Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Seth Abramson and Mark Edmundson's differing views on contemporary poetry.

Here's a link to an everything's-just-peachy-and-glowing-about-poetry-today HUFFINGTON POST column by Seth Abramson: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/seth-abramson/why-is-contemporary-ameri_b_3474969.html

Abramson's writing this as apparent rebuttal to a recent essay in HARPER'S magazine titled "Poetry Slam" by Mark Edmundson.

Edmundson's essay is gated online to HARPER's subscribers only.  But I'll quote several excerpts to give readers of this post a notion as to why Abramson felt he needed to respond.

"Most of our poets now speak a deeply internal language not unlike [W.S.] Merwin's.  They tend to be oblique, equivocal, painfully self-questioning.  They not only talk to themselves in their poems; they frequently talk to themselves about talking to themselves...At a time when collective issues--communal issues, political issues--are pressing, our poets have become ever more private, idiosyncratic, and withdrawn.  Their poetry is not heard but overheard, and sometimes is too hermetic even to overhear with anything like comprehension."

"Contemporary American poets now seem to put all their energy into one task: the creation of a voice.  They strive to sound like no one else.  And that often means poets end up pushing what is most singular and idiosyncratic in themselves and in the language to the fore and ignoring what they have in common with others.  The current poet may give a certain sort of pleasure by his uniqueness, but no one reading him will say what [Ralph Waldo] Emerson hoped to say when he encountered a poet who mattered: 'This is my music; this is myself.'"

"What happens when poets at the height of ambition somehow feel the need to be programmatically obscure?  The obvious result is that they shut out the common reader.  But they also give critics far too much room to determine poetic meanings--and this may be why some critics so love [Jorie] Graham and [Paul] Muldoon and [Anne] Carson and [John] Ashbery.  Their poems are so underdetermined in their sense that the critic gets to collaborate on the verses, in effect becoming a co-creator.  This is a boon to critics, but readers rightly look to poets to make sense of the world, even if it is a difficult sense--and not to pass half the job off to Ph.D's."

"Any modern poet who thinks of himself as creating a full-scale map of experience would be dismissed as hubristic and probably out of his mind.  The poet writes the fragment that is given to him to write; the idea of channeling all experience, or all experience that matters, is entirely foreign.  Poets now are music makers, not mythmakers.  Their poems are like isolated droplets shimmering beautifully on a pane of glass.  [Edmundsen goes on to dismiss individual poems by Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Frank Bidart, Charles Simic, Robert Hass and Robert Pinsky.]  All these poems are good in their ways.  They simply aren't good enough.  They don't slake a reader's thirst for meanings that pass beyond the experience of the individual poet and light up the world we have in common."

"Contemporary American poetry speaks its own confined language, not ours.  It is, by and large, pure.  It does not generally traffic in the icons of pop culture; it doesn't immerse itself in ad-speak, rock lyrics, or politicians' posturing: it gravitates to the obscure, the recondite, the precious, the ancient, trying to get outside the mush of culture that surrounds it.  The result is poetry that can be exquisite, but that has too few resources to use to take on consequential events."

"Mass culture and mechanical reproduction surely play a part in the current retreat of American poetry, but what about MFA programs?  Poetry now is something of a business.  You make your way into the game by getting a sponsor: often it's a writer-in-residence from your undergraduate school.  Then comes the MFA and the first book, both of which usually require sponsorship--which is to say pull."

"To thrive in this process you often must write in the mode of the mentor--you must play the game that is there to be played.  You must be a member of the school, you must sing in the correct key.  If you try to overwhelm the sponsor, explode his work into irrelevance--well, the first law of success is simple: Never outshine the master.  The well-tempered courtier knows how to make those above him feel surperior.  He knows that in his desire to succeed he must not go far in displaying what he can do.  The master will not like it--and there will be no first book, no fellowship, no job, no preferment.  It is only by making the master look more accomplished, by writing in his mode, becoming a disciple, that the novice ascends."

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