The Man Who Killed Poetry: Joseph Epstein And His Essays

Joseph Epstein

It is nearly twenty-five years since Joseph Epstein published his now famous essay—or as Dana Gioia referred to it, his “mordant 1988 critique”—under the flashy title “Who Killed Poetry?” (Commentary, August 1988)

“A brilliant polemicist,” Gioia wrote, “Epstein intended his essay to be incendiary, and it did ignite an explosion of criticism.” That came from a similar-themed essay written by Gioia less than three years later (also with an interrogatory title), which went on to report: “No recent essay on American poetry has generated so much violently negative criticism from poets themselves [including “an extravagantly acrimonious symposium in the AWP Chronicle (the journal of the Associated Writing Programs)” when it was reprinted]. To date at least thirty writers have responded in print.” Gioia’s essay was similarly popular, and became, for him, a career-expanding impetus.

His question, “Can Poetry Matter?”, though slightly more philosophical in intent, was nevertheless equally designed to be provocative. It perhaps opens up a topic that can be debated endlessly; however, in regards to Epstein’s polemic, it is clearly time to lay the matter to rest. At face value, the question is an absurdity, and in fact Epstein’s essay itself implicitly acknowledges this, comparing poetry to a sickly patient which “so many poets, critics, editors, small-press publishers, [and] creative writing programs” have been struggling valiantly to keep alive: “if survival is genuinely at stake, it won’t do to ignore the symptoms.”

Still, the vehemence of response, even considerably after the fact, continued (and continues) to startle. In an interview (published in 2002 in a collection titled Talking with Poets), Philip Levine let loose:

You asked about the audience for poetry in our country. I think it’s the largest it’s ever been. There’s this “expert,” Joseph Epstein, who published something like “Who Killed Poetry?” or something like that. Nobody killed poetry. Guys like Epstein like to hearken back to some dreamland America in which people got up in the morning and opened their windows to the birds singing and when they felt their soul elevated they recited American poetry to the waiting world. Bullshit!

Epstein had posited that “the generations of poets between W.B. Yeats (1865-1939) and W.H. Auden (1907-1973) produced an impressive body of poetry” that those succeeding failed to keep up with. This seems indubitable to us now, but not so for Levine. Even at the peak of accomplishment, “the Epsteins of that hour were griping just as they are now. My guess is that today it still has something to do with class.” Levine, it should be noted, tends to view phenomena through the prism of class distinction, opining later in the same interview that Keats “never truly cared for Shelley” owing possibly to “a class problem”—and well he ought, for “after a brief period of factory work” Levine has fashioned a comfortable academic and writing career out of that basic raw material.

The accusation holds its grain of truth, but only just. For though Epstein, in his writings, will make reference to persons “rather wealthier than oneself”, it is always clear that, while disliking travel, he has traveled amply enough, or has been able to afford the expensive dentistry and medical procedures that others must do without. His father, a manufacturer, importer and salesman of trinkets (“You should see the crap I’m selling”), ran a business that “never had more than seven or eight employees, but… was fairly lucrative.” Yet Epstein, a self-confessed snob, remembers “my own genuinely impressive ignorance as a kid from an unbookish home.” To the extent his essay represents elitism, it is not of the in-bred sort, but self-cultivated.

Vernon Shetley, in his book After the Death of Poetry, wrote:

Most of the responses to Epstein’s article were in kind. If Epstein asserted that poets weren’t writing poems that mattered, poets asserted that they were; if Epstein wrote that poetry had lost its audience, his respondents insisted that the audience was bigger than ever. Donald Hall’s is typical of the replies to Epstein both in the defensiveness evident from his very title, “Death to the Death of Poetry,” and in his effort to deflect the blame for poetry’s condition back from his own cohort, the poets, and onto Epstein’s, the critics: “Our trouble is not with poetry, but with the public perception of poetry”.

Shetley’s own title suggests a phoenix-like rebirth for poetry (how very appropriate!), but David Lehman, editor of The Best American Poetry, calls it “the premature death syndrome.” I am fond of Donald Hall’s, as a way of saying, “Death, thou shalt die!” since, as we know, “death once dead, there’s no more dying then.”

