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    Can Poetry Matter?

    I read bits and pieces of Dana Gioia's call to arms, Can Poetry Matter some time ago, but today read the entire essay through. It is not all that long... and is certainly worth the time and effort to anyone who believes that poetry does indeed still matter. The entire essay can be accessed here:
    http://www.danagioia.net/essays/ecpm.htm

    Reading the article through... and I will only address bits and pieces here... I found myself nodding in agreement... as well as recognizing that a similar situation or decline exists in my own area of artistic endeavor: the visual arts.

    American poetry now belongs to a subculture. No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group. Little of the frenetic activity it generates ever reaches outside that closed group. As a class poets are not without cultural status. Like priests in a town of agnostics, they still command a certain residual prestige. But as individual artists they are almost invisible.

    The same obscurity or hermeticism is certainly to be found in the the "art world" and in the world of contemporary "classical composers". Discussing John Cage and some even more recent "serious" composers with a composer acquaintance of mine I had to ask... "Who actually listens to this crap? Does anyone seriously enjoy this in the manner in which they might enjoy Mozart or Bach or even Stravinsky or Richard Strauss?" To this he replied, "Who actually likes the sort of art that is shown in most big name art galleries? Does anyone truly enjoy it as well as they might Rembrandt and Rubens... or even Picasso and Matisse?" A fair enough question.

    What makes the situation of contemporary poets particularly surprising is that it comes at a moment of unprecedented expansion for the art. There have never before been so many new books of poetry published, so many anthologies or literary magazines. Never has it been so easy to earn a living as a poet. There are now several thousand college-level jobs in teaching creative writing, and many more at the primary and secondary levels.

    But the poetry boom has been a distressingly confined phenomenon. Decades of public and private funding have created a large professional class for the production and reception of new poetry comprising legions of teachers, graduate students, editors, publishers, and administrators. Based mostly in universities, these groups have gradually become the primary audience for contemporary verse. Consequently, the energy of American poetry, which was once directed outward, is now increasingly focused inward. Reputations are made and rewards distributed within the poetry subculture... Not long ago, "only poets read poetry" was meant as damning criticism. Now it is a proven marketing strategy.

    Certainly the same degree of academic entitlement currently supports other art forms: classical music... and to a lesser extent, visual art (which still feeds into a market system of the super-wealthy as a luxury product. But still the audience for visual art is just as atrophied.

    Daily newspapers no longer review poetry. There is, in fact, little coverage of poetry or poets in the general press. From 1984 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...

    Again... still not far unlike the situation faced by the contemporary "serious" composer or visual artist. I have been to endless art openings... a good many as a director of an art gallery... and the audience is constant: other artists within the system, young artists aspiring to make the connections to get into the system... and a few all powerful collectors.

    Joseph Epstein, whose mordant 1988 critique "Who Killed Poetry?"... 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... Epstein indicted the poets themselves and the institutions they had helped create, especially creative-writing programs. A brilliant polemicist, Epstein intended his essay to be incendiary, and it did ignite an explosion of criticism.

    Thomas Disch, in The Castle of Indolence, makes similar accusations, declaring that the very system that has led to cozy academic positions for poets has hampered them in any number of ways: Their audience has shrunk to solely an audience of peers and so their interests and their viewpoints have shrunk to suit that which is allowable and supported by academia. Their own experiences of the larger world have been filtered through the safety net of academia. Honesty itself has atrophied perhaps more than anything as poets (or artists, or composers) dependent upon the support of academia, rarely speak out negatively... at least not in public... about another's efforts... as one never knows who will be on the committee for some future endowment that one is in competition for.

    Several dozen journals now exist that print only verse... just page after page of freshly minted poems. The heart sinks to see so many poems crammed so tightly together... One can easily miss a radiant poem amid the many lackluster ones...

    By abandoning the hard work of evaluation, the poetry subculture demeans its own art. Since there are too many new poetry collections appearing each year for anyone to evaluate, the reader must rely on the candor and discernment of reviewers to recommend the best books. But the general press has largely abandoned this task, and the specialized press has grown so overprotective of poetry that it is reluctant to make harsh judgments...

    ...Reviewers fifty years ago were by today's standards extraordinarily tough. They said exactly what they thought, even about their most influential contemporaries. Listen, for example, to Randall Jarrell's description of a book by the famous anthologist Oscar Williams: it "gave the impression of having been written on a typewriter by a typewriter." That remark kept Jarrell out of subsequent Williams anthologies, but he did not hesitate to publish it... praise mattered, because readers knew it did not come lightly...The reviewers of fifty years ago knew that their primary loyalty must lie not with their fellow poets or publishers but with the reader. Consequently they reported their reactions with scrupulous honesty even when their opinions might lose them literary allies and writing assignments.


    The same lack of critical honesty exists in the visual arts. Most of the critics (many working artists themselves) write for the large art magazines (Art News, Art in America... ) which are in turn supported by the advertising dollars of the art galleries exhibiting the very work being reviewed. A scathing review, no matter how deserved, is surely akin to biting the hand that feeds. The only artists it is safe to attack (to prove that one is not a push-over) are the now dead artists. One might more likely come across a negative review of Matisse in Art in America, than of Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Mark Kostabi, or any number of other art stars whose work surely deserves critical challenges. Only a few figures such as Robert Hughes or Donald Kuspit... employed by larger national publications (ie. Time) regularly speak out against a good deal of the mediocre and bad art that passes for brilliant.

    Poets serious about making careers in institutions understand that the criteria for success are primarily quantitative. They must publish as much as possible as quickly as possible. The slow maturation of genuine creativity looks like laziness to a committee. Wallace Stevens was forty-three when his first book appeared. Robert Frost was thirty-nine. Today these sluggards would be unemployable.

