Why Is Contemporary American Poetry So Good?

Why Is Contemporary American Poetry So Good?
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{NB: Below is my response, as a poet, to an article published earlier today in the Washington Post entitled "Why Is Modern Poetry So Bad?", which itself was a response to an article published online last week, in the July 2013 issue of Harper's, entitled "Poetry Slam (Or, the decline of American verse)." The first article can be found here; the second article can only be read online by subscribers to the magazine.}

Because there are exponentially more poets writing or committed to writing accomplished poetry today than has ever been the case in the history of the United States, either as a percentage of total population or as an absolute number. Because this means that, within the next few years, almost every American of a certain age will know or be related to someone who writes or is committed to writing accomplished poetry, which puts the workaday commitment to poetry so many Americans share front and center in the lives of millions and millions of Americans who are not poets.

Because there is more poetry being published today than has ever been published in the United States, because there are more print and online magazines publishing poetry, more trade and university and independent presses publishing poetry, more poetry reading series, more poetry anthologies, more poetry festivals, more private poetry groups, more poetry conferences, more articles written about poetry in major media, and more reviews of contemporary poetry collections than ever before, and this means Americans are as or more likely today than at any time in American history, in a culture as cluttered as any in the history of humankind, to come across exemplars of contemporary poetry willingly or inadvertently while going about their daily lives.

Because creative writing is the fastest-growing field of study in the United States, and the fact that there are now more than 250 terminal-degree graduate creative writing programs in the United States, graduating more than 2,200 committed poets each year and 22,000 each decade, means that more conversations about poetry are now happening in the United States than have ever happened, because the offline poetry conversations that have always been ubiquitous in bohemian enclaves are now joined by untold thousands of such conversations happening every semester on college and university campuses. Because the fact that there are so many graduate creative writing programs means that communities in which poetry is discussed between and among committed poets are now located in every state in America, rather than headquartered in just a small number of coastal redoubts. Because graduate creative writing programs are not run or staffed by doctorate-holders whose love of poetry is primarily academic and therefore esoteric in the view of the overwhelming majority of Americans, but rather by working poets whose love of the written word suffuses not only their on-campus dialogues about poetry, but also their off-campus dialogues and, because poetry invariably finds its way into all corners of every life that admits it, every interaction they have with friends, family, coworkers, and acquaintances.

Because the fact that there are so many poets now writing in America in a committed way, and consequently so many discussions happening about poetry among those seriously committed to it, means that it is no longer possible to readily quantify the number of movements and enclaves in evidence on the landscape of American poetry, which is frustrating for popular magazine freelancers whose attention is fixed on poetry for but a few hours each year, and exhilarating for anyone who invests any reasonable period of time looking for new poetry. Because among the many movements and enclaves that tend to escape the attention of print media are those that do not use print as their primary medium, including "slam" poetry, which is performed in high-spirited competitions all across the country that are widely attended by college-age students, and visual poetry, which is as likely to be found in a museum or art gallery as an envelope mailed to the editorial offices of a popular magazine, and multimedia poetry, which includes poetry set to popular music and subsequently attached to professionally-produced music videos, as is the case with Michael Zapruder's incomparable Pink Thunder. Because I attended and acted as judge at a slam poetry competition at Illinois Wesleyan University in 2011, and despite the tiny enrollment of the university the competition drew a crowd of more than a hundred students, students whose affection for poetry was evident in their wild applause and raucous laughter at so many of the lines of poetry delivered to them.

Because even poetry at the opposite end of the literary spectrum from slam poetry, that is, so-called Language or post-Language poetry, is now so admired by scholars and university students that they have developed a new and growing specialization within English departments to circumscribe its appreciation and study and criticism, denoted Contemporary Poetry Studies, and because increasingly graduate creative writing programs are acting as vehicles to inform young poets of the most innovative poetry being written today and to inspire them to write innovative poetry of their own. Because a forthcoming anthology, Best American Experimental Writing, the first ever annual anthology of experimental writing, will among other goals seek to create and encourage an even wider audience than this for superlatively innovative contemporary American verse. Because websites devoted to music criticism, like Pitchfork, now, for the first time in American history, make it their business to direct young music aficionados to albums featuring not just exemplary musicianship but also exemplary lyrics, such that artists like Joanna Newsom can release albums whose lyrics approach poetry and in so doing receive, as was never before possible, not just critical but also popular acclaim.

