Copyright Ó by Dan Schneider, 2/12/04
If you are a
lover of poetry these days you know that it’s not a good time for your love.
The greatest flowering of poetry in world history- in terms of diversity, depth,
& breadth- occurred in the United States roughly between the years 1910
& 1970. During that 60 year period there were more great poems being
published & more great poets writing than anywhere or anywhen else.
Elizabethan England? Please- I’ll grant you Shakespeare, Milton, & above both- John Donne. Who comes next? No 1 that can reasonably be granted greatness. The assorted Dynastic periods of China? Tu Fu & Li Po I’ll grant, & perhaps Po-Chu-I, but you’re stretching the definition of an age when it spans centuries, & after those 3 you are left with ‘poets’ who wore that appellation about as neatly as a Joyce Carol Oates- most were routine scribes who wrote routine verse. Haiku? Bashō, Buson, Issa- then who? Not to mention that 3 line haikus- even at their best- simply cannot match the depth, complexity, nor music of even a sonnet. Latin American poets in the early-mid 20th Century? There are a few greats- Paz, Neruda, Huidobro come to mind- but most were just political hacks- bumper sticker writers. The French Symbolists? Mallarme & who else? The Romantics? Hmm….England- Shelley, Keats, perhaps Coleridge & Wordsworth. Forget Byron or Clare- the rest fall off a cliff. Perhaps the German Romantics? Goethe, Schiller, Novalis, Holderlin, Heine? Puh-leeze! Perhaps the Soviet Era poets of Russia? Pasternak, Mandelstam, & Tsvetaeva are greats, while Akhmadulina, & Akhmatova were pretty good. Don’t even try to make a claim for the propagandist Mayakovsky.
Now, here’s a pretty good list of the major American poets who were writing & came to fame during the 1910-1970 period: Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Robinson Jeffers, Archibald MacLeish, Marianne Moore, Hart Crane, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, H.D., Elizabeth Bishop, William Carlos Williams, Edna St. Vincent Millay, e.e. cummings, Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, Edwin Rolfe, Charles Olson, Robert Hayden, John Berryman, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Lowell, James Emanuel, W.D Snodgrass, Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, Anne Sexton, Weldon Kees, & Sylvia Plath come to mind without much effort. & some could argue this list is only ½ or ⅓ its proper length.
There is no 1 published in the years since who is even close to the level of the poets named. This is for mainly 2 reasons: 1) the proliferation of workshops on college campuses, which teach young wannabe poets not how to write, not how to think critically, but how to properly hop on the grant-giving machine, & seek sinecure as a bad English professor, & 2) the sway of –isms. Almost all published poets of the last few decades claim allegiance to a group or an –ism- be it Confessionalism, Beatnikism, Nuyoricanism, Languagism, PC Elitism, Neo-Formalism, etc. The result of these 2 forces has rendered the identifying markers that tag a poet as ‘great’ as meaningless. Part of greatness is the ability to force a reader into a writer’s unique world & make them believe this poem engages something new, or does so in a new way- even if it’s a love poem or political screed. Any reader of poetry who has read American poetry of the last century can tell you the difference if they are reading Sandburg or Hayden, Jeffers or Stevens, but no 1 can tell you the difference between a Naomi Shihab Nye & a Carol Muske, a Donald Hall & a James Laughlin, or a Dana Bryant & a Nicole Blackman. Their PC rants all sound the same, their Dead White Male poems on the verge of manhood are paint-by-numbers exercise, & their spoken word drivel not even usually as good as a rap star’s.
Yet, even worse than the decline of poetry writing is the fact that poetry editing & criticism are even worse. Workshops are filled with bad writers who refuse to even dole out what little they’ve learned to another poet for they fear their advice may make that poet better than them, & after all, poetry is nowadays about self-esteem, not art. As for published critics, none will do what I have done- actually criticize poets & name them. All critics know contemporary ‘published’ poets suck, but they refuse to state so. When reviewing a hack’s book they weasel out of it in a manner as this- ‘Poet X’s book, shows real determination in the face of the post-colonial traumas that afflict young women in a world that does not grant them liberty. And unlike other poets her work shows a subliminal understanding of the sub-carnal schism between body and flesh that renders her verse a slim reed of delicate meanings.’
Of course this sort of masturbation fails not only because it’s meaningless, but the writer has not the guts to even name the dread ‘other poets’. A few years ago I started a website & have written many essays denuding the many bad poets out there. Here I go violating again, because I’ll tell you of a few of the hacks I’ve not only named & tackled, but actually shown how they could improve their dreck. In a series of essays called This Old Poem I have rehabbed the poetastry of such current ‘name brand’ poetasters as Michael Palmer, Charles Bukowski, Bob Holman, Wanda Coleman, Thomas Lux, Maya Angelou, Billy Collins, Andrei Codrescu, Sam Hamill, Mark Doty, Diane Di Prima, & Peter Davison, + many others. The bottom line in why most of these poems by these ‘poets’ fail is always the same few major reasons- poor structure, a lack of music, & most notably an utter reliance on cliché. They are generic poems by generic poets.
This piece is much too short to detail all the whys & wherefores that spell out these versic failures, but the basic truth is that either someone has the gift or not- very few people can be good, much less great, poets, & trying to teach the craft to the clueless masses borders on farce. But, it surely is 1 of the few ways anyone can squeeze money from the stone, scamming gullible wannabes. This is probably the thing that most annoys me about the current state of Academia- the utter disregard of any sense of obligation to the reader, both now & in the future. This manifests itself in the humorless, formless speeches that are broken willy-nilly into what looks like a poem, but really bears a hostility toward the reader- seeing them as troglodytes bowing to the wisdom of the bard.
Now, the good news. Things inevitably cycle, & after such an extended run of excellence a few-decades long hibernation was bound to happen. Just when the bear will stretch & seek the sun outside of its den depends on the willingness of poets, editors, publishers & critics to acknowledge the dreck, seek out & praise the good, &, if need be, get the hell out of the way for those who will if they feel they cannot or will not. Otherwise, enjoy another echoic adventure inside of Sharon Olds’ pudenda.
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