    The same problem faces the visual artist. Decades ago, Leo Castelli, the dealer who made his fortune marketing Pop Art, declared that he would show no artist who could not turn out 75 paintings a year. It can take a day simply to build the stretcher, stretch and prime the canvas... and this ignores the traditional undercoat of under-painting white... each layer of which requires several days drying time. Vermeer painted perhaps 40 paintings in his lifetime. Rembrandt might have had a couple hundred. Even Rubens, one of the most prolific artists... and one who utilized the assistance of a large studio of incredibly talented assistants... could not have met Castelli's demand. The entire poetic works of T.S. Eliot, Keats, Shelley, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, even William Blake can easily be contained within a single volume. What is the academic demand of "publish or perish" doing to poets today?

    ...Poets now occupy niches at every level of academia, from a few sumptuously endowed chairs with six-figure salaries to the more numerous part-time stints that pay roughly the same as Burger King. But even at minimum wage, teaching poetry earns more than writing it ever did. Before the creative-writing boom, being a poet usually meant living in genteel poverty or worse. While the sacrifices poetry demanded caused much individual suffering, the rigors of serving Milton's "thankless Muse" also delivered the collective cultural benefit of frightening away all but committed artists.

    ...The campus is not a bad place for a poet to work. It's just a bad place for all poets to work. Society suffers by losing the imagination and vitality that poets brought to public culture. Poetry suffers when literary standards are forced to conform with institutional ones.


    The visual arts have undergone a dramatic shift in the past few years as to how the aspiring young artist is taught. In the past, one was apprenticed to a "master" from whom one might observe all aspects of the profession and the art... from the preparation of pigments, to dealing with clients. The alternative was the Art School... where one might study under several masters... still focused upon the hands-on act of making art. In the past several decades the majority of aspiring artists have come out of the universities or colleges... where theory and ideas are often valued over the actual making of art. My own alma mater, an art school... at one time ranked among the best... now has no painter of any renown or real talent teaching in the painting department... and two of the positions held by critics: one who never makes art, and the other a photographer. It comes as no surprise that art today has greatly shifted away from painting and toward "Conceptual Art"... art rooted in ideas... collections of bric a brac or documentation. I have come to agree with Robert Hughe's assertion that this is all the better for the remaining painters... as they will be comprised solely of those who passionately love the art. So what affect is the entitlement... the safety-net of academia imposing upon the position of the poet?

    Louis Untermeyer's Modern American Poetry, first published in 1919, was frequently revised to keep it up to date and was a perennial best seller. My 1942 edition, for example, had been reprinted five times by 1945. My edition of Oscar Williams's A Pocket Book of Modern Poetry had been reprinted nineteen times in fourteen years. Untermeyer and Williams prided themselves on keeping their anthologies broad-based and timely. They tried to represent the best of what was being published... Poetry anthologies were an indispensable part of any serious reader's library...All these collections were read and reread by a diverse public. Favorite poems were memorized. Difficult authors like Eliot and Thomas were actively discussed and debated. Poetry mattered outside the classroom.

    Today these general readers constitute the audience that poetry has lost. Representing our cultural intelligentsia, they are the people who support the arts—who buy classical and jazz records; who attend foreign films and serious theater, opera, symphony, and dance; who read quality fiction and biographies; who listen to public radio and subscribe to the best journals. (They are also often the parents who read poetry to their children and remember, once upon a time in college or high school or kindergarten, liking it themselves.)


    I throw this all out there as some food for thought... noticing that even here... at LitNet... where are gathered, presumably, a goodly number of people passionate about serious books and reading... poetry remains something of the motherless child. Quite often it seems as if Quasimodo is the only one valiantly carrying the torch for poetry (not to ignore the contributions of Virgil, blazeofglory, and a few others)... not unlike, perhaps, myself in the art discussions. But then again, this is a literatures site. Does poetry really matter any more? How many actually read anything by living poets?

    Again... just throwing this out there for conversation. I would love it if it did stir up some of you poetry lovers. You've been quiet for far too long.
    Beware of the man with just one book. -Ovid
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    Quote Originally Posted by stlukesguild View Post
    Does poetry really matter any more? How many actually read anything by living poets?

    Again... just throwing this out there for conversation. I would love it if it did stir up some of you poetry lovers. You've been quiet for far too long.
    Sorry luke, to cut so much of your post, for the moment, but to answer your first question, no, it does not. Certainly as a sub-genre, it will continue, but I barely submit to literary magazines anymore. It's futile.

    Let me ask you a question: From 1982 to 2004, roughly my dates, I've published over 300 poems, if not more. I received the honor of taking over one magazine issue of Dennis Gilling's, Crawlspace 17: Like Fire, dutifully submit one manuscript every 6 months to try to get my first collection too, would you or Virgil, fairly avid readers yourselves, know my name, style, or what differentiates me from my buddy Robert who I made a thread for but no doubt made posters uneasy over because he's real and I was hesitant of using excerpts?

    No, you wouldn't, even if I posted links, and I only skim the university student driven presses I get into--there is a disjunction though, between the closed loop self-feeding system your essayist mentioned, and the sub-genre of street poets, primarily urban, who do not break through the looking glass of the MFA/post-graduate system. They are mentally unstable usually, recovering addicts, some folks like me with half-a-butt cheek on either side of the street, and on the rare occasions where I do get paid for my work it is through this guerrilla-slam street poetry sub-culture.

    I haven't *given up* publishing poetry, but no poet transcends this damn mess in the contemporary era. Not Susan Wheeler, not Jorie Graham, no one, not even the yearly named poet laureates in the US.

    I have destroyed my reading voice though, through giving myself emphysema, which is a shame. I do not quite know how to measure my talent, since I am not a formalist, but when the director of The Painted Bride gives you her card and says, "you are a good reader, and know how to present your work to the audience." You would have thought it meant something, and I used to believe it did.

    Sche may zap me for getting passionate luke, and that is okay, but I am very bitter about my choices made as a young student at Widener. Bitter and angry. I thought trying to become a writer, and pushing those academic buttons the right way, this would *save* me, make people see the real me.