The controversy seems overworked, the acrimony a little far-fetched—just another tempest in a teapot, these “splenetic interchanges of educators and scholars” (to use Marshall McLuhan’s phrase). Yet the original essay merits consideration, in light of Epstein’s other literary writings, if just as a historical relic. Epstein, carefully modest, has asked and answered, “Will my writing outlive me? I am reasonably certain that it won’t”. But if any of his literary writings merit survival (I cannot speak for his fiction), I would place “Who Killed Poetry?” first in the queue, and not just for the contention it seems to have stirred, but for what it said.

The substance is not simply, as he writes elsewhere, that “I happen to think that we haven’t had a major poet writing in English since perhaps the death of W.H. Auden or, to lower the bar a little, Philip Larkin.” Greatness in poetry can be reduced to Auden’s formulation—a “risky generalization,” according to Epstein—that “to become a poet of the first rank, great talent is not enough; one must get born at the right time and in the right place.” This, insofar as it escapes being a tautology, is probably true. Yet is that enough to raise the ire of established authors like Philip Levine? Epstein’s piece—indeed his literary outlook—is about more than that.

The crux of Epstein’s argument is this: “Whereas one tended to think of the modernist poet as an artist—even if he worked in a bank in London, or at an insurance company in Hartford, or in a physician’s office in Rutherford, New Jersey—one tends to think of the contemporary poet as a professional: a poetry professional.”

Not all responses to Epstein’s article were negative. Commentary ran letters of affirmation, including one from Brad Leithauser, who called Epstein’s diagnosis “precisely right” concerning “the present poetry ‘scene’ (the readings, the academic appointments, etc.)” and pinpointing “a peculiar sociological phenomenon.” Epstein’s view jibed with Leithauser’s experience as a teacher himself:

As poetry becomes “sadly peripheral,” hundreds and hundreds of jobs for poets open up…. In numerous ways, these many jobs for “poetry-writing teachers” conceal from our poets themselves the situation we find ourselves in…. Instead of readers we have undiscerning and potentially idolatrous undergraduates; each campus is like a little kingdom.

“The poets who come out of this [insular] atmosphere”, Epstein wrote, “are neither wholly academics nor wholly artists.” As such (the implication was) they performed neither function very well.

In a wildly incoherent article published in 2006, titled “Who Keeps Killing Poetry?”, D.W. Fenza (then and still Executive Director of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs) wrote, “To discover that a writer as witty as Joseph Epstein dislikes contemporary poetry may be a sad and curious happenstance” (which is not what Epstein said). But more pertinently: “Writing programs support artists for who they are and not what they do. AWP and its many colleges and universities have created the largest system of literary patronage the world has ever seen.” This may be the case, but it begs the question: is the writing supported any good? (Not so to judge by Fenza’s own. To wit, his justification of writing programs as “effective curators in building audiences” for contemporary poetry: “When I was an English major in the 1970s, my professors, classmates, and I referred to [Elizabeth] Bishop as merely ‘pretty good for a woman poet.’” But, “Contemporary poets and feminist scholars taught, anthologized, and elevated the status of Bishop’s work, as they had Dickinson’s. When I attended my graduate writing workshops, my peers and teachers extolled Bishop’s work; they chastened me. My constellations were mightily realigned; the sky improved.”) Not only that. In their “curatorship”, writing programs helped:

…to build audiences for working-class poets, African-American poets, gay and lesbian poets, Latino poets, and poets from many nations. Academe has helped to expand the horizons of literature by adding new experiences: what it is like to be a mother or sister, what it is like to be a soldier in Viet Nam, what it is like to be Vietnamese, and so on.

Sorry, but those are not “new experiences” and the Vietnamese, with a literary history and culture of their own, did not need a workshop to teach them what it feels like. As the Devil (“I’m all o’ersib to Adam’s breed”) might have whispered, “It’s pretty, but is it Art?”

