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Has Poetry Changed? The View From the Editor’s Desk

ISSUE:  Spring 2012
The State of American Poetry

Hope springs eternal, especially for aspiring poets. They want their voices to be heard; they want to appear in print as well as to write their poems. One wonders: who will listen, who will read? Interesting questions.

Some years ago Helen Vendler said she was giving up reviewing or generally writing about new books of poetry by younger poets. She had not lost her acumen, her interest or her powers of perception; rather, she said that she lacked the right cultural frame of reference to be an appropriate audience, let alone a judge. She knew about gardens and nightingales, Grecian urns and Christian theology, but not about hip-hop or comic books, and these provide the material, or at least the glue, for many of today’s poems. Poetic subjects, voices, diction, and tone change. And forms, like subjects, change as well. She wanted to leave the critical field open to younger people like her colleague Stephen Burt, a polymath who knows the ancients and the moderns, the classics and the contemporary. He listens to indie bands and reads graphic novels. He flourishes amid the hipsters as well as the sonneteers. Dan Chi- asson, another young poet-critic, now holds unofficially the New Yorker reviewing post Vendler formerly occupied under William Shawn. The more conservative Adam Kirsch, a Vendler student like the other two men, also writes for The New Yorker, as well as The New Republic, and The New Criterion. More left-leaning or experimental poets might deride all three of these critics as part of an establishment, but they are the people who can tell me what is happening in mainstream poetry these days, who have their fingers on the pulse of the zeitgeist, and an understanding of how younger poets are responding to, as well as helping to shape, it.

It is important to remain on the qui vive, to attend to the contemporary artistic scene, not in a misguided effort to pretend that one is hip and au courant but because something new—a tone, a word, an image, a reference—just might strike with pleasurable power from a source that one never thought one would understand. We learn from the unexpected, which in many cases is synonymous with youth.

As someone more than a decade younger than Vendler, but several older than Burt, Chiasson, and Kirsch, I find myself on a middle ground. Recently a senior citizen but not yet an old codger, I want “to see what the poets / in Ghana are doing these days”—as Frank O’Hara put it with his typical cavalier charm in “The Day Lady Died,” in part so as not to fall into the mode of Hilton Kramer et al. at The New Criterion who furrow their brows and regret the decline of the West and the inevitable loss of greatness, kindness, civility, and good taste. Things change, willy-nilly, and there is no such thing as progress per se, especially, as T. S. Eliot himself argued a century ago, in the arts. Yesterday’s meadow morphs into today’s High-Line, Keats’s Philomela into Lady Gaga. Poets will register a transformation in the landscape, the cultural surround, and in the field of their vision with a change in their formal arrangements and diction, with their metaphors and rhythms.

I have an additional, more immediate professional reason for trying to keep up with the poetry scene. It is part of my job. I edit a magazine. For a little more than a quarter century, I have looked at all the poems that have come in over the transom of my office at the Southwest Review, now the country’s third oldest, continuously published literary quarterly. We are in our ninety-seventh year. Sewanee and Yale have us beat by a hair. My elevation to the bad eminence of literary magazine editor-in-chief dates back to 1984; its story deserves retelling. Out of Dallas during the summer, I was minding my own business when the phone rang and the university provost called to ask whether I might consider taking over the helm of a magazine that had fallen upon—if not exactly evil days—a kind of torpid desuetude. He wanted to return the Review to faculty supervision. I firmly believe that if one is a sensible, rational person, one should make all of life’s important decisions impulsively. Because I have an interest in contemporary literature, and because the appointment came with a slight lessening of my teaching course load, I said yes, perhaps foolishly.

Returning to Dallas in the brutal dog days of mid-August, I went to my new office, the previous staff having responded to my appointment by resigning in a fit of pique, and I surveyed the scene. Literally hundreds of unread manuscripts had piled up on bookshelves, desks, and floor. I hired a managing editor. A secretary was—thank goodness—already in place, and knew about the business end of things. We had, of course, no Internet, no computer (that came two years later), nothing but a telephone, stationery, and stamps. I began sorting the manuscripts; I made my way through the obvious chaff and remained on the look out for the wheat. Slowly, things came into view. Slowly, I made my choices. Slowly, I began to understand my tastes and preferences. As an unintended consequence, editing has certainly had its effects on my teaching: because I can now articulate clearly what appeals to me, and why I have accepted or rejected a certain work, I can use my standards—which I never hold up as universal—to show my students how to develop theirs.