    Uh huh. I've turned into a woman who may have to return to saturate herself with Wellbutrin again in another deal with chemical devils. It is getting too difficult to believe I can meet even my own standards as a talented and published author anymore, and I am not getting back on the graduate credit gerbil wheel anytime soon. Money is a factor, but not the only one.

    I can't teach, so what would a degree do for me? Polish my stanza's? Hone my fictional imagery?

    Ha. But hey, this is my only post today. Going to try for a diary page later, get some rest, make one freelance query, and see if I can coax some production out of myself between now and Sunday.

    You have a light?
    Last edited by Jozanny; 08-04-2008 at 06:34 AM. Reason: misspelled Jorie Graham

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    There is so much to think about in your post, stLG - I don't think I can answer any point directly but it certainly got me thinking.

    It seems to me that a certain kind of poetry is, as you say, incestuous and exclusive and, as such, has lost touch with people beyond its inner circle, not just people who are academically interested in poetry but the Man on the Clapham Omnibus, as the 'man in the street' was once described. But as you say, this has happened in other areas of art too - yes, I've heard of John Cage and Philip Glass because I'm interested in music and listen to the radio - outside London and a very few other big cities in UK there's precious little opportunity to hear live music, let alone cutting edge compositions. The chances of seeing art is similarly limited. But poetry ought to be accessible to the general reader, so why isn't it more widely read? I think in UK at least, poetry is rarely taught well in schools - in the current climate of curriculum reform (I was going to write 'interference') the untestable subjects, music, art, many forms of literature, are sidelined and when they are taught, it is with one eye on the test at the end of the Key Stage, not the GCSE level but before that, the abyssmal tests at 7, 11 and 13 (there speaks an ex-teacher) when the tests have to be readily and quickly marked and there is such pressure to perform that any subject that isn't part of the test is ignored. I am not suggesting tht children in UK are ignorant of poetry, they are not, but I do feel that the present situation in schools deprives them of the opportunity to grow to love and understand poetry (and drama and music and art.)

    Then there's exposure - the poetry of high academia frightens off many readers, including me and I consider myself to be a fairly experienced and somewhat discerning reader so how many less enthusiastic readers are going to bother to read poetry, let alone buy a book of poetry, so where are they going to see poetry? When The Independent newspaper was first published (end of the 80s, early 90s) it contained a Poem for the Day (also a Book Review of the Day) and I read many poems with great pleasure there, some old favourites but more items new to me, many of which were clipped out and slipped inside other poetry books. However, a change in Editor and/or a change in ownership meant that this little corner of the paper was reassigned to yet more 'news' coverage, despite protests from many readers - yet another place lost for the exposure to poetry.

    The London Underground ran a series of 'advertisements' on the trains and in the stations, poster-size poems, some old, some new, which was very popular. I did not visit London at the time, so did not see them in situ but managed to acquire the book which was published 'by popular demand' - and some are quite difficult poems to grapple with, not as you might expect, something quick and easy to read.

    One of the most popular programmes on BBC Radio 4 is Poetry Please - with a very good website, a source of extensive information about poets and poetry, as well as poems themselves. The breadth of types of poetry covered is amazing and encouraging. BBC tv has made the occasional brave and successful series of programmes aimed at the general viewer. I wish they would do more.

    Some cities have included poetry in their Festivals - I've seen poetry on banners decorating the streets and followed 'poetry trails' which have lines of poems painted on the pavements.

    There are still 'Poems and Pints' sessions in pubs (though not as many as there used to be) and some poets manage to make a living with live performances, not necessarily top notch poets (some indeed may even give poetry a bad name....) but this is surely in the spirit of the troubadour.

    I believe the hunger for poetry is still there, buried deep, perhaps, and maybe unrecognised by many. The academic poets in their ivory towers perhaps ought to get out and communicate with their wider audience, find out for themselves what moves and touches them, and use their gifts to ensure that poetry is still a means to shake and stir.

    I'm not sure that's any sort of answer to the post but it's what I have been thinking this afternoon.
    Last edited by kasie; 08-02-2008 at 03:14 PM.

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    Then there's exposure - the poetry of high academia frightens off many readers, including me and I consider myself to be a fairly experienced and somewhat discerning reader
    I was not going to make a second post until I slept my way back up from fire-breathing , but I am curious kasie, and have to ask why you are frightened off?

    For a poet I don't read lots of poetry daily, but I do not fear reading American Poetry Review, or other top poetry markets state-side. I don't read Joyce's Ulysses, not out of fear, but because I am not Irish to care enough and don't see the rewards my Shakespearean professor would try to tell me over lunch. Instead, I found Lampedusa later, but we'll tax that another day.

    I don't know anything kasie, but I've taught myself how to ask the right questions when I'm dealing with literature. Are you afraid of not understanding academic poets?

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    Somewhere around here, not long ago, I remember defending modern poetry to somebody (somebody who strangely no longer exists in this forum) who was convinced that modern poetry "just isn't any good." Aside from some of the posters mentioned by stlukesguild, even in a literature forum like this where you would expect a wider variety of interests, most of the poetry that gets discussed around here seems to be old, classic, rhymed poetry. This is a shame. I presented this person with a few links of what I considered to be excellent works, all of which had been published just within the past year.

    And yet...I admit having to wade through a ton of poetry to get to a piece that in some way resonates with me. The fact is, a lot of modern poetry really isn’t very good. Dana Gioia's essay goes a long ways towards explaining this.

    But worse than merely being not very good, a lot of it tends, it seems to me, towards the pretentious and self-important. And I think this is what turns a lot of people off, and what makes people feel as though the poetry is not written for them, the average poetry aficionado. It is, instead, written for the "niches of academia," as Gioia put it.

