I love poetry. Really, I do. In fact, to repurpose what Alvie told Annie in Woody’s “Annie Hall”… Love is too weak a word for what I feel. I luuurve poetry, you know, I loave poetry, I luff poetry, two F’s. So, this isn’t easy for me to say. But it’s time for a talk. We need to surround poetry with all of its closest friends and family—maybe in that den with the nice window overlooking the maples or the dusty book-stuffed office where poetry counsels its earnest undergrads—and have a talk. You know, that talk—the one that starts with those four hard-to-hear words: you have a problem. Yes, Poetry, it’s time for an intervention.
Now, my dear Poetry, before you get all fidgety and start edging for the door or pull out that bullhorn with the button that automatically belts out “WE’RE DOING JUST FINE! THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH US!” please, I beg you—just listen to what we have to say. I promise, this is for your own good.
I know poetry has heard this before, and it usually hasn’t ended well. Just a few years ago, the president of the Poetry Foundation, John Barr, published a notorious rebuke of contemporary poetry in the journal Poetry. It was the essay that launched a thousand ships—or a least a few hundred letters to the editor and a withering counter-strike from poet Dana Goodyear in the pages of the New Yorker a few months later. Barr’s essay included some truth (poetry should seek a broader audience), but it also appeared to be a not-so-veiled attack on several targets that he’d had his eye on for years (like MFA programs). In addition, it was a call for something “new” being made by a writer whose own poems offer nothing of the kind. To make matters worse, Barr was an investment banker. Barr telling poetry it had a problem was like my sleazy, estranged, ex-con, Vicodin-popping uncle telling me to curb my drinking.
Poetry’s problem is as complicated as any addict’s. There are root causes to be wrestled with, bad habits to be broken, debilitating dependencies to let go, and a new vision of the self to be forged. However, the primary symptom of its problem is so obvious and uncomplicated that even Barr got it right, and it’s the main reason that contemporary poetry should take this all seriously: no one is reading it. Most poets will immediately take exception with this statement. After all, they’re reading it. They’re subscribing and submitting to the obscure journals, they’re snatching up their colleagues’ small-press publications during the books’ brief, one-printing-only, un-promoted, college-bookstore runs. And poets are—in their non-writing existences—still considered people too. Therefore, somebody is reading this stuff. Heck, even some of their students are reading it. Are their students no one too? Riddle me that! says poetry. So there! Hmph! At this point Poetry usually hits the button on its bullhorn, sets it on the chair, and storms out of the room.
But come back, Poetry. Come back, sit down, turn off the bullhorn for a moment. Ask yourself: is this really okay? Should it be acceptable that your only true audience is each other? Don’t all addicts eventually wean their community down to the few who share their addiction and then declare they don’t need anyone else anyway? Isn’t this isolation, this refusal to take part in the general discourse of society, only a road to your own ruin? When a typical “successful” book of poems sells at best a few thousand copies and poetry’s most significant journals only reach a tiny niche of readers, we need to ask: does it matter that virtually no one is reading contemporary poems? Should it matter? I’m here to answer a resounding yes—and not only because, as a poet myself, I’d like to speak to a larger and more diverse audience, but because I believe poetry can provide a unique, vital lens for viewing our world—a world that is alive and evolving in ways that the naked eye might not see.
Poetry is unique in the way it speaks to us. And I don’t mean that in some New-Age, poetry-connects-to-our-souls kind of way; I mean that in a how-it-gets-into-our-brains-and-lights-up-the-synapses kind of way. Compare it, for example, to fiction. Fiction provides a vicarious experience through which readers lose themselves and live inside a narrator’s mind. The reader inhabits the text. Poetry—in its more modern, less narrative forms—does the opposite of this. It is purposefully incomplete and instead of creating a fully-realized world, it relies heavily on the reader to fill in the blanks. It asks the reader to complete the partial image, to identify the unstated connective tissues between its parts, to step back and see what larger structures can be extrapolated from the text. Even if you ignore all the subtext percolating in the background of fiction, you still have the story. In modern poetry, if you ignore these elements you are ignoring the poem itself. In essence, a poem inhabits the reader. It slips its concepts, images, structures inside the reader’s head like a recipe for a complicated, multifaceted thought or the DNA for a new or interesting idea and says to the brain: try this formula, what do you think of that? In modern poetry, a reader’s own memories, the feelings they attach to particular imagery or language, their familiarity with any allusions, all these unstable factors become as crucial to a poem’s impact as the writer’s intent.
