Where Are All The New Voices?

Poetry is dead, long live poetry  ~ Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Poetry is dead, long live poetry
~ Lawrence Ferlinghetti


“O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring;

Of the endless trains of the faithless—of cities fill’d with the foolish;

Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)

Of eyes that vainly crave the light—of the objects mean—of the struggle ever renew’d;

Of the poor results of all—of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me;

Of the empty and useless years of the rest—with the rest me intertwined;

The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?


That you are here—that life exists, and identity;

That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.”

Walt WhitmanLeaves of Grass


According To The Urban Dictionary:

Slam Poetry: A Definition

The poetry that thrives in a culture of non-readers. Very sincere, bad poetry. Delivered in front of and given encouragement from a small group of people who are also bad poets. Slam poets think that their poetry is more powerful if they just yell it. Sincerely painful to listen to. It’s bad poetry. They try very hard, but they have no idea what they’re doing.

Most slam poetry could be better classified as motivational speaking or stand-up comedy.

Poetry : A Definition

 1. An archaic form of literature, now dying off. Doggerel.

As practiced in modern times, poetry is a discredited means of (supposedly) communicating aesthetic thoughts or feelings in verbal form. Thousands, perhaps millions of person-hours, disc/server space, and trees are wasted to develop and store this tripe.

“Award winning” poetry is usually the worst kind, representing the vilest outcome of combining incestuous art-cronyism with self-indulgent self-promotion.

2. A complete waste of time.

1. Bob is nearly finished with his english degree, but he still needs a credit in poetry of the twentieth century.


Small trees that shine

out of watery depths

With broken limbs, like

Becky are

Not why I write.


Above, as you have just read are two comedic and yet sarcastic definitions of what slam poetry is and what poetry itself is to a generation out there who on Urban Dictionary believe that they are being comical and witty. But the truth is that there is some deeper hidden meaning in both of these separate ideas of a definition. Once, poetry was a sacred thing full of wisdom and a secret meaning that the reader was to ponder but it was also about the words and life experiences of the poet, a mystical figure shrouded in enlightenment whose words were like prophecy. The Bible? Poetry. The Koran? Poetry. Religions and laws based on those religions? All poetry and all based on those voices and those words written by wordsmiths and scribes. And those words once meant something more and those poems were epic. Every civilization on earth from the dawn of recorded time has had their great poets. Every age had something to say that defined them. But the question now exactly is where is poetry going and where are all those voices now?

It seems that over the last thirty years or so that poetry has been manipulated into something it should never be by popular culture and by the idea that poetry is anything that you can say (ex. Lyrics) when up upon a stage for a contest and to win a few dollars. As an event idea It’s a wonderful thing that slam poetry open mics have helped academics, colleges and schools bring kids and students into the light of reading literature but it is now an overused tool and it’s time has sadly passed. Slam poetry has simply become another label that has outlived it’s time and usefulness. For poetry should be much more than this, and it has to become much more than this or it just isn’t poetry anymore and the poet merely becomes just another performer or rapper. Once upon a time poetry was important. It created new worlds of imagination and reached imaginations. It influenced and inspired generations who fought and died and who stood up against war and oppression. But tell us, where are these voices now when we need them most?  Where is our new Walt Whitman or William Shakespeare when we are merely as writers and the public writing something just to get up on a stage and to just rant but not to write any words or poems on the page that are powerful or eternal? Who will write these lasting words that will speak to our descendents or to a generation 500 years from now?

It’s time to write. It’s time to dispel the myth that true poetry in all it’s forms is not archaic or dead but alive and well and to bring those forms back into being. It’s time to be inspired and write not just for an audience who applauds you in a cafe or a bar after a few drinks and score you but for those who will read your words many years from now. So let’s be honest. Slam poetry, as a label and as a form, as a contest or as an event has had it’s day and it’s time to pronounce it dead.  If you are a true poet or a writer this shouldn’t bother you but not writing or finding the right words should because that’s what we do. You write. The 20th century produced some amazingly talented poets such as T.S. Eliot, Silvia Plath, Borges, Garcia Lorca and many many others but after the Beat Generation ended it seems overall there are just a mere handful of poets now living or dead  in comparison whose work and craft and the truth within it  all have truly earned the right to be called “Poets”.

So, where are all the new voices now?

We would like to read their words.

Start writing.




Why Is Contemporary American Poetry So Good?

Why Is Contemporary American Poetry So Good?



