What Is the State of American Poetry? Leading American Poets Speak

This seems to be a particularly angst-ridden moment for the followers of American poetry. Is it savagely alive, or is it a moribund corpse, having long been administered last rites?
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

This seems to be a particularly angst-ridden moment for the followers of American poetry. Is it savagely alive, reaching its tentacles into new corners of consciousness, or is it a moribund corpse, having long been administered last rites? The debate is particularly acute now, as new avenues of poetry publication proliferate as perhaps never before and there are more "poets" writing and publishing poetry, even as critics claim that the MFA system has led to uniform mediocrity and tentativeness. So which is it, and is there a way to put this conflict in some bigger historical context?

We asked the poets the following questions:

Is American poetry at a dead-end? Have American poets betrayed the great legacy of modernism? Why or why not? What worries you about the present moment in poetry? Do you see signs of life? Where is the most promising work coming from? What is your advice to a young poet trying to make sense of the current poetry scene?

The following poets have also contributed to the debate, and you will be reading their views in future installments: Campbell McGrath, Kevin Prufer, Akilah Oliver, Elaine Equi, Chad Prevost, Cathryn Hankla, Martha Rhodes, Sidney Wade, Ben Lerner, Steve Healey, Alfred Corn, Cynthia Cruz, Julie Carr, Wayne Miller, Anna Rabinowitz, Maxine Chernoff, Claudia Keelan, Rebecca Seiferle, Hadara Bar-Nadav, Shelley Puhak, Raymond McDaniel, Jane Satterfield, Becca Klaver, and Catherine Wagner.

National Book Award-winning poet, translator, and critic Clayton Eshleman is the author of more than thirty books, including Grindstone of Rapport (Black Widow), Juniper Fuse: Upper Paleolithic Imagination and the Construction of the Underworld (Wesleyan), and Anticline (Black Widow).

Clayton reads his translation of a famous Cesar Vallejo Spanish Civil War Poem, "Masa" (Mass):

Clayton shares some work-in-progress on "the night," based on his New Guinea research and dreams, with Huffington Post readers:

Watch Clayton read with Robert Kelly at the Poetry Project in New York. Listen to Clayton's radio interviews with Joe Milford here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Clayton: Elder poets such as Gary Snyder, Adrienne Rich, Jerome Rothenberg, Robert Kelly and the late Gustaf Sobin, for example, have, over the past two decades, in their own fashion, developed and extended the work of Pound, Williams, Stein, Rukeyser, and Olson. The elder poets I mention above have continued to affirm poetry as a form in which the realities of the spirit can be tested by critical intelligence, a form in which the blackness in the heart of man can be confronted and articulated.

The hundreds of undergraduate and graduate university degree programs offering majors in writing poetry and fiction worry me. This system is producing thousands of talented but unoriginal writers, many of whom would not be writing at all if it were not for jobs. Once upon a time, there was a "left bank" and a "right bank" in our poetry: the innovative vs. the traditional. Today the writing scene resembles a blizzard on an archipelago of sites. Not only has the laudable democratization of poetry been compromised by being brick-layered into the academy but with few exceptions there is a lack of strong "signature" and a tacit affirmation of the bourgeois status quo, the politics of no politics.

There are a number of poets who are a wonderful exception to the situation I briefly just described. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Ron Padgett, Anne Waldman, Nathaniel Mackey, Michael Palmer, John Olson, Andrew Joron, Will Alexander, Christine Hume, Kevin Davies, Lara Glenum, Linh Dinh, and Kristin Prevallet, to name only a few, are all publishing poetry that bears the stamp of originality as well as the influence of earlier major figures.

My advice to a young poet would be to leave this country and see how other people live. Translate, for the "assimilative space" opened up through the translation of complex texts carries a greater learning potential than reading poetry written in one's native language. Read books that no one else is reading so that you can bring into poetry information that has remained outside of poetry.

Keep a reading notebook and start writing reviews of the books that you adore or detest, stating clearly why. Take on poetry that is beyond you. Serious poetry commentary is a kind of endangered "species." The major critics of the past several decades have all been non-poet advancers of conventional verse.