Fenza’s comments are echoed (actually antedated) by Philip Levine: “I think poetry now is very healthy. It’s open house. It doesn’t matter how tall or short you are [John Keats didn’t know there was a proscription!], what color you are or what sex you are or what nine sexes, you can put anything in your work. Leaving aside what he means by “nine sexes”, let’s follow Levine’s ambrosia: “You can write about anything. No matter how badly you write you can find someone who’ll publish you. Time will sift the good stuff from the bad. As far as readership goes it’s the largest it’s ever been.”

Time will sift, so we don’t have to. “Standards have collapsed so completely,” writes Thomas Bethell in The American Spectator (“Poets Galore and Subsidized Poets,” March 2009) “that only political criteria now seem valid when it comes to deciding what’s good and what’s not.”

The movement in the literary marketplace is not dissimilar to what has happened recently in real estate. In “It’s Time to Take a Deep Breath,” a New York Times article from September 9, 2007, Ben Stein writes words appropriate to both spheres: “The human animal is often dishonest, and if it takes telling a few fibs about income and money in the bank to get into a house, many people will do it. My only point here is that it is not just the big boys whose lies and entrapments got us into trouble. Plenty of ordinary citizens played along.” Moreover, “crashes do not end quickly. Realtors have a rule: there’s no soft landings. Residential real estate is like a huge ship. Once it starts moving, it’s hard to stop. Once it slows down, it’s hard to make it speed up again.” Something similar happened to the literary culture in America.

“The percentage of those who have defaulted is still fairly small, possibly 10 percent to 15 percent”, wrote Stein. “The lending system did go too far in the direction of laxity…. There was excessive eagerness to put borrowers into these loans, and now we are all paying the price for the immense fees that the subprime lenders garnered.” Stein draws a lesson: “This is what we economists call an externality: a cost associated with the transaction that is borne by society in general, not just the parties to the transaction.” In the literary sense, something of this was foreseen in Epstein’s essay twenty-five years ago, and we have been watching the “slow motion train wreck” to use the words in which the real estate collapse was prognosticated. Epstein—not just in “Who Killed Poetry?” but in many of his writings—has consistently analyzed conditions and given his gloomy assessment, albeit with a light tone.

Witness to “the greatest single change in literary life in this country”— “the gradual usurpation of literature by the university”—Epstein seems almost wistful in longing for a former day, when a majority of writers did not work in the university, and contemporary writers were not taught as part of the curriculum. This crops up repeatedly in his writing as symptom of the degeneracy of the academic system. A writer like Edmund Wilson—possessing an “impersonal… candor, something objective and distant” that made him valuable to his friends—is not likely to be “officially revered in American universities” because “[h]is qualities are not teachable; they can merely be asserted: wide curiosity, utter seriousness, comprehensive reading, a shaping imagination, prose that without being at all idiosyncratic was nonetheless manly and personal.” Epstein’s admiration is palpable, and when admiration seemed to wane, his respect held.

“Much literary criticism today is written for colleagues, not for people interested in books. But then whole books are no longer written for people who are interested in books.” Giving some examples, he says, “these, as everyone in the racket knows, aren’t actually meant to be read; they are only part of the apparatus of university publication that makes promotion possible.” One wonders if it isn’t the same with poetry. Shetley writes, “Hall is calling for more reviews [i.e more attention], Epstein for more bad reviews [i.e. more corrective criticism].” Epstein asks, “How did the critics become cheerleaders?” So-called political correctness may have played a transformative role: “Years before the intervention of contemporary writing in the university… nothing was conceded to a writer because she was a woman or he was a Jew or she was a black or he was a homosexual. There was something called the Republic of Letters, and this republic took no census.”

Yet the problem cuts deeper, Epstein recognized. “In Eliot, in James Joyce, in Yeats, one must, in effect, decode or parse or unpack symbols and myths to extract meaning.” Or, if not strictly necessary, yet the exercise is ripe for exploitation by the universities. “They [the generations from Yeats to Auden] were… the first living poets to be given the full academic treatment. Their works were dissected in classrooms, the intellectual quarterlies ran solemn essays about them even while continuing to run their poems, [and] book-length studies began to be written” even before these poets had “pegged out” (to use one of Epstein’s favorite bits of jocularity). Still living, a “religious aura” clung about their work, and the poets functioned as “high priests of the cult” of modern poetry.

