, and the application of such knowledge. It’s as though nothing rubs off on today’s students. The burden of proof lies on Hall et al. to show, beyond a reasonable doubt, incontrovertibly, that so much excellent writing is in fact being written. I see no overwhelming evidence of that. “Poems that demand—and reward—rereading are rare, almost extinct.”

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Must Needs

“There is no greater fallacy going than that art is expression—an undertaking to tell all to the last scrapings of the brain pan.”

                                                               –Robert Frost


“If literary canons are the product only of class, racial, gender, and national interests, presumably the same should be true of all other aesthetic traditions, including music and the visual arts. Matisse and Stravinsky can then go down with Joyce and Proust as four more dead white European males. I gaze in wonder at the crowds of New Yorkers at the Matisse exhibition: are they truly there because of societal overconditioning? When the School of Resentment becomes as dominant among art historians and critics as it is now among literary academics, will Matisse go unattended while we all flock to view the daubings of the Guerrilla Girls? The lunacy of these questions is plain enough when it comes to the eminence of Matisse, while Stravinsky is clearly in no danger of being replaced by politically correct music for the ballet companies of the world. Why then is literature so vulnerable to the onrush of our contemporary social idealists? One answer seems to be the common illusion that less knowledge and less technical skill is required for either the production or the comprehension of imaginative literature (as we used to call it) than for the other arts.”

                                                       –Harold Bloom

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Cursory Reading

Lord Byron: “There are more poets (soi-disant) than ever there were, and proportionally less poetry.”

Similarly, there are more editors (soi-disant) than ever there were, and proportionally less editing.

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Decline and Fall

          The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.

             –Jeremiah 8:20

F. L. Lucas: “And one of the things that reduce me to annual rage and despair in correcting examination papers is the spectacle of two or three hundred young men and women who have soaked in poetry for two or three years, yet seem, with rare exceptions, not to have absorbed one particle of it into their systems; so that even those who have acquired some knowledge yet think, too often, like pedants, and write like grocers.”

That “high and ancient art” doesn’t rub off so easily, with mere exposure. The practice of writing verse—decent, substantial verse—remains elusive, not quite available to just anyone (contrary to popular opinion).

Jean de La Bruyère: “There are certain things in which mediocrity is intolerable: poetry, music, painting, public eloquence.”

W. H. Auden: “A poet over thirty may still be a voracious reader, but it is unlikely that much of what he reads is modern poetry.”

I am of an age where I can’t afford to waste time on petty grievances, department store annoyances and bland epiphanies presented as poetry. Despite the ubiquitous I, most contemporary poetry stops short, remaining largely impersonal—insufficiently transformed and infused by the writer.

An overriding, unhealthy irreverence for tradition and craftsmanship rules the day.

I object, opposed to all this disproportionate fussing over the death of one beloved celebrity. How unlikely…rarer still that such a commodified ego, gracing presidential inaugurations, commanding thousands of dollars per appearance—would truly be in the service of Language, indebted to Poetry.

With many indifferent to significant departure…

Gone…Gabriel García Márquez.

No more the disconcerting elegance of Russell Edson.

While there’s plenty advantage in avoiding the classics—dangerously sobering.

It’s enough to champion masterful writing.

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What Was Lost

I open by alluding to the work of Herbert Morris, unfairly overlooked amid triumphant commercialism, disposable art…shameless, unabashed self-promotion. Taxing intelligence, quietly insisting: reader required, no idle spectator—

          The body knows deceptions long and lucid.

The masters have gone, banished from healthy curriculum. The loss is bitterly quantifiable. Emerson: “In love, in art, in avarice, in politics, in labor, in games, we study to utter our painful secret.”

The simple act of having written, of piecing together a few lines of verse—in no way necessitates publication. Though why listen to anybody else? Everyone a priest, everyone a poet. Why bother with Horace (echoed by Robert Frost and several others), advocating a lengthy period of total sequestration? Poems must settle on their own. And that takes time.

Like the relentless cicada, generously provided a protective bone, spared its own deafening crescendo…today’s poets (I cringe evoking that designation) dash onto the stage, impervious to criticism.

The work itself…subdued by the incredible demand for notice—desperate push for publicity. Next in line, poet laureate of the cul-de-sac…where longevity takes the prize, rewarding senescence over quality of thought and masterful composition.

I ask fair reading.