Annie Finch is a poet, translator, librettist, verse playwright, editor, and critic. Her books include Eve, Calendars, and Among the Goddesses. She directs the Stonecoast MFA program in Creative Writing.

Watch Annie read her poem "Brigid" in Portland, Maine:

Read Annie's new poem "Earth That Our Forest Looks Back For":

Watch Annie read "Summer Solstice Chant." Watch the Orange County Women's Chorus sing Annie's poem "Tribute." Listen to Annie explore the metaphysical meaning of winter. Listen to Stefania DeKenessey's solo setting of Annie's poem "Landing Under Water." Read Annie's poems at Poetry Speaks. Read Annie's poems at Poets for Living Waters, curated by Amy King in response to the Gulf oil spill. Read Annie's poems in Jacket. Read Annie's poems at Poets.org.

Annie: American poetry is at a dead-end. And that's a good thing! American poets have betrayed the legacy of modernism completely, and in the most insidious way: by getting stuck in it. The strains of Williams, Eliot, Stevens, and Stein between them still hold most of American poetry in deadlock. Modernism was such a powerful turning that its centrifugal force flung poems far away from each other and from the central uniting energy of the art. So we have schools of poetry still splattering poems up against their separate walls of image/anecdote, intellectual pedantry, cultural refinement, and language experiment. The disembowelment of the art was, of course, facilitated by the twentieth-century technologies of the typewriter and computer screen, which kept poetry away from its own center by severing it from its writers' and readers' mouths, ears, and bodies.

It worries me that so little published mainstream poetry is intended to be heard by its readers. As a result, people who encounter a poem on the page tend to think it exists on the page--they don't hear its patterns resonating aloud inside them. Since repeating language patterns are the core distinguishing feature that demarcates poetry as a genre from any other form of language, there's a lot at stake.

I do see signs of life. Poetic form and meter are increasingly hip, and poets with ears trained in performance poetry are using their skills to learn meter; we see more and more of this at Stonecoast, the MFA program I direct. Poetry is increasingly apparent on the radio, in ads, and other places that non-poets hang out. This is a healthy sign for the art, since general readers/hearers keep us honest; they remind us that we have a needed role to play in the culture. And long-overdue appreciation is finally growing for the three modernist poets with the best poetic ears: Crane, Hughes, and Millay.

I just finished teaching dactylic, anapestic, iambic, and trochaic meter to a diverse group of poets at Stonecoast. As a class, their poetic ears were sharper and quicker than those of any group of poets I've ever taught. They loved learning these basics of their craft, and their work blew me away. There are plenty of young poets out there who are serious about reconnecting poetry with its roots, its body, the earth's body, its readers' bodies--not to mention souls. We really have no choice--this is the job of poets at this moment. The planet demands it.

Poetic fashions change surprisingly fast, so don't spend too much energy on them. Read everything aloud to yourself, get to know your poetic ear, and trust your own judgment. You will recognize the muse's presence, not in thoughts or images, but when a voice whispers inside you and your body knows it is true. Carry a pad of paper with you everywhere and sleep with it by your bed. Learn all you can, read all you can, grow all you can, and always remember the muse comes first. Poetry is a sacred service, and your country needs you. So only do what feels right. Don't waste poetic words. Revise.

Ron Silliman is the author, co-author or editor of more than 30 volumes of poetry and criticism, including The New Sentence, The Age of Huts (compleat), and The Alphabet.

Watch Ron read from The Alphabet:

Ron shares his unpublished work with Huffington Post readers:

Watch another reading of The Alphabet. Read a section of Revelator published as the lead poem in the June 2010 issue of Poetry. Read "Ketjak" as part of The Age of Huts at the University of California website.

: Fifty years ago, there were well under 1,000 poets writing & publishing in English. Today, there are easily over 20,000. A dead-end? Hardly. But what is changing--and unsettling to those who look at poetry without looking at history--is the relation of the poet (and poem) to audience. Writers who want to have just a few poets, each with a mass audience, are doomed to disappointment. But we have not yet articulated in any settled manner what a "successful poetry career" will look like if there are 20 times the number of poets, but perhaps only two or three times the number of readers we had 50 years ago. Every single poet is having to figure this out for him or herself. It's worth keeping in mind that we're in this together.