Eliot further hampered a balanced assessment of his work, because he wrote not only poetry, but criticism of the most authoritative kind, having “mastered the ex cathedra tone” as “from the outset.” “Who else could have lowered the position in the canon of Milton (a matter on which he later revised himself) and raised that of Dryden”, Epstein asks. Moreover, an incident which receives mention numerous times throughout Epstein’s work, reveals Eliot to have been a “very careful caretaker” of his career:

In a letter to one of his philosophy professors at Harvard, T.S. Eliot wrote [in 1919] that there were two ways to achieve literary celebrity in London: one was to appear often in a variety of publications, the other to appear seldom but always to make certain to dazzle when one did. Eliot chose the latter, and it worked smashingly.

As a caveat, Epstein adds, “But he was still counting on gaining his reputation through his actual writing. Now good work alone doesn’t quite seem to make it; the publicity catapults need to be hauled into place, the walls of indifference stormed.” Epstein chose the former, to appear often and always pleasantly, and approvingly quotes Larkin that “poetry, like all art, is inextricably bound up with giving pleasure, and if a poet loses his pleasure-seeking audience he has lost the only audience worth having, for the dutiful mob that signs on every September is no substitute”. (The “dutiful mob” refers to students, Epstein helpfully points out.)

Larkin asks, “What can be done about this?” His answer: “[I]f the medium is in fact to be rescued from among our duties and restored to our pleasures, I can only think that a large-scale revulsion has got to set in against present notions, and that it will have to start with poetry readers asking themselves more frequently whether they do in fact enjoy what they read, and, if not, what the point is of carrying on.” Thomas Bethell advocates a more proactive assault: “Cut off all the subsidies. Let poetry be restored to the marketplace. Maybe 150 poets would survive, as in 1941” in contrast to the “20,000 accredited professional poets [that writing programs will produce] over the next decade” as Dana Gioia’s 1991 essay calculated. It may not be necessary, however, as diminishing funds of a poor economy lead to attrition.

The generation that followed took Eliot’s lead (and it has been replicated through our time). One such poet, “in his quiet but efficient way, hustled his career along”, Epstein writes. “All the poets… did.” It was a generation

not least remarkable in its collective ambition. In their careers—if not in their sad lives—everything was calculated: readings, reviews, blurbs, no detail connected with career advancement was too small to overlook. Happy networkers, as we should now call them, they formed a nearly perfect daisy chain of mutual promotion. (I add “nearly” because, being poets after all, they allowed room to deflate one another’s poetry behind one another’s backs.) But they were otherwise quite shameless about reviewing and blurbing one another’s books, writing one another recommendations, appointing one another to juries and to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, arranging prizes for one another. None of this is to deny that their obsession with poetry was real—it was—but they saw no reason to let this obsession stand in the way of career.

Their inability to make a living through writing alone, of course, sent many poets into the universities, “where [in our time] they are rather dim figures, permitted to work on their craft, not so much an ornament to the culture as something closer to a parasite upon it, living from grant to grant, workshop to workshop, involved in an intense relationship with the Self, that all-consuming locust of our age, which chomps up all before it.” Here Epstein waxes extravagant. Of course not all writers “are fortunate enough to land such jobs”, so competition is fierce.

To lighten up his literary judgements, Epstein likes to spice his essays with a little “dirt dishing”—gossip, to which he is “drawn”, and which, “though often false and not less often malicious, can also be a species of truth” obtainable in no other way than from “word of mouth, personal letters, diaries” and so forth. It is not hard to see that he revels in it—one author’s reference to his own genitalia with the word “prong” comes up in an umpteen essays, and the especially salacious bits keep coming round again, as one grows familiar with Epstein’s writing—but I believe he uses this, mostly, to mask what later on he would come to refer to as “my impatience with literary fraudulence”.

In one such case he writes, “She fought alcohol all her life, and frequently lost. No sedate tippler, when she drank, she was a three-sheets-to-the-wind, fall-down-the-stairs, break-your-collarbone, blue-eyed, hide-the-hair-tonic drunk.” This is the sound of a man in love with his own voice.

