Where the Person and Political Intersect in Poetry

I’m fascinated by the notion of “political poetry,” of writing verse about social and political issues that withstands the test of time and does not become dated. It’s no easy task, and it’s a challenge that I’ve dealt with in my body of work. Recently, Poets’ Quarterly published my essay, “Going Inside the Cave: Where the Personal and Political Intersect in Contemporary Narrative American Poetry,” on this very topic. I looked at the work of four contemporary poets, Toi Derricotte and Terrance Hayes, specifically their address of personal history and racial issues, and Sharon Olds and Gary Soto, specifically their use of confessional poetry as a means to address issues of gender and identity.

I’d be interested in any comments and thoughts readers may have about the essay. I also encourage you to follow Poets’ Quarterly on Facebook and Twitter because the editors do a wonderful job of posting articles about the current state of contemporary poetry.

The HuffPost Defends American Poetry and Poetry Advocates

It’s been a tough year for American poetry. In a recent issue of Harper’s Magazine, Mark Edmundson published an essay titled “Poetry Slam, or the Decline of American Verse” bemoaning the current state of poetry and longing for a modern William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, or Robert Lowell, a poet willing to address serious issues. Specifically, Edmundson called out W.S. Merwin, Robert Hass, Seamus Heaney and other contemporary heavy weights for failing to use their talent and skill to seriously address social and political issues. That is the author’s claim, not mine.

This essay followed an online blog post by The Washington Post titled “Is Poetry Dead?,” which ran shortly after Richard Blanco, one of my favorite contemporary American poets, read at President Obama’s second inauguration in January. The blog post’s author, Alexandra Petri, asked if poetry can still “change anything,” but has that ever been the point? I have always viewed poetry as an art form that makes us see the ordinary differently, that makes the common thing new, to paraphrase Williams. Furthermore, it is an art form that pushes the boundaries of language and indeed challenges language. Perhaps most importantly, poetry is a community-builder. I have seen that time and time again over the last decade or so that I’ve been doing readings and attending readings.

This point is why I bring attention to a an article in the HuffingtonPost entitled “Top 200 Advocates for Poetry (2013).” What impresses me about the list is the range of names- including some well-knowns, such as current Poet Laureate Natasha Tretheway and several former Poet Laureates, such as W.S. Merwin and Billy Collins. But the author, Seth Abramson, includes several people that work for small presses, such as Fence and Black Ocean Press, and folks that run various reading series. His list points out that poetry is indeed still alive and well and has several big names left, which I’ve mentioned above, but more importantly, poetry is about community, about small presses and reading series. There are plenty of people keeping the art form alive and plenty of people writing it, since over 20,000 books of American poetry are published each decade, according to Abramson’s article. It is nice to finally see a publication as well-known as the HuffPost point out that poetry is indeed alive and well and there are several people, especially at the small press level, working to foster community through poetry.

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.

What’s the Matter with Poetry Today?

Today, I came across an interview with John Timberman Newcomb on Inside Higher Ed. The interview centers around Newcomb’s new book, How Did Poetry Survive? The Making of Modern American Verse. I haven’t had a chance to order the book yet, and I’ll have to save for it, since it’s currently available in hardcover only and $75. However, the subject fascinates me, and I’m glad someone is exploring what has caused the current status of poetry and why so few Americans read it.

That said, I disagree with a lot of what Newcomb says in the intervew. Near the end of it, he makes the argument that part of the problem with contemporary American poetry is that it fails to address historical and world issues, and what he calls, “ordinary life.” He states, “Don’t turn your back on the world around you, or on history, or on ‘ordinary  life.’ I am not an expert in very recent American poetry so it’s presumptuous  for me to say so, but some recent verse I’ve read seems primarily or entirely  concerned with the inner life of the poet — his or her responses to the natural  world, to works of art, to somewhat rarefied emotional states.” He also says, and this part I do agree with, that some contemporary American poets and scholars feel poets writing now should not address the political. Is this advice given to ensure young poets aren’t just writing diatribes?

There are plenty of contemporary American poets that address the world around them. Terrance Hayes, Major Jackson, Brian Turner, Kim Addonizzio (her most recent book, Lucifer at the Starlight), Patricia Smith are only a few examples, and there is the generation before them, Carolyn Forche, Adrienne Rich, Maxine Kumin, and SO many more. Jackson, Hayes, and Smith do an excellent job addressing race. Turner has two collections out about the war in Iraq. Forche, Rich, Kumin, and others have a long history addressing feminism and gender roles. Last year’s poet laureate, Philip Levine, is a champion of the working-class, so again, I don’t understand Newcomb’s statement, and it makes me question how much contemporary verse he has read.

I think several other reasons exist for poetry’s problems, the least of which is the content currently offered. It is sometimes a challenge to get young people to read much of anything, let alone a collection of poems. Furthermore, there is the issue of bad poetry, meaning people that get up there at open mics with very little practice, having read very little poetry, and as a result, the work is melodramatic and cliche, rife with too many worn-out references to Greek myth, or it sounds like it was written in the 19th Century. One bad reading can turn a lot of people off. There is also the issue of how poetry is taught in schools, especially  middle schools and high schools, where it is reduced to a disection of meter and form, nothing more. Yes, those elements are important to know, but poetry is not a math formula. Restricting poetry to only a formal aspect squeezes all pleasure out of it.

I am eager to purchase Newcomb’s book and understand more his views on contemporary American poet and how it got to the state it’s in.