Have American poets betrayed the great legacy of modernism? One might make this argument for those poets who write as if modernism itself never existed. But with friends like Ezra Pound &/or T.S. Eliot, modernism hardly needed enemies. I've often thought that the real question here is what would happen if we went back and actually attempted to answer the great questions of form & function that literary modernism asks. In that sense, I tend to think the best current writing isn't post-modern, but rather neo-modern. The work of Linh Dinh, Prageeta Sharma, Tao Lin, Tan Lin, Eileen Tabios, Hung Q. Tu, Mytili Jagannathan, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, Brian Kim Stefans, Pamela Lu, Bhanu Kapil & other younger writers who excite me all strike me this way.

What worries me most is the survival of poetry in a world in which the depredations of capital go literally unchecked. Having 20,000 or 20 million poets won't help one bit if the biosphere is screwed. In the past 35 years, we have seen the top 1% of the wealthiest people in the United States increase their control of the economy from under 10% to nearly 30%. That yields a very unstable society. In the 1930s, the last time we saw that concentration of wealth, you had the far left as well as the far right contesting the status quo. I'm afraid we've ceded the field to the far right this time around, which means that George W. Bush may only be the worst president we have had to date. What would Sarah Palin or some other Fox surrogates do in power? The words Yugoslavia, Spain, Romania, Germany all come to mind.

There are hundreds of good young poets, many of them coming from communities previously unrepresented in the U.S. cultural mix. Is it an accident that the list I gave two paragraphs back consisted entirely of poets with at least some Asian heritage? As always, the most promising work arrives when new participants ask questions in new ways. Or hear the old questions with new ears. Just as it was not an accident that Gertrude Stein was a Jewish Lesbian at a time when that phrase did not trip lightly off the tongue, or that William Carlos Williams was half-Puerto Rican, so it is not an accident that American poetry today--and British, Canadian, Australian--is enriched precisely as its deepens its understanding of who writes to include kinds of people not previously acknowledged. And as global communications expands the field, we're going to have to recognize that the English-language literary landscape includes broad parts of South Asia, Nigeria, South Africa and elsewhere. If we can just keep from destroying the planet, we may be on the cusp of the first global renaissance. But that is a very big If.

My advice to a young poet would be to know your songs well before you start singing, to paraphrase Bob Dylan. You need to both understand the full field & history of writing and to recognize that we are in the very first moments of whatever the next age in history will be, and that the poetry of the future cannot simply be the past dragged on by habit. This is necessarily a both/and requirement. One without the other will only lead to work that is arid & pointless. But the two together yield almost limitless possibilities. And then there is that third requirement, which is that we have to rescue the planet if we are to have futures of any kind whatsoever.

Danielle Pafunda is author of Iatrogenic: Their Testimonies (Noemi Press), My Zorba (Bloof Books), Pretty Young Thing (Soft Skull Press), and the forthcoming Manhater (Dusie Press Books).

Read Danielle's new poem, "The Dead Girls Speak in Unison":

Watch Danielle read her poetry:

Listen to "Mommy V" reading from the 2009 Delirious Hem Adventskalendar. Read an excerpt from Iatrogenic at H_NGM_N.

Danielle: This is where, if I say yes, American poetry jumps up and grabs me by the throat, right? I am not falling for that one. American poetry is a live wire. In fact, it is a tangle of live wires.

1. American poetry contains multitudes

What we have here, lucky ducks, is an embarrassment of riches! What's your pleasure? Postmodern sonnet? Erotic elegiac? School girl gothic? Conceptual choose-your-own-adventure? Brokenhearted? Ball breaker? Belletricky? There are literally thousands of American poets. The magazine American Poet goes out to approximately 9,000 subscribers. There are poetry enthusiasts reading up right this very second. I suppose it is possible that all these people could be gathered together at a dead-end, but then wouldn't that make the dead-end a destination? Come to the dead-end of the world! We have milk and cookies and bonfires! Thar be monsters!