Not surprisingly, existing in this world of flux can make poetry uniquely challenging for both the writer and the reader. But it is this same lack of tethers—modern poetry’s freedom from standard linear structure or narrative—that allows it the fluidity and ambiguity to achieve the multiplicity of meanings that make it worth reading. It is these layers of thought—different ideas simultaneously existing within the lines, using the language myriad ways at once—that can make poetry a penetrating, electrifying experience. When poetry gets it right, the result is like seeing some part of the world around you in a new way, a way that might uniquely thrill or terrify or astound.
Consider a narrative approach to describing an airline flight. A fiction writer might tell a passenger’s story—who that person is, where they are travelling, what they had to drink during the flight. A poem is the sight of the land below from 30,000 feet. All the contours, how the patterns of the universe persist in all scales and settings, our place in those patterns, how our view of our world and ourselves changes from this perspective. Shaping non-linear elements like that into a meaningful experience for the reader is the kind of work a poem might do. It is in these ways that poetry can provide readers with something valuable: a (usually) quick read that can enhance or alter their vision of existence—sometimes in a profound way. Great poetry works like that classic cartoon device in which Bugs Bunny— wandering wearily through the desert in his French Legion get-up—approaches a small tent, but once inside, it’s a spacious, opulent palace. Why should such wonders only be available to animated rabbits and a small army of MFA grads? Dear Poetry, I beg you, let us conquer your demons and share your wares again with the people. Have you checked out the condition of the planet lately? The state of public discourse? We’re a little overdue for some deep thinking. Frankly, we need this stuff.
If the primary symptom of poetry’s affliction is its lack of an audience—the thing we most hope will change once it’s cured—then what, exactly, is its problem? It’s an addiction to bad habits—the kind that make readers ask: why read more of this? So they don’t. And yet, careless Poetry continues with its bad habits, insisting that the poems are fine but the readers are clueless, and so what if “the public” reads the poems anyway? There seems to be an attitude among many poets today that as long they and some of their colleagues (who often share similar poetic philosophies, of which there are at least 31 flavors) can “understand” or connect with a poem, their work is done. Or they seem to believe that as long as a poet displays enough skill in constructing a piece, the shallowness of its impact is a non-issue. The task of creating a poem that is both complex and accessible seems to be too much for many poets today. When readers toss aside a poem, it’s usually either because the poem provided no access (if Bugs could get inside that tent—wow!—but where’s the door?) or because once inside, it provided no reason to return or explore (Bugs enters the small tent and finds… the inside of a small tent). The former category is the kind of poem that often leaves the average reader furious—what was that supposed to be?!—and might have the added bonus of making them feel stupid or develop a personal hate for the poet. The latter category might elicit a sly or satisfied grin, or a somber nod of the head, but then—poof! It’s gone, the reader’s mind onto other things, the world flooding in again, their view of it much the same as it was in the moment prior to their consumption of the wafer-thin slice of poetic craft. Not exactly an experience that screams: Come Back Again Soon! This doesn’t mean that poems should be expected to always be both easily consumed and excessively layered. Just give us at least a small way in, and once we’re there, do a little something that will last—punch us in the face if you have to, but leave a mark, one that might stick with us until our next bruising.
Of course, finding the right balance between complexity and accessibility is not easy, and readers are diverse in their desires; the “sweet spot” along that continuum is a shifting target for both the audience and the writer. But there are plenty of examples of 20th century poets—those who were among the pioneers of modern poetry and embodied its sometimes-confounding idiosyncrasies—who had enough success in walking the line that they found ways to have an impact on poets and non-poets. Writers like Frank O’Hara and Sylvia Plath were able to indulge our need for both mystery and meaning, enough to become lasting voices in the culture at large. In its second season premier, the television series “Mad Men” (set in the early 1960s) prominently featured its main character, Don Draper, receiving a copy of O’Hara’s Meditations on an Emergency. The book and some of its lines served as mirror to the character’s personal development, the times he was living in. It was a wonderful device. The show’s writers knew it was believable that someone like Draper might be given O’Hara’s book, that he might be affected by it, and they knew that a good portion of their audience today would understand some of the delicious subtext inherent in Draper reading O’Hara. It is hard to imagine any book of poetry from the last 30 years having the same impact in some yet-to-be-televised depiction of our era. It is that kind of place in our culture today that poetry should be able to inhabit, as the wise—or wiseacre—and subversive presence that lives along the edges of what we talk and think about, not our primary source of entertainment or escape, but a persistent and sometimes-transforming voice that adds depth to our landscape of art.