    Here’s another way I’ve seen it put. From the poet Philip Larkin in All What Jazz:

    The terms and the arguments vary with the circumstances, but basically the message is: Don’t trust your eyes, or ears, or understanding. They’ll tell you this is ridiculous, or ugly, or meaningless. Don’t believe them. You’ve got to work at this: after all, you don’t expect to understand anything as important as art straight off, do you? I mean, this is pretty complex stuff: if you want to know how complex, I’m giving a course of ninety-six lectures at the local college, starting next week.

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    ...would you or Virgil, fairly avid readers yourselves, know my name, style, or what differentiates me from my buddy Robert who I made a thread for but no doubt made posters uneasy over because he's real and I was hesitant of using excerpts?

    No... admittedly I wouldn't. Largely because I have seriously limited my reading of contemporary poetry. There are but a few contemporary or near-contemporaries I read with any frequency: W.S. Merwin, Anthony Hecht, Richard Wilbur, Richard Howard, Charles Simic, Seamus Heaney, Czeslaw Milosz, Yves Bonnefoy, Ann Carson, Charles Wright, Yehuda Amichai, Adam Zagajewski, Wislawa Symborska, Geoffrey Hill, and a few others. I've tried to come to terms with John Ashberry... and while I find I like some works... most often he strikes me as simply trying too hard to be clever. Or is it just me? Obviously I am of that audience that wants to come to terms with and to enjoy contemporary poetry... but quite often I am overcome with the excess of mediocre poetry that strikes me... as Chester put it... as pretentious and self-important. There is also the esoteric, hermetic, self-referentiality of a lot of contemporary poetry (and art and music)... and this seems to be part of a downward spiral. The poetry is so hermetic that the general public... even that aspect of the general public which Virginia Woolf referred to as the "common readers"... those not-so-common lovers of good art who are willing to put forth a reasonable degree of effort... find they do not get it... and have little patience with it. As this audience atrophies, the poets come to the point of caring less and less about reaching the larger audience, but focus solely upon impressing each other... thus further alienating themselves. You state that no poet transcends this mess? My question is why not? Are there any writers in prose who do? I suspect that there may be...McCarthy immediately comes to find.
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    Quote Originally Posted by stlukesguild View Post
    I read bits and pieces of Dana Gioia's call to arms, Can Poetry Matter some time ago, but today read the entire essay through. It is not all that long... and is certainly worth the time and effort to anyone who believes that poetry does indeed still matter. The entire essay can be accessed here:
    http://www.danagioia.net/essays/ecpm.htm
    St Lukes, let e first say that I highly respect Dana Gioia immensely. If there is anyone's opinion that my ears perk up to when it comes to matters of poetry and culture in general, it is Mr. Gioia.

    American poetry now belongs to a subculture. No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group. Little of the frenetic activity it generates ever reaches outside that closed group. As a class poets are not without cultural status. Like priests in a town of agnostics, they still command a certain residual prestige. But as individual artists they are almost invisible.

    What makes the situation of contemporary poets particularly surprising is that it comes at a moment of unprecedented expansion for the art. There have never before been so many new books of poetry published, so many anthologies or literary magazines. Never has it been so easy to earn a living as a poet. There are now several thousand college-level jobs in teaching creative writing, and many more at the primary and secondary levels.
    I have said elsewhere how thriving American poetry has been in the last century. I believe it continues. Gioia's labeling of the poetic class as a sub cuture is intriguing. Perhaps it is accurate, though I think Gioia is degrading it in a way. Perhaps I stand in opposition with Gioia, but I think it is a good thing.

    Quote Originally Posted by St Lukes
    The same obscurity or hermeticism is certainly to be found in the the "art world" and in the world of contemporary "classical composers". Discussing John Cage and some even more recent "serious" composers with a composer acquaintance of mine I had to ask... "Who actually listens to this crap? Does anyone seriously enjoy this in the manner in which they might enjoy Mozart or Bach or even Stravinsky or Richard Strauss?" To this he replied, "Who actually likes the sort of art that is shown in most big name art galleries? Does anyone truly enjoy it as well as they might Rembrandt and Rubens... or even Picasso and Matisse?" A fair enough question.
    I understand what you're saying St Lukes. Contemporary art (all mediums including poetry) is mostly crap. But is this any different than almost any age? The prominant art will always be mediocre at best, but I believe (I hope anyway) that great artists are working below the radar screen. They are quietly working and refining their art and it will eventually come forth.

    What makes the situation of contemporary poets particularly surprising is that it comes at a moment of unprecedented expansion for the art. There have never before been so many new books of poetry published, so many anthologies or literary magazines. Never has it been so easy to earn a living as a poet. There are now several thousand college-level jobs in teaching creative writing, and many more at the primary and secondary levels.
    But I see that as a good thing. Yes there is mediocrity, but frankly I believe that the quality of poetry would be even worse without the schools. The schools have raised the the bad to mediocre and I believe the mediocre to good. The great will rise because the competition is forcing them to be even better.

    But the poetry boom has been a distressingly confined phenomenon. Decades of public and private funding have created a large professional class for the production and reception of new poetry comprising legions of teachers, graduate students, editors, publishers, and administrators. Based mostly in universities, these groups have gradually become the primary audience for contemporary verse. Consequently, the energy of American poetry, which was once directed outward, is now increasingly focused inward. Reputations are made and rewards distributed within the poetry subculture... Not long ago, "only poets read poetry" was meant as damning criticism. Now it is a proven marketing strategy.
    I know and I agree. It is an incredible fallacy that centralized planning results in quality. It is the free market of ideas that challenge and create excellence. But these mediocre poets provide a infrastucture for good poets to work. While these poets will probably never be great, they cross pollinate ideas from which great poets will build on.

    Joseph Epstein, whose mordant 1988 critique "Who Killed Poetry?"... 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... Epstein indicted the poets themselves and the institutions they had helped create, especially creative-writing programs. A brilliant polemicist, Epstein intended his essay to be incendiary, and it did ignite an explosion of criticism.
    I agree. What makes those poets mediocre is their--what shall I call it?--ideological perspective that severs one's cultural history. But there are still poets and artists who understand that culture is a continuous stream and that to sever one's past is to destroy the building blocks of artistic richness.