Because you cannot judge the poetry of any era on the basis of a case-by-case aesthetic analysis of its merits, not only because there is too much poetry written and published for any of it to be considered an exemplar of an era, not only because aesthetics is a subjective enterprise, but also because it is in the nature of aesthetics to evolve and thus for an innovative aesthetics to be underappreciated in its own time, because we do not know what poems being written today will be considered of enduring value in the distant future, because what is Great is Great almost exclusively in retrospect. Because the present older generation of poets developed something called "poetics," which is more useful than aesthetics because it uncovers not merely what is visually and aurally pleasing in a poem but also how that poem does something with language no other artform could do, and because that's wonderful, and because the present younger generation of poets has in response developed a means of analyzing poetry "horizontally," that is, by attending not merely to how a poem reads but how it changes the lives and relationships and lives in poetry and relationships to poetry of those who read or hear that poem, and that's wonderful also.

Because have you ever heard Matt Hart, Abraham Smith, Heather Christle, or Anthony Madrid read their poems out loud?

Because did you know you can probably find clips of them on YouTube?

Because have you ever read the poetry of Ariana Reines?

Because poets as a class of Americans are younger now, in terms of average age, than they've ever been before, because a lifetime in poetry is more readily visible to American youth today than ever before, because there are cultural institutions like graduate creative writing programs that let young people know that it's okay to write poetry, that it's not a sign of laziness or depression or schizophrenia and needn't end in isolation or misery or homelessness in New York or getting disowned by your parents, because now poets support one another in a way that wasn't possible when poets were more scattered and fewer in number, and because as a result of all these phenomena poets are better able and more willing now to integrate their poetry with technology, thus "returning art to the praxis of life" as the historical avant-gardes popular magazine freelancers sometimes laud liked to say. Because, that is, poets are finding ways to publish online, publish on YouTube, publish on Twitter, publish on Facebook, and thereby build virtual communities with one another and with others via all of these and many other social media websites.

Because most of the criticisms of poetry published in popular magazines involve consideration of only those poets presently winning prizes and receiving government-issued laurels and receiving tenure-track faculty positions, when even the most cursory review of literary history reveals that the most dynamic poetry is always being written by those our society in general and popular magazines in particular don't take seriously and therefore don't see and therefore disregard. Because one of the best things about those who slip through the cracks in American culture is that they tend to band together and find an uncommon strength in it, and the internet makes that more feasible than ever before, and the result of this slippage and banding and feasibility is that the average committed poet today does, in fact, have a broader base of real-time knowledge about what other young poets are concurrently writing than did the average committed poet of other eras, who were more likely to write in the sort of Romantic penury and isolation that produced Coleridge and Wordsworth and Byron but also a veritable horde of lesser poets we understandably no longer read, but less understandably fail to mention when we're judging the poetry of that period. Because critics tend to make the same error in discussing poetry of other periods also.

Because other eras of literary production occurred against the backdrop of a very different America, a categorically less just America, and consequently the widely-read poetry of those previous eras contained an almost criminal dearth of poetry by female or black or Latino or gay or Jewish or immigrant or physically disabled or transgendered or imprisoned or transsexual or in-translation or gender-queer or lesbian or little person or working-class or Asian-American or Native American poets. Because we now have readers and reviewers and editors and publishers and anthologists alert to the unique and irreplaceable contributions made to poetry by members of America's numberless subcommunities. Because no one ever turned away from poetry because they were friends with or smoked dope with or got drunk with or rapped about literature with someone who once upon a time received a Master of Fine Arts degree in poetry, whereas entire generations have been turned away from poetry by precisely the sort of canon-obsessed, aesthetics-oriented high school and college needling of individual poems deeded to us by those who now write articles decrying the present state of poetry.