{NB: Below is my response, as a poet, to an article published earlier today in the Washington Post entitled “Why Is Modern Poetry So Bad?”, which itself was a response to an article published online last week, in the July 2013 issue of Harper’s, entitled “Poetry Slam (Or, the decline of American verse).” The first article can be found here; the second article can only be read online by subscribers to the magazine.}

Because there are exponentially more poets writing or committed to writing accomplished poetry today than has ever been the case in the history of the United States, either as a percentage of total population or as an absolute number. Because this means that, within the next few years, almost every American of a certain age will know or be related to someone who writes or is committed to writing accomplished poetry, which puts the workaday commitment to poetry so many Americans share front and center in the lives of millions and millions of Americans who are not poets.

Because there is more poetry being published today than has ever been published in the United States, because there are more print and online magazines publishing poetry, more trade and university and independent presses publishing poetry, more poetry reading series, more poetry anthologies, more poetry festivals, more private poetry groups, more poetry conferences, more articles written about poetry in major media, and more reviews of contemporary poetry collections than ever before, and this means Americans are as or more likely today than at any time in American history, in a culture as cluttered as any in the history of humankind, to come across exemplars of contemporary poetry willingly or inadvertently while going about their daily lives.

Because creative writing is the fastest-growing field of study in the United States, and the fact that there are now more than 250 terminal-degree graduate creative writing programs in the United States, graduating more than 2,200 committed poets each year and 22,000 each decade, means that more conversations about poetry are now happening in the United States than have ever happened, because the offline poetry conversations that have always been ubiquitous in bohemian enclaves are now joined by untold thousands of such conversations happening every semester on college and university campuses. Because the fact that there are so many graduate creative writing programs means that communities in which poetry is discussed between and among committed poets are now located in every state in America, rather than headquartered in just a small number of coastal redoubts. Because graduate creative writing programs are not run or staffed by doctorate-holders whose love of poetry is primarily academic and therefore esoteric in the view of the overwhelming majority of Americans, but rather by working poets whose love of the written word suffuses not only their on-campus dialogues about poetry, but also their off-campus dialogues and, because poetry invariably finds its way into all corners of every life that admits it, every interaction they have with friends, family, coworkers, and acquaintances.

Because the fact that there are so many poets now writing in America in a committed way, and consequently so many discussions happening about poetry among those seriously committed to it, means that it is no longer possible to readily quantify the number of movements and enclaves in evidence on the landscape of American poetry, which is frustrating for popular magazine freelancers whose attention is fixed on poetry for but a few hours each year, and exhilarating for anyone who invests any reasonable period of time looking for new poetry. Because among the many movements and enclaves that tend to escape the attention of print media are those that do not use print as their primary medium, including “slam” poetry, which is performed in high-spirited competitions all across the country that are widely attended by college-age students, and visual poetry, which is as likely to be found in a museum or art gallery as an envelope mailed to the editorial offices of a popular magazine, and multimedia poetry, which includes poetry set to popular music and subsequently attached to professionally-produced music videos, as is the case with Michael Zapruder’s incomparable Pink Thunder. Because I attended and acted as judge at a slam poetry competition at Illinois Wesleyan University in 2011, and despite the tiny enrollment of the university the competition drew a crowd of more than a hundred students, students whose affection for poetry was evident in their wild applause and raucous laughter at so many of the lines of poetry delivered to them.

Because even poetry at the opposite end of the literary spectrum from slam poetry, that is, so-called Language or post-Language poetry, is now so admired by scholars and university students that they have developed a new and growing specialization within English departments to circumscribe its appreciation and study and criticism, denoted Contemporary Poetry Studies, and because increasingly graduate creative writing programs are acting as vehicles to inform young poets of the most innovative poetry being written today and to inspire them to write innovative poetry of their own. Because a forthcoming anthology, Best American Experimental Writing, the first ever annual anthology of experimental writing, will among other goals seek to create and encourage an even wider audience than this for superlatively innovative contemporary American verse. Because websites devoted to music criticism, like Pitchfork, now, for the first time in American history, make it their business to direct young music aficionados to albums featuring not just exemplary musicianship but also exemplary lyrics, such that artists like Joanna Newsom can release albums whose lyrics approach poetry and in so doing receive, as was never before possible, not just critical but also popular acclaim.

