“I also concluded that so many people who drifted into the writing of poetry didn’t have very interesting minds: a family member dies, they saw a tree of unusual shape, a little-known Matisse painting excited them, so they take to their computers and trivialize the subject or experience by encasing it in a more or less complex contraption of verbal self-absorption currently called a poem.”
~ The Wall Street Journal
Joseph Epstein-The Poetic Justice on April 1
The Poetic Justice of April 1
When was the last time you bought a contemporary book of verse?
Yet the stuff still gets published, prizes awarded.
April, the poet told us, is the cruelest month. As it happens, it is also National Poetry Month, which makes its debut on April Fool’s Day. And the biggest fools of all may well be those who believe that contemporary poetry matters in the least except to those who, against a high barbed-wire wall of national indifference, continue solemnly to churn it out.
Poetry in our day is in the same condition as verse drama at the beginning of the last century: an archaic practice, a dead genre, a done deal. We still have people playing the role of major poets, but only because the world seems to require a few people to play the role: “In art, in medicine, in fashion we must have new names,” wrote Marcel Proust. We know the names: Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich and a few others. It is only their poetry that we don’t know, or can’t be brought to care about.
In the room the poets come and go, / muttering, yo!, / where’s the prize and what’s the dough? But if I ask a literary gent or lady to quote me a single line or phrase from any of our putative major poets, they cannot do it. The magazines—the TLS, the New Yorker, Poetry and the rest—go on publishing the stuff, prize committees meet to issue awards and descant on the importance of poetry to civilization, but it is all finally an intramural game.
Like so many people of my rapidly diminishing generation, I walk around with lines and entire passages from the poetry of W.B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, e.e. cummings, and others rattling around pleasantly in my head. But nearly all the poetry written since the years those poets wrote doesn’t register, resonate, ring, do any of the elevating things that poetry is supposed to, and once indeed did, do.
When was the last time you bought a book of verse by a contemporary poet? My guess is around the same time that I did—the 12th of Never, if a precise date is wanted. And this tends to be true of genuine literateurs, lovers of language and its artful deployment. W.H. Auden said that if one were born later than the 1890s one had no chance to become a major poet. (He was born in 1907 but somehow got his bulky body over the bar.) Philip Larkin, who may not have been a major poet, at least created some memorable but not necessarily newspaper-publishable lines and phrases: “They [you-know-what] you up, your mum and dad.”
But otherwise the poetry game is over, kaput, fini, time, gentlemen, time. This even though reams and reams of the stuff gets published, prizes awarded, poets laureate appointed to the resounding boredom of all but those who either write or teach poetry (usually one and the same people). Years ago I wrote an essay on this subject called “Who Killed Poetry?,” which stirred up beehives of poets in protest. I suggested that the academicization of poetry did a lot to help kill it; I also concluded that too much poetry was in production, with Gresham’s Law relentlessly at work, in this instance the crappy driving out the second-rate. I also concluded that so many people who drifted into the writing of poetry didn’t have very interesting minds: a family member dies, they saw a tree of unusual shape, a little-known Matisse painting excited them, so they take to their computers and trivialize the subject or experience by encasing it in a more or less complex contraption of verbal self-absorption currently called a poem.
I now wonder if quite as considerable a reason for the death of poetry is that the international attention span has been much reduced by so many fresh distractions, leaving fewer and fewer people who have the patience and intellectual curiosity to work out the rich complexity of a well-wrought poem—that is, if anyone is around who could actually produce one. My main point is that if any of your children or grandchildren comes to you and declares a wish to become a poet, send that child directly off to bed without any dinner, and return to your place on the couch before the television set.
Mr. Epstein is the author, with Frederic Raphael, of “Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet,” published this week by Yale University Press. This op-ed is based in part on the book.
A version of this article appeared April 1, 2013, on page A13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Poetic Justice of April 1.