Solving Poetry’s problem does not guarantee the return of its audience, and its book totals will never be competing with the ticket sales of summer blockbusters or Stephen King’s receipts. But there is the audience of independent films and literary fiction, a much larger and more diverse group than the one reading contemporary poems. These are your readers, Poetry, embrace them. Make them feel both at home and invigorated. Love them. I promise, they’re ready to love you if you’ll just give them the chance. At least I think they will. Let’s just say they will. An intervention is no good if I can’t at least provide a little light at the end of the tunnel, a roadmap to redemption. To this end, we will conclude our “talk” with a classic rehab device: a 12-step process that poetry might use to cure itself. In fact, we’ll make it easy on you, Poetry (and you too, readers, who have stuck with us for this long, even though we’ve been talking about poetry the whole time—can you believe it?). We know, dear Poetry, how concerned you are with economy—at least you ought to be—so we’ll cut your steps in half. A 6-step program.
Since April was National Poetry Month, we’ve taken a sampling from the April issues of a few major journals (Poetry, The American Poetry Review, and a regional stalwart, the west coast-based Zyzzyva) and culled examples that will illustrate the need for each step. Rather than a comprehensive survey of poetry’s condition today, think of this exercise as a small snapshot of poetry’s problem at the beginning of this new decade—a cursory epidemiological investigation of our beloved, ailing medium, one that might show us how to make it healthy again.
I know you are fragile, Poetry. We understand. Remember, we’re just here to help…
Step 1. Stop hoping for miracles.
Poets should stop equating randomness with art, hoping that by some miracle the reader will infuse his own meaning into the randomness, virtually unaided. Yes, our subconscious can do magical things with poems and their discursive nature, but only to the point where some sense can be made of the text, however disjointed. Poets today seem to be crossing that line with too much zest and frequency. Take, for example, the poem “Paragraph” by 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner Rae Armantrout, which appeared in the April Poetry. The poem begins with the stanza:
Record breaking Thriller
The next stanzas quote a “Wolfman Jack style/DJ” from the post-apocalyptic videogame Fallout, “This is Wasteland Radio/and we’re here for you.” The meat of the poem begins here, where it introduces a deft interplay between imagined/internal spaces and the real/external world. This interplay continues throughout the rest of the text, and the next section further explores our fluctuating location between the internal and external:
You are here
between the voices
in your head.
Immediacy is retro,
The quote from Lytle works well, depicting our location in time as something else in flux. And Armantrout deepens the poem’s feeling of instability with the clever use of Lytle’s name, which—read as “little”—undercuts the veracity of the very idea attributed to him. It finishes with a “Matrix”-like image of computer code, concluding, “We can almost/slip right in.” This final stanza is also effective, prompting us to question which world is the one we are slipping into: the real or imagined, past or present? Indeed, much of the poem works wonderfully, but the first stanza’s randomness sits like a mute, faceless stone atop its totem pole of ideas. Yes, the first and second stanza both reference a musical aspect of pop culture—but to what end? Even after repeated readings, the first stanza never escapes its arbitariness, and it ultimately keeps the reader locked out of the poem. Armantrout is an icon in the “Language” school of poetry—a diverse and heavily-influential avante garde wing of modern poetry, one that embraces the idea of the reader participating heavily in the construction of a poem’s meaning and emphasizes “spontaneity” in the text. So there is certainly a good deal of poetic theory that supports Armantrout’s techniques. And we’re not here to rebut the premises of an entire school of poetry. We’re just saying, dear Poetry, stop hoping for miracles.
Step 2. Leave the prose alone. It’s not yours.