    The same lack of critical honesty exists in the visual arts. Most of the critics (many working artists themselves) write for the large art magazines (Art News, Art in America... ) which are in turn supported by the advertising dollars of the art galleries exhibiting the very work being reviewed. A scathing review, no matter how deserved, is surely akin to biting the hand that feeds. The only artists it is safe to attack (to prove that one is not a push-over) are the now dead artists. One might more likely come across a negative review of Matisse in Art in America, than of Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Mark Kostabi, or any number of other art stars whose work surely deserves critical challenges. Only a few figures such as Robert Hughes or Donald Kuspit... employed by larger national publications (ie. Time) regularly speak out against a good deal of the mediocre and bad art that passes for brilliant.
    That is a good point. I'm not sure I have an answer for that. Yes we must be critical. To paise everything is to create a body of criticism that is just dribble, perhaps even more dribble than the crap that should be criticized.

    Poets serious about making careers in institutions understand that the criteria for success are primarily quantitative. They must publish as much as possible as quickly as possible. The slow maturation of genuine creativity looks like laziness to a committee. Wallace Stevens was forty-three when his first book appeared. Robert Frost was thirty-nine. Today these sluggards would be unemployable.
    I understand, but this relies on the view that an artist needs to earn a living from his art. That would be nice, but you know Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive and I don't think Frost actually made a living from poetry.

    ...Poets now occupy niches at every level of academia, from a few sumptuously endowed chairs with six-figure salaries to the more numerous part-time stints that pay roughly the same as Burger King. But even at minimum wage, teaching poetry earns more than writing it ever did. Before the creative-writing boom, being a poet usually meant living in genteel poverty or worse. While the sacrifices poetry demanded caused much individual suffering, the rigors of serving Milton's "thankless Muse" also delivered the collective cultural benefit of frightening away all but committed artists.

    ...The campus is not a bad place for a poet to work. It's just a bad place for all poets to work. Society suffers by losing the imagination and vitality that poets brought to public culture. Poetry suffers when literary standards are forced to conform with institutional ones.
    Completely agree, academia is Burger King. I don't recommend writers work as teachers. Get out into the real world and experience it. Academia is not the real world.

    I throw this all out there as some food for thought... noticing that even here... at LitNet... where are gathered, presumably, a goodly number of people passionate about serious books and reading... poetry remains something of the motherless child. Quite often it seems as if Quasimodo is the only one valiantly carrying the torch for poetry (not to ignore the contributions of Virgil, blazeofglory, and a few others)... not unlike, perhaps, myself in the art discussions. But then again, this is a literatures site. Does poetry really matter any more? How many actually read anything by living poets?
    I will say that Quasi really carries the torch. Thank you for the mention St Lukes. I admit I get into phases where I will get into a good discussion and then perhaps not. This was a great issue to bring up. Let me just say that I am not as pessimistic as Gioia and you.
    Last edited by Virgil; 08-02-2008 at 09:24 PM.
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    Artist and Bibliophile stlukesguild's Avatar
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    I believe the hunger for poetry is still there, buried deep, perhaps, and maybe unrecognized by many. The academic poets in their ivory towers perhaps ought to get out and communicate with their wider audience, find out for themselves what moves and touches them, and use their gifts to ensure that poetry is still a means to shake and stir.

    I remember that two favorite novels of mine, both Hermann Hesse's Glass Bead Game and Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus dealt with the quandary of the artist... how to balance the need to stay true to what one believes and not fall into pandering to the tastes of the masses or the lowest common denominator... while still avoiding the isolation of the artist in his or her ivory tower.

    I think in UK at least, poetry is rarely taught well in schools - in the current climate of curriculum reform (I was going to write 'interference') the untestable subjects, music, art, many forms of literature, are sidelined and when they are taught, it is with one eye on the test... and there is such pressure to perform that any subject that isn't part of the test is ignored. I am not suggesting that children in UK are ignorant of poetry, they are not, but I do feel that the present situation in schools deprives them of the opportunity to grow to love and understand poetry (and drama and music and art.)

    Hesse came to something of a conclusion in his novel that the answer was that one could not compromise one's standards... but at the same time... one could not cloister oneself away in the ivory tower... one had to engage the audience. If one was not to dumb-down one's work and still maintain a connection, the audience had to be given the proper education that could make it possible to communicate with them. Intriguingly... this discussion of education... "teaching the test"... and not teaching what is not on the test... brings be to an interesting (and humorous) discussion of education that I found on the net and have posted elsewhere on LitNet:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iG9CE55wbtY

    Here’s another way I’ve seen it put. From the poet Philip Larkin in All What Jazz:

    The terms and the arguments vary with the circumstances, but basically the message is: Don’t trust your eyes, or ears, or understanding. They’ll tell you this is ridiculous, or ugly, or meaningless. Don’t believe them. You’ve got to work at this: after all, you don’t expect to understand anything as important as art straight off, do you? I mean, this is pretty complex stuff: if you want to know how complex, I’m giving a course of ninety-six lectures at the local college, starting next week.


    Sean Scully, one of the strongest working painters, wrote an interesting essay which repeats much of what Larkin has suggested. In painting there is a distinct critical bias toward art which doesn't look good and against that which in any way might be thought of as beautiful. He noted that the English journalist once waggishly wrote that Stockhausen is not as bad as it sounds. A similar mindset exists within the visual arts. There is an assumption that something that strikes one as ugly or lacking beauty must actually be proof of greater intellectual rigor. By the same token... something overtly sensuous or beautiful is not to be trusted... cannot be as good as it looks. By this token we find art exhibitions of grainy video-tapes of nothing and installations of documents, piles of trash and used condoms... and it is assumed they cannot be as bad as they look. Conversely... Matisse or Bonnard with their lush sensuality are assumed to be not as good as they look. Scully concludes nothing that Stockhausen may not be as bad as it sounds... but neither is Mozart.