The writer he refers to is Elizabeth Bishop, who, though she “came of age before the universities had so badly colonized and bollixed up literature into little ethnic and sex subgroups”, nevertheless grew to become embraced by them, as D.W. Fenza indicated above. “Forced to play a bad hand through life,” Bishop as a writer is cut no slack in Epstein’s cruel appraisal: despite a “small but genuine achievement”, he writes, “she was a long way from great.” That distance notwithstanding,

In the history of modern literary reputation, the career of Elizabeth Bishop makes an extraordinary chapter. Miss Bishop was, in her lifetime, one of the most relentlessly praised and handsomely rewarded of poets. The Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Book Critics Circle Award, the special publishing arrangement with The New Yorker, the Consultantship in Poetry at the Library of Congress [forerunner to today’s national poet laureate], the international prizes, the various grants and fellowships, the teaching job at Harvard, the honorary degrees—like late autumn leaves on a gently breezy day, all these and more floated down onto Elizabeth Bishop’s lap. What made all this so remarkable is that some of these rewards came so early and on the basis of so little actual poetic achievement.

Thomas Bethell might admit to there being an “ilk” common to all, when he writes, “[they] dwell in the sheltered world of Poetry Corner, a subset of the Academy. It is awash in more fellowships, honors, awards, grants, subsidies and prizes than you can imagine.” His target here is Elizabeth Alexander for her “performance at the Obama inaugural”—and I do not wish to enter into his criticism, one might say dismissal, of the poet and her poem, having reason to recuse myself from comment on the case—other than to note that in that “performance” he seems to detect something of an apex:

Imagine being so culturally secure and cushioned by privilege that you can present that as inaugural poetry without fear of embarrassment. The artistic career of Elizabeth Alexander suggests that the self-esteem campaign has gone on for long enough.

The “self-esteem campaign” did not help Elizabeth Bishop, according to Epstein’s diegesis: “the note of sadness rings insistently…. ‘I don’t want to be this kind of person at all,’ she writes to her friend the painter Loren McIver, ‘but I’m afraid I’m really disintegrating, just like Hart Crane, only without his gifts to make it all plausible.’” What then is the use of the accolades and emoluments, if they neither produce happiness nor engender good works? We support the artists, D.W. Fenza boasts. Really? But in what way?

One need not go so far as Bethell—“We have been brainwashed into thinking that it is our civic responsibility to admire anyone who comes before us as a poet”—but it is easy to see the falsity of Fenza’s bombast: “Those who argue, like… Joseph Epstein… that poetry is being extravagantly over-produced tend to overlook the exertions that have made it possible for our literature to reflect—more accurately and more variously—our humanity.” To that, Epstein already gave answer in his original essay: “There have been contemporary poets I have much admired… but none has been able to plant language in my head the way that poets of an earlier generation could.” Critiquing the Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing, Epstein asks pertinent questions:

I have had a difficult time imagining for whom the book might have been compiled. What purpose is this thick volume meant to serve? How, even, is it meant to be used? Is it to be read straight through? This is nearly impossible. Is it meant to be consulted in the way one does an encyclopedia? Nearly useless. Is it for the connoisseur in American literature? Too boring. The beginner? Highly confusing.

Calling the book “one of the most impressive omnium gatherums of literary cliché ever assembled”, Epstein fingers the mode in which it is organized to be “rather like the curriculum of a university highly sensitive to public relations and worried about a ruckus with a touchy pressure group”—and here he cites the usual bollixed up compartments of gender and ethnic subdivision. One such essay “concludes on a note of grandiloquent hedge,” he reports, excerpting a final sentence (by contributor Alan Trachtenberg): “Whether the imaginative writer will continue to hold his place of authority against the new media and against the cosmic fantasies fulfilled by reality itself remains to be seen.” To this Epstein has a retort:

In short, as Adam said to Eve,

While passing through the gates of Eden,

“We’re living, darling, I believe,

In an age of transition.”