Because you cannot judge the poetry of any era on the basis of a case-by-case aesthetic analysis of its merits, not only because there is too much poetry written and published for any of it to be considered an exemplar of an era, not only because aesthetics is a subjective enterprise, but also because it is in the nature of aesthetics to evolve and thus for an innovative aesthetics to be underappreciated in its own time, because we do not know what poems being written today will be considered of enduring value in the distant future, because what is Great is Great almost exclusively in retrospect. Because the present older generation of poets developed something called “poetics,” which is more useful than aesthetics because it uncovers not merely what is visually and aurally pleasing in a poem but also how that poem does something with language no other artform could do, and because that’s wonderful, and because the present younger generation of poets has in response developed a means of analyzing poetry “horizontally,” that is, by attending not merely to how a poem reads but how it changes the lives and relationships and lives in poetry and relationships to poetry of those who read or hear that poem, and that’s wonderful also.

Because have you ever heard Matt Hart, Abraham Smith, Heather Christle, or Anthony Madrid read their poems out loud?

Because did you know you can probably find clips of them on YouTube?

Because have you ever read the poetry of Ariana Reines?

Because poets as a class of Americans are younger now, in terms of average age, than they’ve ever been before, because a lifetime in poetry is more readily visible to American youth today than ever before, because there are cultural institutions like graduate creative writing programs that let young people know that it’s okay to write poetry, that it’s not a sign of laziness or depression or schizophrenia and needn’t end in isolation or misery or homelessness in New York or getting disowned by your parents, because now poets support one another in a way that wasn’t possible when poets were more scattered and fewer in number, and because as a result of all these phenomena poets are better able and more willing now to integrate their poetry with technology, thus “returning art to the praxis of life” as the historical avant-gardes popular magazine freelancers sometimes laud liked to say. Because, that is, poets are finding ways to publish online, publish on YouTube, publish on Twitter, publish on Facebook, and thereby build virtual communities with one another and with others via all of these and many other social media websites.

Because most of the criticisms of poetry published in popular magazines involve consideration of only those poets presently winning prizes and receiving government-issued laurels and receiving tenure-track faculty positions, when even the most cursory review of literary history reveals that the most dynamic poetry is always being written by those our society in general and popular magazines in particular don’t take seriously and therefore don’t see and therefore disregard. Because one of the best things about those who slip through the cracks in American culture is that they tend to band together and find an uncommon strength in it, and the internet makes that more feasible than ever before, and the result of this slippage and banding and feasibility is that the average committed poet today does, in fact, have a broader base of real-time knowledge about what other young poets are concurrently writing than did the average committed poet of other eras, who were more likely to write in the sort of Romantic penury and isolation that produced Coleridge and Wordsworth and Byron but also a veritable horde of lesser poets we understandably no longer read, but less understandably fail to mention when we’re judging the poetry of that period. Because critics tend to make the same error in discussing poetry of other periods also.

Because other eras of literary production occurred against the backdrop of a very different America, a categorically less just America, and consequently the widely-read poetry of those previous eras contained an almost criminal dearth of poetry by female or black or Latino or gay or Jewish or immigrant or physically disabled or transgendered or imprisoned or transsexual or in-translation or gender-queer or lesbian or little person or working-class or Asian-American or Native American poets. Because we now have readers and reviewers and editors and publishers and anthologists alert to the unique and irreplaceable contributions made to poetry by members of America’s numberless subcommunities. Because no one ever turned away from poetry because they were friends with or smoked dope with or got drunk with or rapped about literature with someone who once upon a time received a Master of Fine Arts degree in poetry, whereas entire generations have been turned away from poetry by precisely the sort of canon-obsessed, aesthetics-oriented high school and college needling of individual poems deeded to us by those who now write articles decrying the present state of poetry.

Because we elected to office a man who writes poetry, reads poetry, and invites poets to his House to read their work. Because there are more scholarships and fellowships and grants supporting poets today than at any time in American history, though the number of such opportunities is still only a fraction of what we would expect to find in an advanced civilization. Because nearly every American university with an MFA program is attempting to do its part on this score by turning the once-nonterminal and only rarely funded creative writing Master of Fine Arts degree into a fully-funded terminal degree, because even academics are doing their part by creating an academic specialization called Creative Writing Studies and increasingly admitting MFA-holders to their doctoral programs, because the first-ever conference on critical creative writing pedagogy was held on June 21st of this year at Manhattanville College, because books on critical creative writing pedagogy began to enter the American market ten years ago and are now reaching an American readership more quickly and in greater number than ever before. Because poets have their own Amazon, and it’s called Small Press Distribution and it works as a business model in substantial part because contemporary poetry is so good and people therefore buy it and read it voraciously. Because Poets & Writers has a subscription base of 60,000 people and newsstand sales well beyond that, because the Poetry Foundation received a few years back the largest bequest in the history of American poetry, because the Association of Writers and Writing Programs has its largest membership ever and so many attendees to its annual conference that poets now take over one American city per year when they congregate for it, because poets no longer fawn over the Romantic ideal of genius and instead understand that genius is fundamentally a social rather than spiritual good.

