It’s been a while since I paid close attention to the criticisms of everything-that-is-not-traditional verse. But it seems the argument about what kind of poetry should be encouraged and written continues apace, even if it does so safely out of view of the broader public, which – we are regularly told – doesn’t care anyway. British poet Fiona Sampson sums up my view:
Since poetry has been written in every culture and era and, therefore, in many styles and languages, a “that’s the way to do it” belief that only one school of verse is artistically valid is clearly foolish. It’s also old-fashioned.
I remember very well the fervor over Dana Gioia’s 1991 Atlantic Monthly essay, Can Poetry Matter? In that piece, Gioia does not attack free-verse, confessional poetry, prose poetry, lang-po, or any other type. He focuses mainly on poets’ migration into the university and – to his mind – out of the public sphere. (The idea that universities are not part of the public sphere, despite the fact that since the late 70’s more than 50% of high school graduates attend, is relevant here but a subject for another day). But Gioia does share two ideas with those who do attack the stuff itself: 1) that poetry does not have broad public appeal and 2) that it should.
The belief that there is not a large audience for poetry is as wrong now as it was then. There is a huge audience for poetry – it’s just that not everyone is interested in reading the same poetry. I’m willing to bet that if we counted the number of people who enjoy any kind of contemporary poetry at all (and I’m excluding here the poetry which, in form at least, is the most traditional: hip hop), it would at least come close to the number of people who play Angry Birds.
It seems to me that what Gioia in 1991 – and William Childress in 2012 – are really lamenting then is that there isn’t a broad audience for poetry of the type they prefer, which is traditionally formalist. In Gioia’s case, this became clear when his book, Can Poetry Matter?, appeared in 1994, which includes an essay praising the “New Formalism,” a handful of laudatory pieces on poets who – if not strictly formalists – write/wrote in a more-or-less traditional style, and an absolutely scathing critique of Robert Bly’s work. His assessments of these poets are not wrong in my view (I especially enjoyed the Bly piece, in fact – I was never a fan), but the message is clear: a return to form, rhyme, and meter will save poetry, and we will once again have “major” poets that a significant audience of non-poets across the land will read and relish.
It is not these critics’ dream that more people simply appreciate more poetry more often, whatever its stripe. Theirs is the fever-dream of a mono-literature, which requires a mono-culture, which America does not have, period. You’d think they would have noticed by now. And I’m not even thinking primarily about race, religion, or sexuality. America has never been monolithic aesthetically. Da-da anyone? Futurism? Objectivism? Imagism? Cubism? Surrealism? Abstract Expressionism? Formalism? Language? Flarf?
I’m not saying there’s no such thing as bad poetry. Of course there is. There’s as much bad poetry as there is bad everything else. But saying a lot of poetry is bad is not the same thing as saying a lot of poetry is bad because it doesn’t follow certain rules. That said, I think Childress and Gioia and others have valid points to make about the state of the art(s). I enjoyed Childress’ piece immensely, even if I disagree with him, because I’m a sucker for honesty and viciousness (polemics). Speaking of which, here’s Thomas Merton, who may well have condensed all literary criticism into a single sentence:
Many poets are not poets for the same reason many religious men are not saints: they never succeed in being themselves.