But it makes perfect sense, as the deluge continues to overwhelm, that advertisement steals the primary focus of today’s writer, with increasing effort devoted to marketing. “Vanity of vanities…”

Joseph Epstein, ca. 1995: “To provide only a single depressing statistic, I read somewhere that there are currently 26,000 registered poets in the United States. Where, it will be asked, do they register? With the Associated Writing Programs, I gather, which are chiefly made up of teachers of writing, who are even now busy producing still more poets, who will go on to teach yet more poets, who will…so that in twenty years’ time we will have 52,000 registered poets. Degas, more than a century ago, remarked: ‘We must discourage the arts.’ Sometimes that doesn’t seem a bad idea.”

Prediction fulfilled (and likely exceeded)—that’s an annual buffet of 1,000 poets per week. Revolting even to the most determined glutton.

There’s little I can admire in much contemporary poetry.

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Further Reading: Lyrical Circuit

                    Address to the Unsuspecting Graduates

Unfit stewards, we point out paradise regained—persistently excluding sound judgment. Our reasoning: insulated. So much yet to be had in “minute discrimination,” lessons upheld in the deviant trance of the Upis beetle, unquestionably featureless, to all appearances

          no less of earth, torpid,


Must avid study (in the field) be limited solely to scientist and prospect? We’ve allied ourselves ever closer to demands strictly endorsed by machine—only to take away a fraction as miner, logger, poacher. Convinced that possession and the coveted brand somehow elevate to unique, unmatched status. Neighbors by default. How far “a very little of anything goes.” Testify: the brief display of a bird can alter lives.

How often in reviews and promotional plumes lyrical reflects the flimsiest arrangement of sound and sense—as a descriptive term recurring as easily, as commercially, as love. And formal now stands for an overbearing, dominant metrical grid. The unanticipated result of deaf and dumb reading: voice sunk in the inner cavern of the cranium, relegated to a distant second or third behind sight—as swift images usurp our attention, precariously linked (somehow, according to the writer)…words that do not demand to be read twice, shamelessly forfeiting remembrance—indeterminate, trendily incoherent.

How to judge lyrical minus investment, without applying voice? As G major (open chord) on a guitar, which may be fingered correctly, accurately—only struck and vibrating strings allow us to identify and contrast dispatch, determining richness and fecundity. Unless, by definition, music has been fully discharged, sent packing. If only a private exchange, language intended to remain fixed internally…kindly omit lyrical as a criterion.

“A sound magician is a mighty god…” A tight match, or else…

Generosity in Sturgeon’s measure, encompassing 90% of any given crop. Competency fails to secure a spot in that elusive 10% bracket. Complacency easily dislodged. This frantic, infantile rush to publish. Adequately presented (occasionally)…largely unremarkable…“as direct as true works of art are indirect”—

Today’s poem winds up and That’s it?—its jagged edges, imprecisely drawn, corresponding too closely, too exactly: “Unfortunately, the modernity of its terms does not guarantee the truth or even the modernity of an insight.” We get plenty foreground, immediately pressing the senses, magnified and focused until background no longer plays any part—preferring “too much language chasing too little of an idea.”

No longer much accountable, our poems lack far more than just the news. Individual, ceaselessly contemporary, unadorned epiphany—farewell to the old order, to communal concern, bardic admonishings, crucial employment. “Everything written is as good as it is dramatic” extends equally to utterance: tossed back and forth, stirred and called forth in sound waves—completing the circuit from one person to the next.

Scorned apprenticeship. Why marvel at something shoddily, hastily, haphazardly scribbled? In abundance, this gross proliferation…innate ability (language acquisition) conflated with artistry…we find little tackling with ancestry, little itch for etymology and subsequent usage. Like a bogus lottery ticket: scratch the surface and nothing to behold—no matching number, no lucky icon, no winner to announce.

Why rejoice at the toddler swiping his finger across a flat screen? Rather than encouraging direct contact (unfettered, unmediated) entering this world? Lockdown, shakedown. Denotative. Aiming for convenience, we want our maps to last, whose shorelines (we’re disinclined to admit) constantly need redefining (always less than as they appear), whose accuracy depends on exploration and deepening discovery.

Sample as we go. This remains foremost:

          You are made of almost nothing

          But of enough

          To be great eyes

          And diaphanous double vans;

          To be ceaseless movement

          Unending hunger

          Grappling love.

What day is it? Not Adam’s. So much else, currently esteemed, falls short.

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