Poets need to remember that the line is the heart of the medium. That group of words united along a horizontal plane is a poem’s main unit of construction and one of a poet’s most powerful tools. Prose poems and prose-heavy poems that simply use line breaks for breath and rhythm abandon this tool at their own risk. The added units of meaning, the structural shape and support that lines provide is too often replaced by nothing in these poems; the result is frequently too many words doing too little work. The poem “Even Be It Built of Boards by Hand and Joined Without Nails, Yet May a Barn Burn,” by H.L. Hix and appearing in the April Poetry, features beautiful straightforward prose-like lines that are mostly absent the engaging, meaning-enhancing syntactic twists of its interesting title. It begins:
The three men now stood satisfied, arms crossed,
joking among themselves, but only moments before
they hadn’t been laughing. It had taken all three
to bind the struggling man. First, to limit his movement,
And it continues in this fashion for six long stanzas. The poem weaves rich descriptions of the barn and its family history into a detached, but brutal depiction of the oddly-indifferent man being bound and the barn burned. The ultimate effect, however, is wearying and one-dimensional. The images pile up, but the language does little beyond its descriptive duties. Few phrases have the opportunity to stand out or grow new layers—trapped among the mass of words, sitting complacently within the similar-length lines and stanzas. It’s as if you can feel a magnificent, more engaging poem hiding within its flesh, begging to be cut out of the masquerading prose in which it’s lost. Do not shun the line, dear poetry, it is your friend.
Step 3. Finish your thought.
Poets need to make sure that their language and imagery are always serving the poem’s subtext. This seems obvious, but poets today are too often giving themselves a free pass in the matter. They are allowing the language and images to serve their primary descriptive, musical or rhythmic purpose while undermining or derailing the train of thought working beneath the text. In Todd Boss’ “Should Leash Laws” (Poetry, April) he spreads one- and two-word lines across the page, the poem’s form nicely mimicking the hopping, circling, leashed dog it depicts. He unites the poem and its spare language with a strict rhyme and meter that provide a strong counter to its effectively haphazard appearance. Boss adds an interesting twist to the scene (literally and figuratively) when he questions whom the leash is really constraining: “their paws/all over/instinct’s greeting,/it’s we/who do/the dancing/there, lest/our restraints/ourselves/ensnare.” But the poem undercuts its impact near the end when it lets a clever rhyme lead it astray: “Over the head,/between/the legs,/we tangle/with our/rules/& regs/like film/in a projector’s/cogs,/reclaim/the lead,/then blame/the dogs.” In its subtext, the poem doubts the usefulness or fairness of constraints, expressing a general suspicion of “our rules & regs”—an idea that the projector image does not expand on or explore. In terms of rhyme, rhythm and description, “like film in a projector’s cogs” works well enough, but the idea it represents only serves to negate the poem’s meta-message. Consider that a film needs the cogs for it to be brought to life; it’s an argument for the necessity of order, the benefits of tethers. At best then, the poem’s subtext is sometimes constraints are good, sometimes bad (a rather bland pronouncement)—even though the unfairness of the “blame” in the last lines suggests that Boss intends for us to feel otherwise.
Step 4. If at all possible, use your words to make phrases.
You might call this problem the Gertrude Stein Effect or The Ongoing Misguided Search for Abstract Expressionism in Modern Poetry. It may not be a major issue, but it’s significant enough that two poems in April’s Zyzzyva avoid employing phrases. Yes, poems can make great use of single, isolated words or a single word in repetition, unattached to any phrase. But when that technique is the poem, when a poem is built around its use, there is little for a reader to connect to or explore after their initial impression. In the April Zyzzyva, Caleb Powell’s “Jackson Pollock Archive: Lost Poem #291/Narcissism, 1950” features the pronoun “I” repeated dozens of times, in several different bit-mapped fonts and sizes over eight long lines that are widely-spaced and left-aligning. This is interrupted only by a solo and trio appearance of the pronoun “me” in a couple places. The poem basically works like a one-note joke—its careless appearance, ego-lampooning repetition, and sterile title working together to make a possibly ironic or dismissive statement about Pollock and/or the modernism he embodies. If it were 1950, this might have some subversive punch, but these ideas have been explored and re-explored. Once the “joke” elements are dispensed with, the poem’s choice to reject phrases leave it with nothing left to offer.
Step 5. Stop making love and just fuck me silly, please.
Poets need to understand that a polite, well-measured demonstration of skill can have little impact if not infused with a generous dose of passion. Yes, passion is difficult to quantify, but it’s one of those “I know it when I see it” things—and I know I’m not seeing it enough in contemporary poems. In Peter Kline’s “On Seeing Fiona with Her New Lover” (Zyzzyva, April) he plays out the title with a mix of purposefully-dry, obtuse stage direction and clipped images. Its three stanzas begin:
In this performance, I’m the watcher.