Because we elected to office a man who writes poetry, reads poetry, and invites poets to his House to read their work. Because there are more scholarships and fellowships and grants supporting poets today than at any time in American history, though the number of such opportunities is still only a fraction of what we would expect to find in an advanced civilization. Because nearly every American university with an MFA program is attempting to do its part on this score by turning the once-nonterminal and only rarely funded creative writing Master of Fine Arts degree into a fully-funded terminal degree, because even academics are doing their part by creating an academic specialization called Creative Writing Studies and increasingly admitting MFA-holders to their doctoral programs, because the first-ever conference on critical creative writing pedagogy was held on June 21st of this year at Manhattanville College, because books on critical creative writing pedagogy began to enter the American market ten years ago and are now reaching an American readership more quickly and in greater number than ever before. Because poets have their own Amazon, and it's called Small Press Distribution and it works as a business model in substantial part because contemporary poetry is so good and people therefore buy it and read it voraciously. Because Poets & Writers has a subscription base of 60,000 people and newsstand sales well beyond that, because the Poetry Foundation received a few years back the largest bequest in the history of American poetry, because the Association of Writers and Writing Programs has its largest membership ever and so many attendees to its annual conference that poets now take over one American city per year when they congregate for it, because poets no longer fawn over the Romantic ideal of genius and instead understand that genius is fundamentally a social rather than spiritual good.

Because the study of language and the human mind is so far advanced in our time, as compared to previous times, that entire bodies of poetry can claim to be informed by facts and figures and philosophies and reasoning of which our predecessors in poetry could only dream.

Because celebrities already rich and famous for skill-sets America actually values still dream of being poets when they go to sleep, and consequently publish books with silly titles like A Knight Without Armor and Blinking With Fists. Because I left a career in law to pursue poetry, and because the recent explosion in the number of low-residency MFA programs in the United States is explained by the fact that other attorneys and doctors and professionals of all stripes are now realizing that American culture can now accommodate, in a way it previously could not, the passions and ambitions of more than just its discrete bohemian class. Because the internet makes it possible for poets of every inclination and background to collaborate with one another without having to move from their current homes to the previously short but now ever-expanding list of locales capable of supporting real-time poetry communities. Because every poet you speak to could write their own list of reasons contemporary American poetry is so good, and it would be different from this one, but also similar, and equally true.

Because Americans are more attuned to international poetry than ever before, which brings America further than ever before into the international literary community, as evidenced by the volume of poetry in translation being published each month by small, independent, cash-strapped American publishers like Action Books. Because when I was invited to give a lecture at University of Amsterdam discussing the history of creative writing in the American university, I was addressed by Dutch students and faculty before, during, the after the lecture asking what they personally could do to bring more creative writing study to their university specifically and their country generally. Because in the Netherlands, as in America, we increasingly find young poets whose ambition is not merely to write poetry, not merely to edit magazines and anthologies, not merely to teach poetry to others, not merely to discuss poetry with strangers at whatever time and in whatever place, not merely to run poetry reading series and poetry festivals, not merely to publish poems and books, but to engage larger projects that they believe are likely to advance the cause of poetry in the United States. Because I am one of those people, because I am proud to be, because I will always be, because there are thousands of others like me and if you have not heard their voices yet, you will hear them soon.

Because none of the above reasons contemporary American poetry is so good in any way diminish or amend the many ways poetry itself has always been good for us, and good to us, because contemporary American poetry nourishes and enlivens and congregates and educates and in some cases even saves us the very same way poetry has always done for those with the willingness to stop speaking and listen.

A graduate of Harvard Law School and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry: Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013), winner of the 2012 Akron Poetry Prize; Northerners (Western Michigan University Press, 2011), winner of the 2010 Green Rose Prize from New Issues Poetry & Prose; and The Suburban Ecstasies (Ghost Road Press, 2009). A contributing author to The Creative Writing MFA Handbook (Continuum, 2008) and a regular contributor to both Poets & Writers and Indiewire, he is also Series Co-Editor for Best American Experimental Writing, whose first edition will be published by Omnidawn in 2014. Presently a doctoral candidate (ABD) in English Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets (University of Virginia Press, 2008), Poetry of the Law (University of Iowa Press, 2010), Poetry, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Harvard Review, AGNI, Fence, and Colorado Review. In 2008, he was awarded the J. Howard and Barbara M.J. Wood Prize by Poetry.

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