Nowadays, I still read all the poetry and all nonfiction submissions. Writers of many kinds continue to multiply like Hydra’s heads. This is not exactly news. MFA programs have given more people, at least in their own minds, the credentials and the right to send their work into the world. And the Internet and blogosphere have allowed more poets to flaunt their wares. But I have also discovered, to my surprise, another fact, perhaps a result of the gradual replacement of old print media by the newer technologies. Poets may multiply, but an interest in the old media has waned in some quarters.

Here are some data. In 1985, we had 2,339 submissions to Southwest Review, of which 646 came from poets. (A poetry submission usually contains between two and five poems on average.) Most were mediocre at best, dreadful at worst. In 2010, we had a total of 1,685 submissions, of which 689 came from poets. The total number of submissions has declined, but the poems have increased and therefore constitute a larger percentage of the total. Does this mean that we have more poets today than previously?

We publish roughly seven to nine poems per issue, therefore fewer than forty a year. Acceptance is unlikely. You can do the math. (Fiction is an even longer shot, because we can publish only twenty—often fewer—stories each year.) The journal is the same size it was a quarter century ago, and the number of all contributors to each issue has stayed stable. We do not offer an online product, just a website that gives information and serves as a modest portal between us and the world.

Several years ago I sat on a conference panel in the presence of eager writers— all beginners, some young and some old, some with genuine talent and, among fiction writers probably some who could score commercial successes in genres like Romance or Gothic regardless of what an academic aesthete would consider “talent”—and I told them how we worked at Southwest Review, about how I accepted poems. I told them that sending submissions to a literary magazine is a lot like sex. “How might that be?” they wondered.

“Well, there are many ways in which submitting to a literary magazine is not like sex. But the two activities have one thing in common: Timing is everything. The problem is that the eager author has no sense of it.” I may arrive at my desk in a foul mood. If so, I probably will reject everything my eye passes over. If I feel the weight of a groaning backlog, I also feel less willing to add to it. But if the planets are in a proper alignment, my natural sanguinity may translate into greater flexibility and generosity, and give an unpredictable advantage to whoever wrote what I pick up that morning.

One earnest woman raised her hand. “Don’t you think that the Internet is a wonderful thing, because it allows more voices to be heard?” she asked hopefully.

“Not at all,” I shot back. First of all, there are too many voices. Dr. Johnson complained more than two centuries ago that more people were writing than reading. And, besides, I retorted, “How much time do you spend reading the work of other poets you find on websites, rather than reading your own postings there?” She sat down, saddened and abashed. I did not mean to offend, but rather to make some obvious points.

With each passing year I prefer to read fewer, rather than more, poems for pleasure and sustenance. A majority of these will be re-readings of poems by the mostly now dead masters who have sustained me throughout my life, the old chestnuts, the work of people who were writing down my life for me, who spoke to me in my college days, who turned me into a critic, because a reader, of poetry. Vendler was right: it becomes harder, with age, to be dumbstruck, or struck at all, by new work even, or especially, if one has a professional obligation to attend to the art. There are some poets today whose every new utterance I anticipate with breathlessness or even hopefulness. Four decades ago, it was the work of Lowell and Wilbur, Merrill and Bishop—those great late poems that became Geography III, which first appeared in The New Yorker—then, in the 80’s the poems of Amy Clampitt, the country’s oldest “young” poet, that caught my eye. Contemporary with but different from all of these, Adrienne Rich had a voice that stirred me as well as other readers who may not have shared all of her political causes. Today I look out for the next work by John Ashbery, Jorie Graham, Louise Glück, John Koethe, J. D. McClatchy, Mark Strand, Rosanna Warren, Charles Wright, and maybe a few others, all of them of my generation or older. But among the young? One wants to stay open-minded even when one knows that one’s tastes and sensibilities have been hardened by age.

