Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Drone of Modern Poetry – Deuxieme Partie

(An Outline of “ American Poetry in the New Century “ by John Barr .)

Part I – The Problem with Modern Poetry

  • Modern poetry does not capture the way things are
  • Reality outgrows the art form: the art form is no longer equal to the reality around it.
  • Poetry is missing from everyday society & public dialogue in our: classrooms; bookstores; mainstream media
  • A general interested public is poetry’s foremost need
  • Lacking a general audience – poets still write for one another
  • Since poets cannot support themselves by writing books & selling them to the general public; they end up teaching
  • Academic life removes them even further from their public
  • MFA students think that poetry has something to do with credentials
  • Result: increase in the quantity of a poetry that is neither robust; resonant nor entertaining; a poetry that is limited in its variety; a poetry that both starves & flourishes on academic subsidies
  • Poetry has a morale problem – But art should not be only about malfunction. Poetry need not come only from impairment.
  • Poetry’s limitations today come not from failures of craft but from afflictions of spirit.
  • Summation: The combined effects of public neglect and careerism, then, are intellectual and spiritual stagnation in the art form. … Attitude has replaced intellect.

Part II – The Next Era

  • Poetry arises from what is intractable in the human spirit.
  • A dead end is the fate that awaits any poetry that is not a record of the human spirit.
  • Technical innovation [in poetry] for its own sake is like the tail that tries to wag the dog.
  • I do believe the next era of poetry will not come from further innovations of form, but from an evolution of the sensibility on lived experience.

Poetry As a Career

  • MFA programs can make a writer more knowledgeable in the traditions and the contemporary scope of the art, more accomplished in the craft of writing, more aware of the nimbus of critical commentary which surrounds and to some extent drives the art
  • However, these programs carry pressures to succumb to the intimidations implicit in a climate of careerism. They operate on a network of academic postings and prizes that reinforce the status quo.
  • They are sustained by a system of fellowships, grants, and other subsidies that a reader who is not a specialist might enjoy, might even buy.
  • The MFA experience can confuse the writing of poetry, as a career, with the writing of a poem as a need or impulse.
  • The creation of art is not a matter of fellowship. Writing a poem is a fiercely independent act. It is the furthest thing from mentors, residencies, and tenure.
  • The one valid impulse to write a poem is not to impress but to share: wonder or anger or anguish or ecstasy. But always wonder.
  • For the poet a sense of wonder is prerequisite to afford the possibility of the displacement of language into fresh response.
  • Will the next Walt Whitman be an MFA graduate? Somehow it seems hard to imagine.

Write What You Live & Live What You Write

  • the academic life can provide a perfectly good base of experience from which to write.
  • But the effect of how we live on what we write—a linkage which seems to me very under-recognized today—suggests that if everyone teaches in order to support their writing needs, it follows that the breadth of the aggregate experience base available to poetry may suffer. In fact, with a few important exceptions, no major American poet has come from the academic world.
  • Poetry, like a prayer book in the wind, should be open to all pages at once.
  • It is the unconscious habit of poets to wait for the poem to come to them. Most contemporary poets align their role as writer with that of witness. They think of the artist as one more acted upon than acting.
  • This is not to say, of course, that great poetry cannot come out of the most meager repository of lived experience. …The point rather is that poets today don't seem even to be aware that what they write will be influenced by how they live.
  • When poets come to pay as much attention to how they live as to what they write, that may mark one new beginning for poetry.
  • Poets should live broadly, then write boldly.

PART III – Change is Good For The Soul & The Poet

  • Poetry, in its long history, has been all things to all people.
  • The lyric poem by far dominates as the kind of poem written today.
  • The sole function of the lyric poem, ubiquitous as its footprint has become, is to personalize the subject at hand.
  • The ubiquity of the lyric poem today, to the exclusion of other modes of poetry, is another sign of poverty in the art form.
  • In the eyes of those who succeed it, an age of poetry comes to be defined at least in part by what it was not.
  • If the present era comes to be viewed by future readers as a time of worthy but not compelling poetry, it will not be for failures of craft.
  • I don’t agree that our culture conspires to deny us our privacy, the quiet time it takes to read a poem.
  • The human mind is a marketplace, especially when it comes to selecting one's entertainment.
  • I think the responsibilities of the public to poetry are nil.
  • Rather, I think the responsibilities are all on the part of poetry to its public.
  • Poetry, coming from the other direction, must meet a standard of pleasure as well as profundity if it is to recover its place in American culture.
  • Poetry needs to find its public again, and address it.
  • Every poem implies its audience; our goal is to get that poem in front of its largest intended audience.
  • In a golden age of poetry the audience will not be just the workshop, where poets write for other poets, or the classroom—both of which have provided crucial sanctuary to poetry during the past half century.
  • Its audience will lie also in that world of non-poetry readers who come to discover its deep sustenance. "To have great poets, there must be great audiences too," Whitman said, and then he wrote for them.
  • Groundbreaking new art comes when artists make a changed assumption about their relationship to their audience, talk to their readers in a new way, and assume they will understand.


Source: Poetry - September 2006


David said...

Whenever I hear poetry and career mentioned together I feel an epileptic fit approaching.

Billy Jones said...

This should be required reading for anyone interested in poetry.

Nick said...


Thanks for the plug! Much obliged.


Yes, the two concepts do seem in theory to be diametrically opposed.

Speakeasy NYC said...

Hey, thanks for the outline. It's kind of better reading than the essay itself.