    Virgil- Contemporary art (all mediums including poetry) is mostly crap. But is this any different than almost any age? The prominent art will always be mediocre at best, but I believe (I hope anyway) that great artists are working below the radar screen. They are quietly working and refining their art and it will eventually come forth.

    I agree... my contention has always been that 90%+ of all art is mediocre at best. I somewhat suspect that we have a far larger percentage today that is even less than mediocre... and that may have much to do with the lack of institutional and critical honesty. I can't imagine a lot of the artists (or writers) who rise to the ranks of art stars or have their laurels sung in the press even being passed on in the past... let alone not being challenged by the critical press. I agree that there certainly are many artists (in all fields) of true ability who are working beneath the radar screen. I question whether this were always so? Certainly there have always been those who were wrongly ignored... but Picasso, Matisse, T.S. Eliot, Yeats, Hemingway... none were working in obscurity.

    Yes we must be critical. To paise everything is to create a body of criticism that is just dribble, perhaps even more dribble than the crap that should be criticized.

    This is one of the reasons I admire Harold Bloom. I've been accused of being an acolyte of Bloom here, but I certainly do not always agree with his judgment. As I just admitted, I cannot get into John Ashberry and there are any number of writers who I feel Bloom has slighted. On the other hand... his judgment is pretty sound... I find myself usually in agreement... and he has the audacity to come out and say that something stinks when he thinks it stinks. Virtually every volume of contemporary poetry I have perused has several glowing recommendations by other known poets on the back cover... to the point that such have almost become meaningless.

    Completely agree, academia is Burger King. I don't recommend writers work as teachers. Get out into the real world and experience it. Academia is not the real world.

    As Gioia suggests... its not that teaching is a bad gig for writers... but rather it is bad when the majority of all writers are in academia... when the majority of all writers go straight from high-school to college (as students) to college (as teachers). I can't completely escape, here... teaching as I do myself... although I somewhat suspect that teaching in a middle school in a large urban school district offers far more insights to the "real world" than is to be found in academia.
    Beware of the man with just one book. -Ovid
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    Vincit Qui Se Vincit Virgil's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by stlukesguild View Post
    Virgil- Contemporary art (all mediums including poetry) is mostly crap. But is this any different than almost any age? The prominent art will always be mediocre at best, but I believe (I hope anyway) that great artists are working below the radar screen. They are quietly working and refining their art and it will eventually come forth.

    I agree... my contention has always been that 90%+ of all art is mediocre at best. I somewhat suspect that we have a far larger percentage today that is even less than mediocre... and that may have much to do with the lack of institutional and critical honesty. I can't imagine a lot of the artists (or writers) who rise to the ranks of art stars or have their laurels sung in the press even being passed on in the past... let alone not being challenged by the critical press. I agree that there certainly are many artists (in all fields) of true ability who are working beneath the radar screen. I question whether this were always so? Certainly there have always been those who were wrongly ignored... but Picasso, Matisse, T.S. Eliot, Yeats, Hemingway... none were working in obscurity.
    I don't see it so much a result of lack of institutional honesty. I see so much mediocrty is a result of so many people writing today. It's a function of our high level of wealth (high standard of living) that we enjoy. And I don't mean that all poets and artists are weathy. Quite the contrary. But the current standard of living provides relatively inexpensive books and magazines to publish in and free time (huge levels of free time in comparison to past eras) to create while earning a living. It allows this mediocre writer (me!!) to play at writing on lit net.

    This is one of the reasons I admire Harold Bloom. I've been accused of being an acolyte of Bloom here, but I certainly do not always agree with his judgment. As I just admitted, I cannot get into John Ashberry and there are any number of writers who I feel Bloom has slighted. On the other hand... his judgment is pretty sound... I find myself usually in agreement... and he has the audacity to come out and say that something stinks when he thinks it stinks. Virtually every volume of contemporary poetry I have perused has several glowing recommendations by other known poets on the back cover... to the point that such have almost become meaningless.
    Well we share that too. I admire Bloom, but I do disagree with him lots. His anxiety of influence amounts to psychobabble if you ask me. And he's just way too freudian for me. That's more psychobabble. But he does have a great sense of why something is good and he's not afraid to call mediocrity for what it is.

    As Gioia suggests... its not that teaching is a bad gig for writers... but rather it is bad when the majority of all writers are in academia... when the majority of all writers go straight from high-school to college (as students) to college (as teachers). I can't completely escape, here... teaching as I do myself... although I somewhat suspect that teaching in a middle school in a large urban school district offers far more insights to the "real world" than is to be found in academia.
    Oh that is definitely not academia. Not in the least. I wouldn't be defensive about that at all. That's real life.
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    Artist and Bibliophile stlukesguild's Avatar
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    Well we share that too. I admire Bloom, but I do disagree with him lots. His anxiety of influence amounts to psychobabble if you ask me. And he's just way too freudian for me. That's more psychobabble. But he does have a great sense of why something is good and he's not afraid to call mediocrity for what it is.

    I agree there is much that is somewhat Freudian in Bloom... surprisingly in spite of his criticisms of Freud and especially of Freud's writings on Shakespeare. As a practicing visual artist, however, I do understand something of the feeling of "anxiety"... or perhaps "self-consciousness" when one compares oneself to one's artistic "heroes". Even Eliot posts the theory that art is commonly as much about art... as much a dialog with one's predecessors... as it is a dialog or an engagement with life. Often what I experience is not so much a conscious comparison... where one sits down and rationally compares and contrasts one's own work with that of one's predecessors... but rather it is "self conscious"... a feeling of unease when one looks at what one has done and thinks, "Crap! It looks just like so-and-so... but not as good."
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    Vincit Qui Se Vincit Virgil's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by stlukesguild View Post
    Well we share that too. I admire Bloom, but I do disagree with him lots. His anxiety of influence amounts to psychobabble if you ask me. And he's just way too freudian for me. That's more psychobabble. But he does have a great sense of why something is good and he's not afraid to call mediocrity for what it is.

