“There is ‘true’ Knowledge. Learn thou it is this:
To see one Changeless Life in all that lives,
And in the Separate, One Inseparable.
There is imperfect Knowledge: that which sees
The separate existences apart,
And, being separated, holds them real.
There is false Knowledge: that which blindly clings
To one as if ‘twere all, seeking no cause,
Deprived of light, narrow, and dull, and ‘dark.’ “
~ SONG CELESTIAL, Bk. 18
(fr. The Bhagavad-Gita)
After math –
Where there is
feel … or truth.
Words – left.
As centuries have passed
A dead dialect forgotten
All true songs & bards
And now reduced to
value & shock
As gods & verses
And have remained
And in wait
This into being
“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.
Poetry, John Timberman Newcomb believes, has lost status in recent years. In the introduction to his new book, How Did Poetry Survive? The Making of Modern American Verse (University of Illinois Press), Newcomb argues that American poetry has been “segregat[ed] … from modern social experience” — with the result that poetry is hardly even considered “literature” anymore.
This isn’t the first time that American poetry’s star has waned. In How Did Poetry Survive?, Newcomb traces the genre’s changing fortunes at the turn of the 20th century, arguing that poets’ engagement with modern topics and “ordinary life” played a key role in their works’ return to widely acknowledged cultural relevance.
Newcomb, associate professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, believes that this history merits study not only for the value of the works that have been largely forgotten, but also for the light it sheds on poetry’s current struggles — and its uncertain future.
Inside Higher Ed interviewed Newcomb via e-mail to find out more about his book.
Q: You write that your book differs from most other depictions of the emergence of modern American poetry. What is new or unusual about your account?
A: Most histories of modern American poetry written since around 1945 emphasize the stylistic innovations of the 1910s and 1920s, especially Imagism and free verse, and also focus narrowly on just a few canonical figures, as if they produced their great works in a vacuum. In contrast, mine balances an emphasis on formal innovation with American poets’ bold turn toward modern subject matter, especially the industrial city as the defining space of 20th-century experience. I also cast a much wider net than most, discussing works by dozens of poets, often juxtaposing well-known and nearly forgotten poems written on similar subjects in order to provide a more comprehensive sense of the variety and richness of the “New Poetry” movement.
Q: What does it mean to “make visible another possible past for modern American poetry,” and why is it important to do so?
A: In the decades after 1945, the number of early 20th-century American poets considered worth studying in an academic context diminished from dozens to just a few, which I consider a great loss to our sense of our own literature. In essence, the scholarship of the postwar era created a particular and rather narrow past for modern American poetry focused around a few titanic figures.
But if you look back at surveys of contemporary verse written before 1945, you find that a great many more poets were taken seriously as artists. It may be surprising to realize that among those eventually “lost” were some of the most popular writers of the day. Among many others, Carl Sandburg, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Amy Lowell, Sara Teasdale, Vachel Lindsay, and even Robert Frost to some extent were dismissed from the academic canon, in part precisely because they were popular among a general reading public. I feel that a past that ignores writers so influential in their own time is woefully incomplete, and thus my work attempts to create a more inclusive and comprehensive version of American poetry’s past.
Another part of the lost past I hope to return to general awareness is the vast and rich vein of poetry that engaged the urgent social and political issues of the day. During the 1910s, the two most significant categories of this socially oriented verse dealt with the struggles of organized labor and the catastrophe of world war. By taking these poems seriously as works of art as well as historical documents, my book seeks to enhance our sense of modern poetry’s value as a form of social comment.
Q: “In 1850,” you write, “poetry was the central genre of American literary culture. Fifty years later it was widely viewed as a mawkish refuge for dilettantes and sentimentalists.” What was the cause of this seismic shift?
A: These 50 years were defined by breakneck change, in which the United States transformed itself from a predominantly rural confederation of states into a world power of industrial capitalism. Great cities grew, vast concentrations of wealth were accumulated, giant logistical systems were developed, newspapers and other consumer goods were marketed on a mass national scale, and new technologies drastically altered the pace and complexity of everyday life. While often exhilarating, such changes also created tremendous psychic disorientation, and that led to a need for refuge. In the years after the Civil War, poetry was seized upon as such a psychic refuge, the antithesis and ostensible antidote to the accelerating pace and growing impersonality of everyday experience. Its aging custodians, deploring the “unpoetic” times, clung to rules of form and elevated standards of diction codified decades or even centuries earlier, and demanded portrayals of American life in nostalgic pastoral imagery – as if by excluding the voices and spaces of the city they might nullify the destabilizing force of urban-industrial modernity.
Confined to this nostalgic and escapist role, poetry became less and less relevant to most people’s lives. By the mid-1890s, when the last of the revered “Fireside poets” died and no younger writers seemed worthy to assume their places, we begin to find numerous commentaries wondering whether literary poetry was, quite simply, obsolete in a world of hard-headed prose and instantly consumable cultural commodities such as dime novels and popular songs. The great achievement of the New Verse movement of the 1910s was to make poetry relevant again by immersing it into the spaces, technologies, and social dynamics of the modern city.
Q: You mention “poetry’s current disciplinary crisis in the American academy.” What is the nature of this crisis?
A: Since the advent of more historically-based approaches in the literary academy in the early 1990s, poetry has declined noticeably in its status among scholars of American literature relative to prose fiction and other forms of prose. In fact, one major book of scholarly essays on New Historicism and American literature contains no work dealing with poetry at all, as if “American literature” was to be understood entirely as American fiction. There’s a perception around that poetry and history don’t mix, or that poems don’t speak to historical contexts as vividly as prose works do. I don’t believe this is true, and I hope my book shows that many poems of the 1910s and 1920s spoke powerfully to the most pressing concerns of modern American life at that moment.
Q: Are there lessons from the “New Verse movement” for those who might like to see a “further revival [of American poetry] in the 21st century”?
A: Don’t turn your back on the world around you, or on history, or on “ordinary life.” I am not an expert in very recent American poetry so it’s presumptuous for me to say so, but some recent verse I’ve read seems primarily or entirely concerned with the inner life of the poet — his or her responses to the natural world, to works of art, to somewhat rarefied emotional states. Lyric poetry addresses these precious aspects of being human better than any other form of writing, and this will, I hope, never stop being the case. But poetry can and must also speak to the mundane, the political, the technological — to every aspect of 21st-century experience.
Poetry can also tell great stories: one recent work of narrative verse I would strongly recommend for its success in balancing the political, personal, and historical is David Mason’s Ludlow, which juxtaposes the story of a violent labor conflict in Colorado in the 1910s with the author’s reminiscences of childhood and his adult experiences.
Q: Who is your intended audience for this book? What do you hope they’ll take away from it?
A: I hope that students, teachers, and anyone else interested in 20th-century poetry would find the book illuminating, and I tried to avoid using overspecialized jargon that might make it less comprehensible or appealing to readers who aren’t specialists in the field.
I hope that readers would come away from it with a refreshed sense of how much lively and potent poetry was written during this era, much of it nearly unknown now. I also hope that at least one poet will appeal to readers so strongly that they will seek out more of that poet’s work. One way to do this is to visit the companion web anthology that contains the full text of every poem mentioned in the book.
~ By Serena Golden