Because the study of language and the human mind is so far advanced in our time, as compared to previous times, that entire bodies of poetry can claim to be informed by facts and figures and philosophies and reasoning of which our predecessors in poetry could only dream.

Because celebrities already rich and famous for skill-sets America actually values still dream of being poets when they go to sleep, and consequently publish books with silly titles like A Knight Without Armor and Blinking With Fists. Because I left a career in law to pursue poetry, and because the recent explosion in the number of low-residency MFA programs in the United States is explained by the fact that other attorneys and doctors and professionals of all stripes are now realizing that American culture can now accommodate, in a way it previously could not, the passions and ambitions of more than just its discrete bohemian class. Because the internet makes it possible for poets of every inclination and background to collaborate with one another without having to move from their current homes to the previously short but now ever-expanding list of locales capable of supporting real-time poetry communities. Because every poet you speak to could write their own list of reasons contemporary American poetry is so good, and it would be different from this one, but also similar, and equally true.

Because Americans are more attuned to international poetry than ever before, which brings America further than ever before into the international literary community, as evidenced by the volume of poetry in translation being published each month by small, independent, cash-strapped American publishers like Action Books. Because when I was invited to give a lecture at University of Amsterdam discussing the history of creative writing in the American university, I was addressed by Dutch students and faculty before, during, the after the lecture asking what they personally could do to bring more creative writing study to their university specifically and their country generally. Because in the Netherlands, as in America, we increasingly find young poets whose ambition is not merely to write poetry, not merely to edit magazines and anthologies, not merely to teach poetry to others, not merely to discuss poetry with strangers at whatever time and in whatever place, not merely to run poetry reading series and poetry festivals, not merely to publish poems and books, but to engage larger projects that they believe are likely to advance the cause of poetry in the United States. Because I am one of those people, because I am proud to be, because I will always be, because there are thousands of others like me and if you have not heard their voices yet, you will hear them soon.

Because none of the above reasons contemporary American poetry is so good in any way diminish or amend the many ways poetry itself has always been good for us, and good to us, because contemporary American poetry nourishes and enlivens and congregates and educates and in some cases even saves us the very same way poetry has always done for those with the willingness to stop speaking and listen.
A graduate of Harvard Law School and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry: Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013), winner of the 2012 Akron Poetry Prize; Northerners (Western Michigan University Press, 2011), winner of the 2010 Green Rose Prize from New Issues Poetry & Prose; and The Suburban Ecstasies (Ghost Road Press, 2009). A contributing author to The Creative Writing MFA Handbook (Continuum, 2008) and a regular contributor to both Poets & Writers and Indiewire, he is also Series Co-Editor for Best American Experimental Writing, whose first edition will be published by Omnidawn in 2014. Presently a doctoral candidate (ABD) in English Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets (University of Virginia Press, 2008), Poetry of the Law (University of Iowa Press, 2010), Poetry, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Harvard Review, AGNI, Fence, and Colorado Review. In 2008, he was awarded the J. Howard and Barbara M.J. Wood Prize by Poetry.



This is a great and hopeful view of the current state of American poetry in the 21st century. We have an amazing amount of literary talent and younger writers as well as poets however there are still many problems with poets (academic and otherwise) in regards to the way we view poetry and with the current state of what is considered poetry or actual writing. Good writing and poetics here in the United States as well as everywhere else must be more appreciated and poets must regain their lost ground and status. For far too long now we have had academics as well as other institutions supporting and creating “Slams” in the hopes of courting younger audiences and students instead of actually presenting poetry as the craft and art that it is. Slam has become “The McDonald’s Of Poetry” for over 25 years now and if anything we need to move on past the stereotypes created by this genre and move forward in support of other styles and find new voices. 

Yes, Seth is absolutely right “Poetry Does Save Us” but it must also be able to evolve and grow past it’s current forms like any other art.

~ R.M.

What Does Punk Rock Have To Do With William Shakespeare?

punkshakespeareA musical culture began to take shape amid the unrest of Great Britain during the mid nineteen-seventies. With the emergence of bands like the Sex Pistols and the Clash, the punk rock movement sparked a nihilistic ethos and a new sound that would change the musical landscape forever. While the modern day use of the word ‘punk’ might suggest anarchistic youth, William Shakespeare used the term quite differently over four hundred years ago. So how did this word evolve from a derogatory term aimed at a woman to a derogatory term aimed at a young man?