    I agree there is much that is somewhat Freudian in Bloom... surprisingly in spite of his criticisms of Freud and especially of Freud's writings on Shakespeare. As a practicing visual artist, however, I do understand something of the feeling of "anxiety"... or perhaps "self-consciousness" when one compares oneself to one's artistic "heroes". Even Eliot posts the theory that art is commonly as much about art... as much a dialog with one's predecessors... as it is a dialog or an engagement with life. Often what I experience is not so much a conscious comparison... where one sits down and rationally compares and contrasts one's own work with that of one's predecessors... but rather it is "self conscious"... a feeling of unease when one looks at what one has done and thinks, "Crap! It looks just like so-and-so... but not as good."
    Well, I certainly understand that. But "anxiety" suggests some sort of unconscious psychodrama going on.
    LET THERE BE LIGHT

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    Where I am closer to Virgil and less to luke is for the modern poet's opportunity to earn a living. It isn't the poetry so much as the degree, administrative and teaching skills which give meritocracy to the salary. The poetry is nearly almost a byproduct of this, the laurel awarded for the institutional politicking and rise.

    Look at parts of Linda Bierds biography. She is someone I've picked on before in a small press editorial, not because she doesn't have a fine sense of craft, but picked on because I can't compete with her on a level playing field:

    Linda Bierds was raised in Anchorage, Alaska, and attended the University of Washington, where she received her B.A. in 1969 and her M.A. in 1971. Her numerous books of poetry include First Hand (Putnam, 2005), The Seconds (2001), The Profile Makers (1997), The Ghost Trio (1994), which was named a Notable Book Selection by the American Library Association, Heart and Perimeter (1991), and The Stillness, the Dancing (1988).

    She has taught English and writing at the University of Washington since 1989, and was the director of its Creative Writing Program from 1997 until 2000. She lives on Bainbridge Island in Washington.
    http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/1551

    How much does this have to do with poetry as a lyrical craft over pedigree?

    Again, as for myself, I cannot say. My work is most likely certainly better than what gets workshopped on poetry boards, less content with style and form so much as force, but I will probably end up with a collection of my own as long as I persist writing out 25 dollar checks for poetry book prizes.

    Today it is also about persistence as much as talent, though again, aesthetic criteria becomes confusing.

    Laurel Speer told me I shouldn't take it personally, and she was no doubt right to point this out to me, but I think part of my soreness stems from the sense that it is nearly impossible to wade into this fray and come out with a sense of having done something. This isn't just me. Robert got back to SF and emailed me that the cafe's reading format where we met left something to be desired. I agreed.

    The hostess scheduled it like a graduate course out of University of Pennsylvania. I have a significant publishing trail behind me. You'd think I'd be proud of the number of contributions in print with the name Joanne Marinelli on it.

    Robert Thomas has two collections, but both he and I are ants in a vast colony hell bent on caste advancement.
    Last edited by Jozanny; 08-03-2008 at 04:39 AM. Reason: it's 4:30 in the morning

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jozanny View Post
    I was not going to make a second post until I slept my way back up from fire-breathing , but I am curious kasie, and have to ask why you are frightened off?

    For a poet I don't read lots of poetry daily, but I do not fear reading American Poetry Review, or other top poetry markets state-side. I don't read Joyce's Ulysses, not out of fear, but because I am not Irish to care enough and don't see the rewards my Shakespearean professor would try to tell me over lunch. Instead, I found Lampedusa later, but we'll tax that another day.

    I don't know anything kasie, but I've taught myself how to ask the right questions when I'm dealing with literature. Are you afraid of not understanding academic poets?

    Perhaps I exaggerated in saying 'frightened' , Jozanny, perhaps 'daunted' would have been more accurate. I think it is that past experience has shown me that the effort required to penetrate some modern poetry is not equal to the reward. And perhaps I've come upon too much work that has not spoken to me, deals with subjects that are of no particular relevance to me. I'm all for widening my empathies but all too often I find myself reading about a world I do not recognise, some inward gazing work that does not seem to have universal application.

    Oh dear, I'm beginning to sound like some dreadful old fogie... Let's try again! - My touchstone for poetry has always been Pope's line: 'What oft was Felt but ne'er so Well Expressed'. I suppose I'm looking for the shock of recognition, the shiver down the spine, the 'oh my goodness, you felt that too? I thought I was the only one,' moment. It doesn't have to be Great Verse but it does have to have that moment of perception communicated in a memorable way and too often I feel I have been wading through reams of 'stuff' that is there to show how clever or how sensitive (or how shocking) the poet is, but which doesn't give me that moment of insight and clarification.

    The attitude of intellectual superiority that some academic poets convey does not help either - it doesn't do to look down on your audience.

    btw - you don't have to be Irish to enjoy Ulysses but you may well need a glossary!

    Virgil - thank you so much for pointing me towards that video link - it should be required viewing for all 'educators'. Unfortunately, it reiterated principles on which I was trained as a teacher forty years ago! As soon as we came out into schools, all ideals had to be thrown out, harsh reality in the form of 'expectations' stamped on them. When Governmental interference in the form of Core Curriculum and Key Stage Testing came in I, along with hundreds of other teachers, quit the profession, not because we were , as the Government so gleefully proclaimed, we were 'bad' or 'inadequate' teachers, but because we were sick at heart and disillusioned and didn't have the strength to fight bureaucracy any more. (Well, in truth, the 'profession' ceased to exist, since no acknowledgment of professional accountability and standards was ever made by the then or subsequent governments - but that's another topic that belongs to another Forum.)

