Daily newspapers no longer review poetry. There is, in fact, little coverage of poetry or poets in the general press. From until this year the National Book Awards dropped poetry as a category.
Leading critics rarely review it. In fact, virtually no one reviews it except other poets. Almost no popular collections of contemporary poetry are available except those, like the Norton Anthology , targeting an academic audience. It seems, in short, as if the large audience that still exists for quality fiction hardly notices poetry.
One can see a microcosm of poetry's current position by studying its coverage in The New York Times. Virtually never reviewed in the daily edition, new poetry is intermittently discussed in the Sunday Book Review , but almost always in group reviews where three books are briefly considered together. Whereas a new novel or biography is reviewed on or around its publication date, a new collection by an important poet like Donald Hall or David Ignatow might wait up to a year for a notice.
Or it might never be reviewed at all. Poetry reviewing is no better anywhere else, and generally it is much worse. The New York Times only reflects the opinion that although there is a great deal of poetry around, none of it matters very much to readers, publishers, or advertisers—to anyone, that is, except other poets. For most newspapers and magazines, poetry has become a literary commodity intended less to be read than to be noted with approval.
Most editors run poems and poetry reviews the way a prosperous Montana rancher might keep a few buffalo around—not to eat the endangered creatures but to display them for tradition's sake. Arguments about the decline of poetry's cultural importance are not new. In American letters they date back to the nineteenth century.
But the modern debate might be said to have begun in when Edmund Wilson published the first version of his controversial essay "Is Verse a Dying Technique? In particular, Romanticism's emphasis on intensity made poetry seem so "fleeting and quintessential" that eventually it dwindled into a mainly lyric medium. As verse—which had previously been a popular medium for narrative, satire, drama, even history and scientific speculation—retreated into lyric, prose usurped much of its cultural territory.
Truly ambitious writers eventually had no choice but to write in prose. The future of great literature, Wilson speculated, belonged almost entirely to prose. Wilson was a capable analyst of literary trends. His skeptical assessment of poetry's place in modern letters has been frequently attacked and qualified over the past half century, but it has never been convincingly dismissed.
His argument set the ground rules for all subsequent defenders of contemporary poetry. It also provided the starting point for later iconoclasts, from Delmore Schwartz to Christopher Clausen. The most recent and celebrated of these revisionists is Joseph Epstein, whose mordant critique "Who Killed Poetry?
Not coincidentally, Epstein's title pays a double homage to Wilson's essay—first by mimicking the interrogative form of the original title, second by employing its metaphor of death. Epstein essentially updated Wilson's argument, but with important differences. Whereas Wilson looked on the decline of poetry's cultural position as a gradual process spanning three centuries, Epstein focused on the past few decades.
He contrasted the major achievements of the modernists—the generation of Eliot and Stevens, which led poetry from moribund Romanticism into the twentieth century—with what he felt were the minor accomplishments of the present practitioners. The modernists, Epstein maintained, were artists who worked from a broad cultural vision. Contemporary writers were "poetry professionals," who operated within the closed world of the university. Wilson blamed poetry's plight on historical forces; Epstein indicted the poets themselves and the institutions they had helped create, especially creative-writing programs.source
A brilliant polemicist, Epstein intended his essay to be incendiary, and it did ignite an explosion of criticism. No recent essay on American poetry has generated so many immediate responses in literary journals. And certainly none has drawn so much violently negative criticism from poets themselves. To date at least thirty writers have responded in print.
The poet Henry Taylor published two rebuttals. Poets are justifiably sensitive to arguments that poetry has declined in cultural importance, because journalists and reviewers have used such arguments simplistically to declare all contemporary verse irrelevant. Usually the less a critic knows about verse the more readily he or she dismisses it.
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It is no coincidence, I think, that the two most persuasive essays on poetry's presumed demise were written by outstanding critics of fiction, neither of whom has written extensively about contemporary poetry. It is too soon to judge the accuracy of Epstein's essay, but a literary historian would find Wilson's timing ironic. Cummings, Robinson Jeffers, H. Hilda Doolittle , Robert Graves, W.
Auden, Archibald MacLeish, Basil Bunting, and others were writing some of their finest poems, which, encompassing history, politics, economics, religion, and philosophy, are among the most culturally inclusive in the history of the language. Hope, and others, was just breaking into print. Wilson himself later admitted that the emergence of a versatile and ambitious poet like Auden contradicted several points of his argument.
But if Wilson's prophecies were sometimes inaccurate, his sense of poetry's overall situation was depressingly astute. Even if great poetry continues to be written, it has retreated from the center of literary life. Though supported by a loyal coterie, poetry has lost the confidence that it speaks to and for the general culture.
One sees evidence of poetry's diminished stature even within the thriving subculture. The established rituals of the poetry world—the readings, small magazines, workshops, and conferences—exhibit a surprising number of self-imposed limitations. Why, for example, does poetry mix so seldom with music, dance, or theater?
At most readings the program consists of verse only—and usually only verse by that night's author. Forty years ago, when Dylan Thomas read, he spent half the program reciting other poets' work. Hardly a self-effacing man, he was nevertheless humble before his art. Today most readings are celebrations less of poetry than of the author's ego. No wonder the audience for such events usually consists entirely of poets, would-be poets, and friends of the author. Several dozen journals now exist that print only verse. They don't publish literary reviews, just page after page of freshly minted poems.
The heart sinks to see so many poems crammed so tightly together, like downcast immigrants in steerage.
One can easily miss a radiant poem amid the many lackluster ones. It takes tremendous effort to read these small magazines with openness and attention. Few people bother, generally not even the magazines' contributors.
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The indifference to poetry in the mass media has created a monster of the opposite kind—journals that love poetry not wisely but too well. Until about thirty years ago most poetry appeared in magazines that addressed a nonspecialist audience on a range of subjects. Poetry vied for the reader's interest along with politics, humor, fiction, and reviews—a competition that proved healthy for all the genres.
A poem that didn't command the reader's attention wasn't considered much of a poem.
Editors chose verse that they felt would appeal to their particular audiences, and the diversity of magazines assured that a variety of poetry appeared. The early Kenyon Review published Robert Lowell's poems next to critical essays and literary reviews. The old New Yorker celebrated Ogden Nash between cartoons and short stories. A few general-interest magazines, such as The New Republic and The New Yorker , still publish poetry in every issue, but, significantly, none except The Nation still reviews it regularly. Some poetry appears in the handful of small magazines and quarterlies that consistently discuss a broad cultural agenda with nonspecialist readers, such as The Threepenny Review , The New Criterion , and The Hudson Review.
But most poetry is published in journals that address an insular audience of literary professionals, mainly teachers of creative writing and their students.
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Many more have negligible readerships. But size is not the problem. The problem is their complacency or resignation about existing only in and for a subculture. What are the characteristics of a poetry-subculture publication? First, the one subject it addresses is current American literature supplemented perhaps by a few translations of poets who have already been widely translated. Second, if it prints anything other than poetry, that is usually short fiction.
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