In a previous post I took a passing shot at the fare offered up by some recent issues of veteran lit-mags, a criticism – admittedly – almost as stale as its target. But I’ve also been reading some of the newer magazines, chock-full of new poets “making it new” with their new poems. Should that sound like a passing blow, let me say up front that I’ll take a failed uprising over established quietude any day. And while much new poetry contains a lot more “new” than “it,” hasn’t that always been true? One of the recurring criticisms of current poetry is that it’s inaccessible, elitist, pretentious, experimental for experiment’s sake. No doubt there’s some truth to that, but where others see pretense in the work of younger poets, I see something else: anxiety.
In my first post I wrote briefly about my personal discovery, after graduate school, of poetries and traditions I had not known existed. While that was heady and freeing and ultimately beneficial, it was also frightening. I had only known half the story, if that. Not only did my work at the time suddenly appear to me as the Victorians must have appeared to Ezra Pound, even my attempts at “experiment” seemed passe. That was in the internet’s infancy, when there were only a handful of sites devoted to the other side of the century and few, if any, online magazines. I can’t imagine what it’s like now for a poet in his or her early 20’s, who has total information awareness from the get-go and is trying to figure out how to write. Add to that the perennial pressure to publish and the desire to matter, and it’s easy to see how there is a felt need to stand out even more and how, ironically, experimental becomes the norm.
But what is experimental? Recently I’ve both heard and read the term applied to poetry, but I honestly thought it was long dead. [Insert old joke about poets in lab coats here]. Is the term even useful? Experimental as compared to what? Will I need safety glasses for this? Isn’t every poem an experiment on some level? Does a successful experiment in poetry end in a stable solution or an explosion? More importantly, what are you wearing?