I continue to address, and write to, new poets with respect and encouragement as well as with honesty. Eager novices seem not to have taken into account the fundamental law of all artistic creation, from the point of view of the audience: I tell them that no one in the world cares if they write, so they’d better be sure that they want to do it. Or need to do it. And do it perhaps only for themselves. I realized relatively late that we don’t often encourage the writing equivalent of a Sunday painter, or a person who plays the piano for herself, or likes tinkering in a workshop with tools and wood. Writers want readers; they want to be published, to stamp their identity onto the world in a public way. They wish to be seen, to be read, to share, and to be responded to. Otherwise, we would not need any literary magazines at all.

People ask me—as David Caplan has most recently—“what has happened to poetry? How does today’s art differ from yesterday’s? What climate changes have you witnessed?”

It is hard, not to say impossible, to survey and measure a field in which one has been standing. A change may have occurred, but so gradually as to be imperceptible. In one small part of the field, however, I can see a modest alteration. Since 2000, my magazine has offered an annual $1,000 poetry prize, courtesy of a local patron who loves poetry and decided to honor her father and then, following his death, his memory, for having inspired her in her own literary tastes when she was a girl. There are several stipulations. The rules are simple:

The Morton H. Marr contest is open to writers who have not yet published a first book of poetry. Contestants may submit no more than six, previously unpublished poems in a “traditional” form (e.g. sonnet, sestina, villanelle, rhymed stanzas, blank verse, etc.)

In other words, this is a contest with an old-fashioned slant. Over the decade, the discerning judges have been Christopher Bakken, Dan Chiasson, Debora Greger, Rachel Hadas, Karl Kirchwey, William Logan, Charles Martin, Wyatt Prunty, Mary Jo Salter, Mark Strand, and Rosanna Warren. The list includes senior poets and younger ones, people who write almost exclusively in strict forms and those who adjust their forms to the needs of their utterance. Some of them might be considered “conservative” (whatever that means), and others are not. A reader in the know might find a certain clubbiness here—because some of the poets are connected to one another or, in the case of two of them, married partners—but there have been sufficient distinctions among them to guarantee surprise as well as quality in their choice of winners. Among the 20 first and second place winners I noticed happily that all have gone on to more publication, including first books for nine of them. Some have won additional prizes. This strikes me as favorable percentage, and a justification of the tastes of the judges as well as the worth of the winning poets’ work.

Over the years, the number of poems, and poets, in this contest, has not noticeably increased. As with our total annual submissions, the number of Marr contestants may have leveled off. This year, we received about 1,000 poems by more than 200 individuals. What has changed, however, is how the poets read and interpret, or misinterpret, the rules of the game. Ten years ago, most entries hewed to those rules. Today many do not. Is it a predictable fact that desperate people will do anything to get into print, even if they must pay an entry fee to qualify? I was surprised at first, but then I realized that perhaps I should not have been. They must think of the contest as something like a crapshoot, which indeed it is. They ask: “If I spend $20, I may hit the jackpot and get $1,000 back.”

We not only give a rule for the contest (a “traditional” form) but we also spell out that rule for the benefit of those who are uncertain what a traditional form might be. Do their poems even qualify for admission? Never daunted, an increasingly larger annual percentage of contestants send in work that we must reject out of hand, at first sight. The entrants submit their poems, often sprawling anarchic things that no formal net would capture or enwrap. Do these people not know the difference between “form,” however generously defined, and its antithesis? Do they not care? Or do they think that we won’t notice? In any case, the contestants’ foolishness eases my work in the office. I winnow the number of submissions down to the roughly ten percent that will be sent—anonymously—to the annual judge.

Some poetasters do not know the difference between a sonnet and something that is not a sonnet, or between a line of even loose iambic pentameter and what is not such a line. But I have made another interesting discovery about our decade-old contest, namely, the fact that villanelles and sestinas, not to mention more ordi- nary sonnets, blank verse narratives, and less ordinary pantoums, ghazals, centos, plus old-fashioned clerihews, rondeaux and the occasional haiku (and even some ingenious variations or modifications on older forms) have become in some circles mother’s milk. Many poets hanker after form.

