by Jim Danger Coppoc
So apparently, poetry is dead.
I know this because I hear it at parties. I know this because all my poet friends are terrified of their own irrelevance. I know this because Mark Edmundson of the University of Virginia—in the latest installment of a centuries long tradition of replaying again and again the same essay lament about the state of contemporary poetry—tells me so on the pages of this month’s Harper’s.
See, according to the standard anti-party line, poems used to be more—bigger, grander, better. Poems used to be about Important Things, and their writers used to know how to get those Important Things across. Today’s poets wouldn’t know Important if it bit them in their assonance. All they write about is themselves, in voices meant only to please their masters. All they’ve ever been trained to do is intellectual masturbation.
And so, every couple years, someone in a (safe, tenured) position of authority bravely breaks (or rebreaks) the hegemonic silence and calls every living poet he (and yes, it’s almost always a “he”) can think of to account. Edmundson, a Yale-trained scholar of 19th century capital-R Romantic poetry, is only the latest in this series.
Of course, I’ve read just about all of the poets Edmundson mentions. In some cases, my pettier self wants to agree. Others, we’re so far apart on that I’m convinced I could change his mind if only he’d come audit my 300-level Intro to Poetry course. But there again, that’s my petty self talking.
Instead, maybe I’d do better inviting Mark Edmundson to audit another course at either my institution or his: Freshman Composition.
You see, Freshman Composition (or whatever each new crusader in that field renames it) is where students first come into contact with the idea of “rhetoric”—of the nuts and bolts logistics of getting a real message across to a real human audience.
In rhetoric, we learn (in some form or another) that “a Text occurs when an Author attempts a Purpose with an Audience under a Context.” We find—and for many this is a mind-blowing discovery—that there is no such thing as a “good poem” (or essay or letter or website or whatever you’re composing) in a vacuum. We discover that each text must appeal to its intended audience to accomplish its intended purpose in very heterogenous and personal ways.
In other words, if middle-aged hausfrauen with long-forgotten bachelor’s degrees in literary studies get turned on at their weekly trip to the bookstore reading about John Ashbery’s Mottled Tuesday—well, then, John Ashbery is doing his job. If some PhD student at a state college in the Midwest feels somehow changed by finally getting Jorie Graham, then Jorie Graham has done hers.
But of course these aren’t the only poets poeting. Edmundson conveniently forgets that. As with every other iteration of this same essay, Edmundson chooses the implied working definition of “poetry” as “whatever your 8th grade teacher beat into you.” If Edmundson wants the sound and the fury of poets in the trenches—the kind of conflict that makes the “agon” in pro- and antagonist—he needs only to look to the world of hip hop (the most popular contemporary poetic form). If he wants grand expository on Big Ideas, I’d happily buy him a beer at any local poetry slam.
For that matter, even in the “literary” world, if Edmundson needs to see some poetry with a pulse, I’d invite him to investigate groups like Cave Canem or Kundiman, or publishers like Write Bloody Press. I’d happily mail him a starter set of books that might help.
In the end, Edmundson is right, but he’s right only for himself, and only in very narrow ways. The poetry he’s attacking has a purpose and an audience, but that audience is not him. He would do well to recognize that, let go of his seemingly personal attachment to making this poetry about him, and move on.
And for next week (or next month or next year), when someone else writes the same essay believing he (yes, probably still “he”) is breaking new ground, I invite you to save this blog to your desktop, learn the “search and replace” function of your word processor, and see just how well the new critic’s name fits in place of Edmundson’s.