Although its exact etymology is not known, the term “punk” has survived numerous changes in meaning throughout the centuries. The first recorded use of the term (unknown origin) occurred in the early 1590s, with reference to a “prostitute, harlot.” The term “taffety punk,” a reference to “a well dressed whore,” appears in William Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, penned between 1604 and 1605.

The Scottish, spunk, meaning “a spark,” is a 1530s reference to burning embers and ashes. A similar use of the word can be found in a 1618 account by native inhabitants of Virginia as a reference to overcooked corn: “Some of them, more thriftye then cleanly, doe burn the coare of the eare to powder, which they call ‘pungnough,’ mingling that in their meale, but yet never tasted well in bread or broath.” Native peoples throughout the Delaware region of the United States  used the word ponk around this time to reference “rotten wood used as tinder.”

By 1896, and perhaps fueled by the “rotten” connotation to the term, punk had become synonymous with “something worthless” and “young criminal” — specifically in relation to a male youth. It is perhaps the latter definition that Dave Marsh had in mind when he coined the phrase “punk rock” in his May 1971 column featured in Creem magazine.

The Inner Meaning of Poetic Form


It is becoming clear at this moment in American literary history that the most dynamic and promising trend in poetry today is the expansive movement, or the new formalism as it is also known. Periodicals, conferences, poetry collections, critical essays and monographs are recognizing and celebrating this turn in poetics; young poets either embrace the new mode or at least accommodate their theory to it. So this is a good moment to put this fashion to the test—to see whether it is just a fashion, or if it promises something deeper, some transformation in the nature of poetic art that will bring our practice closer to its true function. As one of the founders and spokespersons of the movement, I nevertheless recognize that mere technique in poetic form and narrative, however skillful and admirable, is not enough; great poetry has been written in free verse, and trivial poetry has been written in tight, ingenious meters and cleverly organized narrative structures. The promise of the new trend will be realized only if poets and readers are able to take the formal elements of poetry at their deepest level, as talismans or psychic technologies designed to unlock the gates between the human and the natural, the conscious and the unconscious, the present and the past, the rational and the chaotic, life and death. Or rather, even to invoke these dualisms is to be betrayed by a language that is not truly poetic, not truly capable of the deep science in which the dualisms disappear. When we respond to the meter or the mythic plot of a poem, we are doing so as a member of the species Homo sapiens, as a primate, a mammal, a vertebrate, a living organism, a marvellously intricate piece of carbon chemistry, a play of physical particles and forces, an involuted knot of spacetime. In other words, we are not confined, as we can be by unmeasured denotative statement, to the most recent level of biological evolution, that brought about the specialization of the linguistic areas of the left temporal cortex, but released into our entire evolutionary history. The pleasure of meter, as I have shown by the research reported in my essay The Neural Lyre, is based upon the three-second rhythm of the human information processing cycle or neural present, and mediated by the secretion of biologically ancient neurotransmitters. New research by Colwyn Trevarthen and Ellen Dissanayake shows that mothers and newborns conduct their prelinguistic conversations in a three-second antiphon of “motherese,” and that mammals conduct their continuous little dance of movement, attention saccades, and expressive action in a three-second cycle. But meter is important at much deeper levels yet. As the psycholinguists Michael Lynch and Kim Oller have shown, within the three-second short-term memory window there is room for about ten shorter beats, corresponding to syllables, or to the shortest interval in which human action reflexes can still operate; within this 1/3 second period there are nested about ten yet shorter beats, corresponding to the minimum interval at which we can perceive the order of two different sounds; and within this tiny moment there is room for about ten tinier ones, the minimum interval at which we can identify anything at all. The brain uses the meter in which neural firings are exchanged as a carrier of precise information about what is perceived or remembered, and the enzyme and RNA factories that construct the body’s proteins consult their central DNA library in an intricately hierarchical rhythmic pattern. Ilya Prigogine has shown that complex chemical reactions, especially those involving catalysts, have a rhythmic temporal structure, and quantum chemists and physicists have long known that matter can be described as the nodes where the different local periodicities of energy quanta find their harmonic resolution—matter as a kind of rhyme… . So when a poet uses and an audience hears meter, we are taking a first step into an organic recognition of our unity with the physical universe; we are, if you like, celebrating our participation in the being of Gaia herself. We are also affirming our solidarity with the whole past of the world, and making it possible for our creations to be the issue of generative forces that go far beyond the capabilities of our clever little linguistic centers. Poetry becomes an accelerated version of evolution itself, of that miraculous feedback among variation, selection, and heredity which produced the orchid, the sperm whale, the tobacco mosaic virus, the giant panda and the coral reef. Perhaps indeed this is the meaning of the myth of Orpheus, the first poet in the Greek mythology, who, like Solomon, or like Vyasa, the mythical poet of the Mahabharata, could speak the languages of animals and plants and stones. Orpheus’ journey to the underworld and back (as Virgil says, any fool can go down there, but to return—this is the labor, this is the task) is more than just a search