The poems that inundate our office for the Marr prize seem to flow in from several tributaries. I intuit from those cover letters that provide biographical detail that about half of the contestants do not come from an immediate academic background but rank among the amateur Sunday poets whose work will in most cases never see the light of day except in the blogosphere or within the confines of a family circle. This home-grown, garden-variety poet, like Dr. Johnson’s beloved “common reader,” still hews to what John Hollander in Rhyme’s Reason calls “verse” rather than “poetry” pure and simple; that is, something defined by “schemes” rather than “tropes,” by music rather than metaphor. These works exemplify, at best, a charming naiveté of the highest order.

Another non-surprise: the quality of the “formal” poems, once they have passed the test for a more serious reading, varies enormously. Many people—was it always thus?—think that honoring the letter but not the spirit of the law suffices. Everyone acknowledges the challenge of getting the line-endings right in a sestina, or allowing the repetitions within the villanelle’s nineteen lines a chance to breathe, expand, and move in mysterious ways, but few people can rise to the occasion. The verse that is both rhymed and metered sometimes reminds me of the fledgling efforts of university undergraduates who, when asked to produce a sonnet (or, as I have occasionally demanded, some Spenserian stanzas), think that if they get the rhyme scheme down they have fulfilled the assignment. Those occupying a slightly higher place on the slope to Parnassus aim for both the rhyme scheme and the right number of syllables. As the air on the ascent becomes thinner they also know that they must write something called iambic pentameter. Only a small percentage can satisfy the technical prosodic demands and also write a syntactically accurate English sentence.

Then comes the issue of sense. Do these poems make it, or not? More often than one would want, not. As with students, so also with optimistic contest entrants. Students in MFA writing workshops have read “One Art,” “The Waking,” and “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” and also Bishop’s “A Miracle for Breakfast” and “Sestina.” Most of the alert ones know the rules. The best among them know how—like Bishop—to vary and break them, while at the same time inspiring confidence in their reader that they know what they are doing. But by and large, the contestants writing in what they like to call “form” have as much or as little poetic sense as those who write in free verse; and since all poetry, regardless of its prosody or other structures of versification, enjoys formal constraints, sometimes hard to see, the people who write the sonnets often think that by getting the rhyme right they have succeeded on all fronts.

Which they have not. A good reader of poetry will ask himself, “Why is this thing a sonnet [or a sestina, or some other creature] rather than not? What, aside from the rules of the game, demands this form, this status?” When a poet has fulfilled all the formal schematic requirements, she may have composed a sonnet, but not necessarily an interesting poem. She has neglected the tropes for the schemes; the language is flat, the sentiments banal. Nothing in it surprises; she has forgotten the metaphors. Writing in form never guarantees writing well; passing your driver’s test does not prepare you for life on the road. Aristotle was right when he said that of all the gifts the poet must have, the primary one is that of metaphor. The others remain secondary. Without tropes, the forms are mere scaffolding. The building will not stand. Some of the so-called New Formalists have always flaunted their banner with the zealousness of the righteous, believing that they represent the one true catholic church. A church, however, is primarily neither an edifice nor a dogma but a series of instructions for living.

Those poets who give instruction in formal verse, or at least who permit their students to write it, tend to congregate around certain academic nexuses. Their acolytes constitute a large part of the group that annually gets in touch with Southwest Review in August and September before our contest ends. Some of these work ingenious variations on the basic forms. A few of them—the ones whose names I forward to our judges—show enormous talent. The question, which only another decade will answer, is whether these apprentices will turn into masters themselves. Of the almost two dozen winners and runners-up over the past decade, I’d peg the median age at around thirty. They are post-graduate in status and, by our stipulation, pre-first book. Several people have actually been late bloomers, but their books, too, followed. One success leads to another.

Although form doesn’t logically generate content, it sometimes inspires it. The poems I read for our contest can sometimes seem less personal, self-revealing, or psychologically idiosyncratic, than the typical McPoem from a workship. Randall Jarrell’s lament from more than a half century ago still rings true for any editor: “It’s as if the writers had sent you their ripped-out arms and legs, with ‘This is a poem’ scrawled on them in lipstick.” Although writers as different from one another as Marilyn Hacker, J. D. McClatchy, and Greg Williamson have written deeply personal poems in highly structured forms (as had W. D. Snodgrass before them, in Heart’s Needle, and James Merrill throughout his forty-year career), today’s teachers and students tend to identify “form” with “objectivity,” or even coldness and repression, reactionary social and political stances, and free verse with sincerity, inwardness, and revelation.

