I�ve just reviewed one of those annual best of anthologies that picks poems, fiction, and that whore, creative non-fiction from the leading journals and tosses em up, in a huge, indigestible salad. There were maybe fifteen poems in the anthology. And here�s the thing: the poems weren�t even there enough to pronounce them as bad. They were a turned off tv in the room � a blank, blind gaze.
Why is poetry so bad right now?
There are maybe ten novelists and short story writers who broke into prominence in the nineties. At least five of them could be identified by any medium reader. You might not have read Infinite Jest, but you will recognize David Foster Wallace�s. You might not have read Secret History, but you will recognize Donna Tartt�s name. The same test would turn up approximately zero British or American poets.
This isn�t because of some great scandalous overthrow of technique. The make it new credo lasted, I�d say, about through Olson. I�m an eclectic kind of poetaster. Give me Lowell, give me the Black Mountain poets, give me George Oppen or Marianne Moore, and I can work with them. I know when I�m beat, I know when the poet�s demand that I learn how to read the poem is compelling, and when it isn�t. Today�s poets don�t really need to invent new forms, but I�d be happy to follow along if they did. In fact, they are very expert with forms. It�s just they have nothing to say. If they have something to say, usually, I guess, they move into fiction. Or creative �f., the aforesaid happy hooker. So instead, you get the dullest lines, ephemeral feelings that, in the catching, have no power to move even the prime feeler of them, and a quasi surrealistic jumble that moves the poem along, much as the janitor moves detritus down the hall with a big fat red cloth broom.. The poems all read like bad translations of themselves. There�s less logic in them, and less continuity, than you�d find in a Hollywood B movie. They are even more instantly forgettable than those movies, too.
What happened? I mean, through the seventies there was always some strong figure. Merrill, Plath, Thom Gunn. Even Anne Sexton, for Christ�s sake. I think the seventies is the last decade that I could name ten active American poets that I respected.
I know, the inevitable fallow periods. But this one is more fallow than most. You have to go back to the 1780s, perhaps, to find a decade where the poets are generally of such a low caliber. Even then, you had Crabbe. Perhaps it is that gathering the poets into huge poet reservations on campuses has denied them the kind of knock about experience they need. I mean, today�s Baudelaire has to get up early to photocopy his syllabus for the kiddies. While this isn�t really death to novelists, it seems to have killed poets. Poets need some roughing up. They need, well, some love for the English language � something that is sorely lacking in the poems I read. This isn�t HTML code, people. A little paste and copy and there you are -- but it is not something I'd want to do anything with, except maybe wipe my ass. Here's an old essay in the Atlantic Monthly that genteely dips into these waters. Alas, Goia has written the essay looking over her shoulder -- better not hurt anyone's feelings! -- which rather blunts the incisiveness of the thing. When she writes:
"Even if great poetry continues to be written, it has retreated from the center of literary life. Though supported by a loyal coterie, poetry has lost the confidence that it speaks to and for the general culture" -- you get the feeling of a seriously pulled punch. If great poetry is being written, it will eventualy find its place. The deal is, dude -- no great poetry is coming through. None. Nada. In any sense that I recognize as great poetry, viz, for instance, wanting to read it. Quoting it. Having it recur to me at odd intervals in my daily life. Having a sense that it is never fully plumbed. Etc.
Poetry magazine recently received something like a hundred million dollars � some fantastic sum. It is now a foundation. They should hire some researchers and figure this out.