I’m plainclothes and narcotics.
Mine is the silence
of the majority, not the partner.
The tone here is engaging, its cop-talk rhythms acheiving a strange kind of intimacy and intrigue. But the following stanzas don’t build on those qualities. The poem concludes:
Act III, in which the hero (He must
be a god, that man) succumbs
to the watcher’s inner life, whereby
at last he is made real. His death is optional.
It could be done
anywhere—even in her snug white bed.
The clean, meticulous language and clever development of the scene make for an admirable, solidly-constructed poem. But the coldness of Kline’s text is neither truly chilling nor interestingly numbing, and it is not offering any traditional scorned-lover’s passion. We were waiting to be slapped or kissed, and instead received a firm handshake. Fuck us silly, dear poetry, we promise to like it.
Step 6. Get a diary.
After making a plea for passion, it might seem counterintuitive to say this (after all, what arouses more feeling in a writer than his own life?) but poets need to cut back on their addiction to autobiography. Yes, every poet’s work is somehow rooted in their experience, and those echoes haunt all poems. I’m referring to what we might call Confessional-Lite poems: the one about the bird you saw while having your coffee, the one that juxtaposes your sweet child-rearing experience with the terrible thing on the news. These snippets of modern life that culminate in a small twist or brief epiphany are the classic Bugs finds a tent inside the tent poems. All poets (myself included) have written these poems—it’s what poets do. And there will always be a place in poetry for those who do it best. But it’s time for the rest of us to move on, stop using it as a primary mode, and employ the same raw material in the construction of something more challenging, less familiar. Matthew Lippman’s poem “Marriage Pants” from the March/April issue of The American Poetry Review explores a set of failed marriages among his peers. His descriptions of the couples’ lives and the scenes he paints strike both quirky and familiar notes. There is enough grittiness sprinkled in his details and language to keep some of the “everydayness” from being too bland—something he does effectively in the poem’s third stanza:
Then there was Katie and Todd who loved
caviar and sparrows.
They wanted to have a kid and thank fuck they didn’t.
When Katie left she blew up Todd’s motorcycle
and the neighborhood kids ran down the block for a second
to see the debris
then went back to their basketballs and bong hits.
But this quirkiness is ultimately subsumed by the familiarity, and the poem’s edge is dulled by too much regular life. It concludes:
Some mornings I get up and can’t tie my shoes.
I’m fourty-four years old and can’t toast seedless rye.
My kid cries because her hands are wet;
my wife undresses in front of open windows.
What am I supposed to do?
I wake up.
I say good morning.
I put on my pants.
Dear Poetry, it’s okay to keep some things to yourself.
So where does this all leave us for now? What are we to do while we wait for those first paparazzi snapshots of a sunglasses-clad poetry leaving rehab and ducking into the old VW van idling in the driveway? Find the hidden treasures. Tucked among the morass of mediocrity that fills poetry’s journals, bookshelves, and web sites, there are still a few magic tents here and there that open into grand cartoon palaces. Look for them and let them whet your appetite for all the great poetry that is still to come. We’ll even point you to one. In the April Zyzzyva, the first-time-in-print Michael Ichioka strikes a gorgeous and powerful chord with his poem, “QC: A Summer Eulogy.” Presented in the worn typeface of a manual typewriter (an analog era-evoking device that feels authentic enough here to avoid being being trite) the poem manages to create that deep, sharp ache of loss and nostalgia over not only our former selves, but our former image of our future selves—those ghosts of a someday we never inhabited. The strong, figurative language allows the images and action to bleed into each other, creating the fluid-yet-incongruent feeling of a dream. In short, like the great poems that came before it, it perfectly balances mystery and meaning. The poem concludes its one long stanza:
in your memory. The river of my lost
thought is iced but deep to drown
in. The cabin closed for winter is false
in form & promise both.
Whatever mutterings you placed in your paper
boat, let them go. Should you come now,
might you not stay, patient
on the threshold of a room I dreamt once?
The rain outside moves like film
run backwards, sheds a sound like gauze
stretched. Those who named you
among their friends have fallen
far from here, I suppose. An old chair
holds no weight & expects no quarter.
Dear Poetry, can you bring us more of that? I dare you. Let us all live Bugs Bunny’s dream.