Although I have said that our contest generates a larger percentage of “objec- tive” or impersonal poems, these still do not constitute even a plurality. The majority of the poems we receive for the Marr prize deal with the same wide range of human feelings and experience—in the form of lyrics, anecdotes, mini-narratives—as those we receive throughout the year. Basically there is little unusual in the “subjects” of these poems. With one exception: the annual gathering always contains a greater percentage of ekphrastic work than we get otherwise. And I wonder whether the demands of ekphrasis stimulate or match formal demands. I made a mini-survey of teachers of poetry and asked whether they assign ekphrasis in writing classes and, if they do, whether they have noticed anything interesting about the forms their students’ poems took.

Responses came back, predictably varied. A few poets said they never assign subject matter to students, only forms or poetic problems. Others noticed no difference between the forms of their students’ ekphrastic work and those of their other poems. But some agreed with me. One poet said that “perhaps the consciousness of writing a poem that responds to another work of art (in a different genre) does make the poet instantly more conscious of, and thoughtful about, the formal properties of the poem s / he is writing.” The antiphonal voices in Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles” come to mind. Another said he did in fact see a tendency “for [his students’] lines to become more regular when they write the ekphrastic poem (a more tidy looking right margin, in other words).” Partly, he admitted, it’s because it’s the middle of the semester and he has prepared them for formal challenges. And partly, also because “the act of address and rumination, of ‘reading’ the art work and then ‘commenting’ upon its details, is often manifest in a kind of back and forth pattern within these poems, itself a kind of formal structure that makes the poems feel more shaped than other assignments.” The presence of an invisible frame around the students’ words outlines the space of the canvas (assuming they are working with a painting) they are describing and it encourages formal tidiness. The earliest ekphrasis, in the Iliad (Book 18, 478-608), describing the shield of Achilles, invokes a double frame: that of the shield itself and, depicted upon it, the rim of Ocean surrounding the world the poem describes. My hunch had a basis in literary history. It was also—at least in the experience of some of these teacher-poets—correct.

If ekphrastic assignments, regardless of the finished responses, serve any major use, they encourage (in the words of the veteran poet-critic Wyatt Prunty) “precise description and the objectivity that should accompany knowledge gained about a subject. Anything that restricts choices, subject and / or form, requires an added level of invention, imagination.” When he was a student Prunty says the voguish term was “controlling image,” a holdover presumably from the high water days of Blackmur and the New Criticism of Ransom and Brooks. But he also acknowledges, semi-ruefully, that “the young today do not respond to ekprastic poetry all that well. They like ecstatic poetry. They find that more democratic.”

Because ekphrasis calls for a responsibility to something outside the poet and the poem (what Prunty means by “objectivity”) it can encourage a young poet to do something not within the normal range of his or her established repertory. The inspiring artwork forces the poet beyond a comfort zone, both perceptually and formally. Any ekphrastic poem is ipso facto, even if unconsciously, an ars poetica. It demands a greater, or different self-consciousness from what is required by other efforts. One learns to write about the self by writing about something else, about the non-self: this is one lesson that ekphrasis teaches. And it is more generally the lesson that “writing in form,” or following any set of arbitrary directions, teaches equally well. The late John Morton Blum, distinguished Yale historian, used to terrorize his undergraduates by requiring them to do a paper—a short one, I hope—with no adjectives, adverbs, or verbs of being. Dr. Johnson might say that the results would be surprising, not because they were done well but because they were done at all. My students, or anyone else’s, asked to compose three Spenserian stanzas, learn that the novice can rise only as far as the occasion demands. Form makes its considerable demands. Our current crop of students would profit from more of them. Perhaps such demands might reduce a commitment to what Prunty calls the “democratic” or “ecstatic” kind of poems that students favor. Perhaps it would increase an appreciation for poetry’s difficulties. Whatever happens to poems, however, one thing is certain: poetry will survive.


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