Actually no—the words “darling, I believe” are my own, which I’ve inserted into Epstein’s otherwise prose text, to show how easily his facile wit would translate into light verse of the jocund sort.

Thankfully, Epstein has confessed to his status as “a man who has published [only] a single poem,” and if he has written others, he has heartily heeded Alceste’s advice to Oronte in Moliere’s Misanthrope: “Why the deuce must you rush into print?” Not a poet, Epstein holds an idealized view of poetry’s literary standing (the kind usually only espoused by poets when they want to feel smugly superior): “Poetry is like caviar—an acquired taste, and not for most people, not even for some highly intelligent people—and I happen to believe that selling poetry as if it were hot dogs demeans it.” Epstein might be willing to shuck his high decorum for the sale of an essay—aside: “You should see the crap I’m selling!”—but never if he were a poet.

It is to Epstein’s credit that he recognizes he is not. In an age when, it seems, there are more writers of verse than readers of it, Epstein is a generalist not unlike his “Father Flanagan” of literature, Edmund Wilson. Feeling “orphaned from literature by the study of it in universities”, Epstein chanced upon a paperback anthology of Wilson’s writing, “read it, and was, instantly, swept away.”


Of Eliot and Shapiro

Eliot made a useful distinction between the criticism of poetry written by poets and that written by persons who are not practitioners of the art. The criticism done by a poet ultimately relies upon the poet’s sense of what he himself is trying to accomplish in versification, and extrapolating his aims outward, whereas the non-poet approaches its criticism, if never in an unbiased way at least without the same chauvinism a poet brings to the task. For this reason, the criticism done by a man like Wilson or Epstein is much more valuable, in the main, than that a poet writes. One reads Coleridge on Blake to get some insight into Coleridge; whereas one reads Wilson or Epstein less for their subjectivism than for an intelligent lay objectivity, insofar as that is possible.

Epstein is not above a little sleight-of-hand disingenuousness to “make a sale.” He knows (to use an expression he would appreciate) which side his bread is buttered on. A perhaps innocuous instance occurs in his recent review of a book about cars: “I owned a black Corvair, with its ‘four on the floor’ manual transmission…. It was great fun to drive until that spoilsport Ralph Nader came along to declare it “Unsafe at Any Speed” and launch his career as the people’s troubleshooter—some would say troublemaker.”This is gratuitous. In other venues, however, Epstein’s slight corruption holds more dangerous consequences: distorting his literary judgement. For example, when he quotes Karl Shapiro’s most famous poem, “Auto Wreck,” in a review of a compilation of that poet—“This [kind of death]…/ Cancels our physics with a sneer,/ And spatters all we knew of denouement/ Across the expedient and wicked stones”—he remarks, “The arbitrariness of death by such a cause is what rightly strikes him”, ignoring the logical inconsistency. Such a death—Ralph Nader knew—does not “cancel our physics” (with or without a sneer), but rather fulfills them with an actuarial regularity that only statistics can confirm. The imposition of seat belt law did not happen because vehicle crashes took place in abeyance of physical law—they prove its sublime impartiality—but while “poetic license” makes for a good excuse, too much loquatious imprecision, or in this case pseudo-scientific analogy, undermines the description.

While Epstein has (generously) exonerated T.S. Eliot of the charge of being an anti-Semite—declaring that “[n]o further sermonettes are required on the subject of anti-Semitism”—he traces Shapiro’s literary marginalization (my words, not Epstein’s) in part to Shapiro’s published attacks on Eliot (and Pound) “in a collection of essays with the ill-chosen title In Defense of Ignorance.” (The case for marginalization seems to be a rather weak one; for, though Shapiro’s reputation never regained the heights of his splashy debut, he never ceased to find a publisher, and iterations of his Collected/Selected Poems continued to be issued in intervals of at least every decade up to and even after his death.)

“Today Shapiro’s arguments seem more cogent than ever”, Epstein writes. In retrospect,one realizes that what Pound and Eliot accomplished, along with the building up of their own reputations, was removing poetry “from the people” and delivering it “to the classroom.” They destroyed, Shapiro felt, “all emotion for poetry except for poetry arising from ideas.” And so on. Whether ideas exist in things, or things in ideas, is a debate I have no wish to enter into here—nor into a discussion of the ideational content of poems.