for his lost wife Eurydice. Or rather, the search for his lost wife means the recovery of the organic connection with the rest of the universe. The point is that Orpheus can make his journey only because he possesses and can use his lyre, the instrument by which Greek poets kept the measure of their meter and gave their lines a rhyme. It is the lyre that opens the gates of the underworld; and it is when Orpheus fails to trust its magic, and looks back to see if Eurydice is following, that he tragically loses her forever. We can follow the mysterious logic of the myth still further; for the lyre of Orpheus (and of his father Apollo) was originally the invention of Hermes, who traded it for the caduceus, the snake-entwined rod by which he conducts mortals between the lands of the living and the dead. It so happens that the double helix of the two snakes is an exact model of the shape of the DNA molecule; and this is not just a coincidence, for the double helix is perhaps the best intuitive diagram of any feedback process, and DNA is the feedback process of feedback processes. If the lyre, then, is in some sense equivalent to the caduceus, we may infer that the meter of poetry is analogous to the meter of biological reproduction and evolution. This is the central insight of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus. Other versions of this talisman are the magic flute of Mozart and da Ponte, the golden bough of Virgil, the metatron of Moses (also a combination of rod and snake), the drum of the Asiatic shamans, the bagpipe of the ancient Magyar bards—even perhaps the “Mcguffin” of Alfred Hitchcock. But this is perhaps to give too great an emphasis to meter. One could make much the same argument for narrative technique, that marvellous system by which time takes on its strange, unspacelike asymmetry. A story, like a melody, is any sequence of events that are retrodictable, that is, can be shown to have been inevitable once they have happened, but not predictable before they have happened; because the events themselves bring about a new kind of universe in which their antecedents now add up to an irreversible chain of causes. (The most crass example of this is the detective story, whose solution is obvious once the sleuth unveils it, but not before). In this sense we may perhaps take the rod of Hermes’ caduceus to mean the fixed retrodictability of a story, and the snakes to mean its protean unpredictability. The unpredictability of a story is what makes us want to know what happens next—and this is why the Sultan spares the life of the storyteller Sheherezade, and Minos spares the life of Orpheus. In this light the duality of meter takes on a deeper significance still. The fixed pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables (or long and short syllables, or tone-changing and tone-unchanging ones as in Chinese verse) bears the same relation to the varying pattern of spoken cadence that floats above the fixed framework, that the predictable bears to the unpredictable elements of a story. Or one could even say that meter was micro-story, or that story was macro-meter. Thus if we are to take seriously the return to meter and narrative proclaimed by the new formalists and expansivists, a whole new set of intellectual, imaginative, and social responsibilities open up for the poet. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the old responsibilities will come back in a new form. Essentially, the poets of the coming era must be shamans. A shaman is not just a private person voicing his or her personal angsts or expressing purely personal esthetic, philosophical, or political opinions. A shaman speaks to, and for, a whole culture, as the unifying mouthpiece of its own deepest collective musings, and as its representative when it consults its own dead sages and sibyls. Moreover it is part of the duty of the shaman to be to some extent public, even popular, to sell his or her visions in the marketplace, to hear and respond to the needs and yearnings of the patrons whose conscience they are. The new shaman must also learn the dialects of the tribe—and that tribe is now global, the human race itself. The most important dialects are the ones that are shared among all peoples, and are taken as legitimate media of exchange and criteria of agreement—trade, law, technology, and above all, science. Science is the way we learn the languages of all of the rest of nature, beyond our human circle, and thus is even more important for a new poet to know than trade and law. Technology connects science with the others—the special technologies of the poet are meter, storytelling, and imagery (which I have not dealt with here because it is so well handled elsewhere). Once we adopt the responsibilities of the shaman, many wonderful things that as poets we find increasingly difficult to achieve will suddenly become easy. One of them is finding a subject: we are engaged in the work of educating and healing our fellow-citizens, and we need only speak of what they need to know and hear. Another is being funny. The moment we recognize ourselves as the peculiar kind of primate mammalian animal that we are, trapped and incarnate in the material slapstick of physical existence, forced in the theater of human miscommunication to give and receive gifts from others in order to survive at all, laughter is hard to avoid. Shakespeare, perhaps the greatest shaman of all time, who fulfills all the difficult criteria I have tendentiously laid out here, knew all this very well. Another suddenly available resource will be vision. Instead of having to strain our humdrum daily perceptions for some little plankton-like smear of insight, we will have almost the opposite problem: how to make the miracle of existence, with its humming and ringing levels of concentric complexity, local enough to convey in an image or anecdote. Finally, the true shamans will find that rarest of all contemporary resources: a real audience, a public not drawn to the poet in hopes of recognition for its own poetic efforts, nor attracted by the fading glamor of another era’s poetic achievements, nor hoping to share a fellowship of social and cultural failure; but coming together in the deeply pleasurable, ancient, ad hoc ritual of world-construction.