    I suppose the first thing anyone learns from History is that no one learns from History: Payment by Results didn't work in the nineteenth century, there's no reason to suppose that Education by Testing will work now. And who is the loser? The victims of the system, the children, tomorrow's society.

    Time to get off your Hobby Horse, kasie....

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    Quote Originally Posted by kasie View Post
    Perhaps I exaggerated in saying 'frightened' , Jozanny, perhaps 'daunted' would have been more accurate. I think it is that past experience has shown me that the effort required to penetrate some modern poetry is not equal to the reward.
    On this I hear you. I am not trying to seem conceited or anything, but I appreciate the strength of my work, at least in some instances, but it is simply drowned out in the sheer dreck of undergraduate babble--I know the UK ranking is different from the US, but undergraduate is basically 4 years college, followed by post-graduate studies of varying lengths (things have changed since my day)--and yet I can play in top tier playgrounds because those are taken by the professional administrative class, and at the end of my 45th year, it is possible I can never polish myself through to the top tier; then again, I have no idea what top tier means in the aesthetics of modern poetry! That's saying much.

    And perhaps I've come upon too much work that has not spoken to me, deals with subjects that are of no particular relevance to me. I'm all for widening my empathies but all too often I find myself reading about a world I do not recognise, some inward gazing work that does not seem to have universal application.
    This sounds a lot like me, which is why I am much more selective in my genre reading than I am when it comes to prose.


    The attitude of intellectual superiority that some academic poets convey does not help either - it doesn't do to look down on your audience.
    btw - you don't have to be Irish to enjoy Ulysses but you may well need a glossary!
    Not sure it is superiority, really, but --at least in American academics, apprenticeship to peerage.

    As to Ulysses, I do not hate Joyce by any means, but Proust doesn't make French modernism like a chess game one feels all but lucky to follow. Proust can almost heal me in some ways, when I let the text take me over, like a musical score.

    Joyce is nearly a dead weight, and that dead weight is part of his talent, but on my death bed I won't be sorry for having skipped much of the main event. My modernists are Proust, Musil, Lampedusa, maybe Doblin, to a lesser extent Woolf; post-modernists I love few and far between. John Gardner is one. DeLillo maybe. Hard to base that on one novel segment. David Mitchell is a splendid second.

    The only modernist poet who has whetted my interest is Allen Tate, via way of praise from The New Republic.

    As a poet, I am not a movement practitioner. I prefer narrative to mere imagist illumination, and that's it about. I can post a few archive links, but mostly I'm in print.
    Last edited by Jozanny; 08-03-2008 at 09:37 AM. Reason: punctuation

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    Artist and Bibliophile stlukesguild's Avatar
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    Where I am closer to Virgil and less to luke is for the modern poet's opportunity to earn a living. It isn't the poetry so much as the degree, administrative and teaching skills which give meritocracy to the salary. The poetry is nearly almost a byproduct of this, the laurel awarded for the institutional politicking and rise.

    Look at parts of Linda Bierds biography. She is someone I've picked on before in a small press editorial, not because she doesn't have a fine sense of craft, but picked on because I can't compete with her on a level playing field:

    Linda Bierds was raised in Anchorage, Alaska, and attended the University of Washington, where she received her B.A. in 1969 and her M.A. in 1971. Her numerous books of poetry include First Hand (Putnam, 2005), The Seconds (2001), The Profile Makers (1997), The Ghost Trio (1994), which was named a Notable Book Selection by the American Library Association, Heart and Perimeter (1991), and The Stillness, the Dancing (1988).

    She has taught English and writing at the University of Washington since 1989, and was the director of its Creative Writing Program from 1997 until 2000. She lives on Bainbridge Island in Washington.
    http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/1551

    How much does this have to do with poetry as a lyrical craft over pedigree?


    Jozy... I agree with you. Although I question whether it is the teaching "skill" but rather the ability of the university to place this person in a teaching position and use them to market the school...via their credentials (certainly not their art). As Dana Gioia notes in past generations poets such as Mark van Doren might have had academic teaching positions... but this was because they could indeed teach subjects such as British Literature. They were legitimate academics. Again... within my own field of the visual arts the situation is not far different. We have a large number of academic artists who are seemingly marketed or exhibited upon the basis of their credentials or resume and not their art. How are they true academics? Very little, from my experience... although there certainly is Ann Carson. Still many have surprisingly little real knowledge of the history of their own field. Yet they often maintain an air of superiority... especially with those non-accredited outsiders who would think to exhibit alongside of them. Again... the prime difference is that their is still a thriving market for visual art... in many cases it is for investment... or the desire to purchase the illusion of being "cultured"... or even a desire for luxury products... but it still remains... and there are artists who have become grossly wealthy and whose reputation consequently far outreach that of any academic artist. But do we have any serios poet who is actually making a good (not to say ostentatious) living solely from his or her poetry. Gioia himself took the route, not unlike Stevens, of making his mark in the corporate world before retiring to focus upon his passion for poetry.

    kasie... I believe that was my link you are referring to. Unfortunately, things are not far different here. I certainly believe that we can expect certain objective standards of what a child need to learn by a given age in order to have a grasp upon the sort of core knowledge that he or she will most probably need to function or succeed with his or her society. I don't believe that these standards should be imposed at the expense of all other areas of knowledge and experience... or that it should be assumed that we can turn education into a cookie-cutter process for all children. It is interesting that as we are moving well out of the industrial age we are pushing for a form of education that has more and more to do with meeting the needs of industry. Within my own field of art education I know that many are making what some of us consider to be something of a deal with the devil. In a desire to protect our own positions within the system... that often couldn't understand what it is we were teaching... and as such that always was primed to cut our budgets or eliminate positions at the first sign of financial distress... we have gone the route of academic standards. Yet it is next to impossible to neatly box up art... creativity. Or else we offer up art in support of the "real" subjects... use it to further lessons in math, geometry, and measuring... reading, history, social studies, etc... yet does anyone suppose the math class is ever spent in support of art?
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