Harper’s Gripe with Contemporary American Poetry

Mark Edmundson is not happy with the state of contemporary American poetry. His article “Poetry Slam,” published in the latest issue of Harper’s Magazine, takes Seamus Heaney, John Ashbery, W.S. Merwin, and other modern lionized poets to task for not writing enough about contemporary issues, including 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the growing class divide. In the article, which is only available in print, Edmundson states, “I often think that our poets now write as though history were over and they were living in a world outside collective time. They write as though the great public crises were over and the most pressing business we had were self-cultivation and the fending off of boredom.” He goes on to say, “Many of our poets are capable of work that matters. There’s a lot of talent in the room. But we need them to use it and to take some chances.”

Throughout the essay, Edmundson heaps praise upon the post-World War II-era poets, especially Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath, who, according to Edmundson, did not shy away from confronting serious issue. I agree with him there, but I can think of several well-known contemporary American poets who also do not shy away from confronting issues. Our current Poet Laureate, Natasha Tretheway, for instance, often addresses the complexities of race, especially in her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Native Guard and her latest collection, Thrall. The previous Poet Laureate, Philip Levine, has never avoided addressing serious issues, considering he made a name for himself writing about class issues and the blue-collar Detroit factory workers. There are several younger poets, such as Terrance Hayes and Major Jackson, who have confronted a number of issues in their work. Even W.S. Merwin has frequently spoken about climate issues and the environment during interviews throughout the years.

Meanwhile, several journals frequently publish special issues dedicated to a particular topical issues. Red River Review, for instance, is currently seeking submissions about any topical issue. They just accepted one of my poems about climate change. FutureCycle Press is also seeking submissions about climate change for a special anthology as part of the press’ Good Works Project. Epiphany just published a wonderful war-themed issue, edited by Brian Turner, an Iraq vet who has won numerous poetry awards and whose first two books deal with the war in Iraq and the post-9/11 world.

I do agree with one main point in Edmundson’s essay, however. He lambasts the proliferation of MFA programs and states some MFA students just want a degree, then a volume of work, then a job as assistant professor. So focused on careers, they fail to take any risks, to really challenge language, or to really address any serious issue.

If you’re a poetry lover, the essay in Harper’s is well-worth the read. I’m eager to see the reaction from various poetry publications over the next few days and weeks.

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