~ Frederick Turner

Where Is American Poetry Going?




What recent trends in American poetry do you find troubling or worrisome?

Aliki Barnstone: I find poetry wars troublesome. These particular issues of aesthetics should not divide poets. I find the polarization simplistic and limiting to anyone who takes on the label “formalist” or “experimentalist.” The imagination must be free to go anywhere and should not be compelled to follow someone else’s dictates. Furthermore, I find that American poetry wars are American in the worst possible way, and repeat the puritan history of demonizing those who prefer not to conform. The notion, which I’ve heard laid down as a prescription, that the self and identity should be abolished in favor of collectivism is extremely alarming to me, since the implication is that any kind of ethnic, racial, gender, or national identity is suspect.

John Bradley: The appointment of Dana Gioia to head the National Endowment of the Arts signals that, once again, artists will be under pressure to purge their work of all social commentary.

Nick Carbo: The backlash against ethnic poets and the complaint that some poems are “too ethnic.”

Brian Clements: Trends among the poems themselves are never worrisome to me. We’re all going to follow our individ- ual obsessions anyway, so why bother worrying about it? Don’t get me started on what bugs me about the businesses of pub- lishing, awards, and academic hiring. But that doesn’t really have anything to do with poetry, or does it?

Jon Davis: The ongoing wheezing and creaking that once called itselflanguage poetry istroubling, as is the postmod- ern shrug in all of its guises—irony, flippancy, loss of self, etc. But the most troubling ongoing trend is the slam, bout, per- formance nexus, particularly when it marches the young onto the stage with nothing but venom, broad gestures, and a head full of hackneyed abstractions and then rewards them with applause. The pleasure of such instantaneous acclaim so eas- ily bought is piping our talented youth into the hills away from the village of study, hard work, and accomplishment. It strikes me as a new species of child abuse.

Annie Finch: The swallowing of respected trade publishers by megapublishers with no commitment to literary books, and the resulting neglect of poetry reviews in mainstream publications available to general audiences.

Sam Hamill: Too much solipsism, too much fragmented work of mere sensibility, too much safely comfortable apolitical poetry that accepts no serious consequence or responsibility.

Paul Hoover: I don’t find much that is worrisome in poetry; it’s the political life of the country that scares me.

John Hoppenthaler: What troubles me the most is the wave of generally young (but not always) poets who feel compelled to con- tinue a petty and gratuitous argument for some “experimental” mode of poetry over what they insist is a dull period-style poetics formed in academic workshops. This strikes me as the worst sort of antidemocratic (not to mention simpleminded and arrogant) argument to demonize a style that doesn’t suit one in order to val- orize another that does. And this does cut both ways, with pro- moters of a more direct style belittling those who are trying something different. We need to think in terms of “poetries” rather than poetry, which will make the neighborhood a better, richer place to live.

Peter Johnson: The continuing saga of the poet-as-celebrity; superficial pleasantness driven by fear and careerism; the triumph of the prose poem.

George Kalamaras: I find troubling a continuing distrust of imaginative and surrealist poetries, as well as a seemingly strict adherence to more strictly defined genres in which genre-bending forms like the prose poem are often suspect.

Christine Boyka Kluge: Although entertaining, the growing number of poems using excessive wordplay and cleverness as a sub- stitute for ideas seem shallow to me.

