For many moons now, I have been making and taking notes for essays about American poetry (please try to contain your excitement). As of now those notes are a jumble of loosely connected observations, snippets of recent poetry offerings, copy-pastes of reviews and criticism. In other words, a mess. But looking over these notes — particularly the reviews and criticism — I’ve noticed a pattern in how a lot of new poetry is described. It’s a thing that, for lack of a better term right now, I can only call negative definition, wherein books of poetry are described (and, usually, praised) not for what they are and do, but for what they aren’t and don’t do. Some examples:
[X’s] second book…resists genre containment…
[In X’s work], our structural expectations are upended…
The struggle in reviewing [X’s book] is the collection rejects traditional modes of defining.
And in a hundred other reviews and commentaries, new poetry is “subverting expectations,” “challenging received norms,” etc.
Which is fine. I’m all for making it new. But what good is new if the it can’t be discerned even by an enthusiastic reviewer? And when they try, it often comes out like this:
Much like the theme of the collection the text is an exploration of codes which as untranslatable and esoteric reject the closure that is traditionally sought via the lyric. It is within this this space the I wants meaning, hopes to find and place contours about the self and the separation between internal and external. The boundaries of selfhood verse what acts to remove said individuality becomes a sight [sic] of fragmentation. Mirroring this, the poems are not linear and with the trajectory and focus splintering towards new subjects and possibilities. The result is a constant evasion of conclusion.
Judging by the sheer number of books and their attendant reviews in this vein (one site I follow posts at least three or four a week), it seems an entire generation of poets just discovered L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E in the past couple years and made “Resist and Reject” its mantra.
There’s no accounting for taste, and poets should write as they please, but I wonder if it really is a pleasure working overtime to make sure your poems thwart any attempt at understanding. There’s certainly not much pleasure in reading them.