2. American poets = millipedes

I went to college in the middle of the woods, and we had one dormitory, formerly an eldercare facility, which was thoroughly infested by some sort of transparent millipede. They were spooky ghostly things, up to six inches in length. Hard to believe they weren't the riverside nightmares of the dying. Hard to believe they wouldn't crawl in your ear and plant something. Worse than discovering one in your room was chasing one around your room. They could scurry so quickly that they seemed to be running in several directions at once, splitting apart and reassembling. If you were unfortunate enough to live in one of the rooms with a drain in the floor (morgue? infirmary?), the bug might scuttle down out of reach. You would put a textbook over the drain and hope the little creep would move on to haunt someone else.

My point is, whatever you do, these millipedes are going to scurry all over your room at night, and you might, now that you know better, quit chasing them down the drain and find out if they have any secrets worth hearing.

3. American poetry: person, place, thing, or way?

I have been teaching poetry (the craft, the literature) for a decade now, and it often turns out that students want to know what poetry is. Not what it is building down there, or who has the most, or which is the greatest, but actually what it consists of. One of the things I think poetry is, I say, is a set of strategies. These strategies make art happen in the plastic of language. They deliver ideas that aren't easily articulated in prose. They administer emotional cocktails. They help you hurt your reader in just the way he or she is looking for. They complicate our systems of representation so that when we speak our speech is as fucked up as our lived experience deserves.

4. But just in case

If it turns out that I'm wrong, and American poetry is all gasp-gasp-rattle, the money is in the mattress, don't let Aunt Georgia get her hands on Nana's brooch, then let me say this: poets have always been grave robbers. We will just dig it right back up, slap some Frankenstein bolts on its skull, and hook it up to the juice.

The legacy of modernism: If we mean Great, as in the lone transcendent mind, escaping body and berth, recasting history in its own image, lurching (leching!) through the centuries, marking every muliebral fragment with its initials, contemplating eugenics, lolling in Freudian privilege, then boo! hiss! I certainly hope we're betraying it.

If we're talking about the great legacy of modernist freakout--horror in the face of global warfare, the dissolution of the marriage between progress and improvement, the emperor's-new-clothes revelation that the self is an ever-shifting and incoherent cuckoo bird, masculine hysteria, cyborgery, civil rights, and all the seeds of the postmodern condition--then I cheerily submit that we're keeping that legacy alive and kicking. Even those of us who embrace the spectacle and our slip-sliding within it struggle against the instability. These may be my favorite American poets. Those who long for and reject stability simultaneously. Those who are attracted to and repulsed by those institutions that confirm, and those that deconstruct "the real."

I'm pretty thrilled by poetry in the present moment, but here are two things I cannot abide:

2.The 70% men : 30% women publishing ratio, and the equally/even more disturbing ratios for race, class, disability, LGBTQ, and any other marked category we can imagine

One of my favorite things about poetry is that I cannot predict where the most exciting reads will come from. Sometimes it is a one-off from a student taking my class on a whim, other times it is something brilliant finally getting translated. Hiromi Ito's Killing Kanoko where had you been all my life? I would say, though, on the whole, the most promising work seems to be coming out of those people who can't sit still. The poets who stay up late and go to their day jobs early, the poets raising manic toddlers, the poets who've got novels in the works, presses of their own, journals, side-businesses, a zillion heartbroken friends to shoulder, partners, gardens, causes, fixations, obsessions, visions of the future which demand tending today, work, work, it's all work Andy Warhol channeled by The Velvet Underground zeitgeist.

Instead of trying to master the field (gak! and yawn.):

1.You find poetry you like the same way you find music you like. It's simultaneously intensely personal and surprisingly communal.
2.If you cannot find what you are longing to read, then you have stumbled upon an excellent opportunity! Now you may write what you are longing to read, or start a journal and publish it! Start a press! Publish your friends! Publish yourself!
3.Did someone tell you there were too many presses, too many journals? If you were in a garage band, how would you respond? Very good. Do that.
4.Try. Try very hard not to get dispirited by the grim proclamations and the tales of woe from those who feel poetry's handlers betrayed them. When the future gets here, it will be different than we imagine it, and there is a fine chance, I have a dark angel Polyanna suspicion that it might actually be good.

To Be Continued...

Go To Homepage

Before You Go

Popular in the Community