Martin Lammon: Although it’s not such a recent trend any- more, I’m still troubled by poets who call for a “return to verse,” or other such slogans. The “New Formalism,” or whatever other term one wants to use, essentially describes a reactionary impulse, a desire to return to a “golden age” of poetry that never was. There are poems by Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, and Elizabeth Bishop that I love, but their poems do not represent some poetic principle or aesthetic that contemporary poets should emulate, as some would propose. If a poet today chooses to write so-called formal “verse,” that’s fine. There’s room enough for aesthetic choices. But one choice cannot preclude all the other paths that poets may fol- low.

Dana Levin: A focus on language-making and virtuoso vocab- ulary at the expense of having something to say, along with “con- fessional” being a dirty word, especially as “confessional” seems to have become a synonym for “emotional.”

Morton Marcus: I’m still deeply disturbed by the solipsistic trends in American poetry, where the poet writes, it seems, to tickle and entertain his mind. Video games for the literati. Where’s the earthiness, the visionary, the need to speak of the deep winds, both dark and light, that roar around the heart with the voices of our ancestors?

Jim Moore: Poems that seem to have no purpose other than to demonstrate their own ingenuity.

Richard Robbins: The exaggerated “centrality” of language poetry created by the Iowa/Harvard critical axis. Most of that stuff is what Richard Hugo used to call “a lot of over-worrying about the obvious.” The ever-expanding gulf created between community reading series (reasonably affordable means of allowing the public to access the literary arts) and the celebrity tours (with restricted public access and skyrocketing fees sent even higher by celebrity literary agents). The growing assumption that poetry publishing is not an enterprise supported by entities that take economic risks on manuscripts they believe in, but rather that poetry publishing is more like the NCAA basketball tourney pool, where all with man- uscripts will enter with a $10 fee and one will come away with the prize.

Katharine Soniat: How many of the “contests” and presses are focusing on incoherent language or experimental poetry seems to be the same judge (of this persuasion) for many national contests.

Virgil Suarez: The elitists are still elitists.

Thom Ward: How to get other human beings who are, in William Stafford’s phrase, “awake people” to wake up to reading and listening to more contemporary American poetry and poetry in translation. The good folks who attend local theater, art muse- ums, and jazz clubs, who take that occasional pottery class at the YMCA—how do we get more of these people (who have no ambi- tion to become poets) more interested in buying contemporary poetry books and literary journals and attending poetry readings, especially by “emerging” or “unknown” poets? Why do so few of these “awake people,” who speak intelligently about contempo- rary music and the visual arts, know and care so little about poetry?

Matthew Zapruder: A period style that consists of requisite ambiguity, complexity, genuflection to tired principles of post- modernism, and mystification, all of which cover up a lack of genuine commitment to an idea or emotion; a creeping profes- sionalization, especially among younger poets.





Ray González is TBR’s poetry editor.

Note: This is part 2 of a survey; part 1 will be found in the March/April issue of TBR, Vol. 24, #3 2004.


“Poetry presupposes an inspired knowledge of man’s sensuous and spiritual nature.  Smithcraft—for the smith was also carpenter, mason, shipwright, and toolmaker—presupposes an inspired knowledge of how to transform lifeless material into active forms.  No ancient smith would have dared to proceed without the aids of medicine and poetry.  The charcoal used on his forge had been made, with spells, at a certain time of the year from timber of certain sacred trees; and the leather of the forge bellows, from the skin of a sacred animal ritually sacrificed. Before starting a task, he and his assistant were obliged to purify themselves with medicines and lustrations, and to placate the Spites which habitually crowd around forge and anvil.  If he happened to be forging a sword, the water in which it was to be tempered must have magical properties—May dew, or spring water in which a virgin princess had washed her hair.  The whole work was done to the accompaniment of poetic spells.

Such spells matched the rhythm of the smith’s hammers; and these were of unequal weight.
A sledge hammer was swung by the assistant; the smith himself managed the lighter hammer. To beat out hot metal successfully, one must work fast and follow a prearranged scheme.
The smith with his tongs lays the glowing lump of iron on the anvil, then touches with his hammer the place where the sledge blow is to fall; next he raps on the anvil the number of blows required.  Down comes the sledge; the smith raps again for another blow, or series of blows.  Experience teaches him how many can be got in while the iron is still hot.  So each state of every process had its peculiar metre, to which descriptive words became attached; and presently the words found their own tunes … Nor did the smith … let caprice rule the number and shape of ornaments that he introduced into his work.  Whether he was forging a weapon, or a piece of armour, or a tool, or a cauldron, or a jewelled collar, every element in the design had a magical significance.”

~ Robert Graves, from his essay “Harp, Anvil, Oar” in The Structure of Verse, edited by Harvey Gross (The Ecco Press, 1979)