Selective quotation may leave me open to charges of bias—bias can never be eradicated wholly anyhow—but when Epstein, so cogent a critic himself, refers to Shapiro’s cogency, it is fruitful to examine just what could be meant. I extract from the essay on Eliot, and then only from the first several pages of it, as the arduousness of following Shapiro’s prose proved so overwhelming that I bailed out before reaching the end (the essay on Pound I leave to abler eyes than mine):

“Eliot invented a Modern World which exists only in his version of it.”

“Eliot exists only on paper, only in the minds of a few critics.”

“Neither Eliot nor Pound had any such effect [i.e. setting patterns] on their readers or on young writers.”

“Eliot’s criticism is not ‘one thing’ and his poetry another. They are one and the same.”

“His intellectualization of feeling and taste led him to such twisted judgments as the praise of Kipling and the execration of Whitman, the approval of Donne and the disparagement of Milton….” (In a later essay Shapiro sided with George Orwell’s bizarre classification of Kipling’s poetry as “good bad poetry” in lieu of Eliot’s more sensible distinction between “poetry” and “verse”—though Shapiro italicized the word good whereas Orwell did not.)

“Pound uses more archaisms than the Poet Laureate of Florida.”

He may have been right about the poet laureate of Florida—I have not investigated. Elsewhere in the same essay, Shapiro makes the highly unusual assertion that Eliot had “probably the worst prose style in the history of the English essay….” It is not my desire to mock Karl Shapiro. I unequivocally endorse Epstein’s maxim: “To be kind to the dead and hard on the living.” Not so useful in life, but well for literary criticism, as he says.

While I would dispute that Eliot’s prose is indistinguishable from his poetry, I do believe there may be faults common to both. Similarly, issues of cogency in Shapiro’s prose, have their traces in his poetry. It is this—without making a caustic dismissal—that accounts for the slide in Shapiro’s reputation. He too was much celebrated in life, but as Epstein has often noted, some literary reputations seem to require a living adjunct to keep them propped—that is to say, as Epstein put it more clearly, “some literary reputations need [the bearer] to be alive, stoking the fire to sustain its flame.”


The Groves of Hackademe

Just as Epstein likes to make it seem that he is poor when he is not (or at least less well off than others), he likes to make it appear, by his railing against academics, as though he is not one, when he is—or was, as he is retired from the university post he held for nearly three decades (teaching, among other things, writing). Not that he has made an effort at “plausible deniability”. He is fairly straightforward. But just as he felt “orphaned” as an undergraduate, until he encountered the work of Edmund Wilson, whose great strength, Epstein insists, comes from his lack of university affiliation, so his highest praise for a writer, such as Saul Bellow (whose name is “dropped” quite frequently in the collected essays) is akin to this: “Bellow teaches literature at the University of Chicago [which Epstein attended], and yet he does not seem a university writer.” “If he is an academic,” Epstein writes of the ideal book reviewer, “he shouldn’t allow this to show through.”

Epstein, in an essay about personal vanity, admits that his youthful ambition “bordering on lust” to see his “name in print in the right places” arose not from having anything particular to say, nor “even anything resembling a pressing urge for expression”, but rather from an urge “to be [counted] among the fraternity of good writers—and I wanted this tremendously”:

My own heat to see my name in print had behind it a genuine if still largely inchoate love of literature. But my desire to be accepted as a good—more than good, an elegant—writer was owing to a quality I have had for as long as I can remember: that of being self-regarding.

“Know thyself” the oracle demanded; and Epstein does that. The casual reader will give Epstein’s prose style high marks for elegance, even if it is somewhat thin on substance; and his burning passion for literature—a flame which has not gotten extinguished—represents his great virtue as “the voice of the general literate reader” carrying “the banner of common sense” as Karl Shapiro described him. Shapiro also comes to be blurbed on Epstein’s books with the following accolade: “The modern essay has regained a good deal of its literary status in our time, much to the credit of Joseph Epstein.” Yet, for all his confessed personal vanity and self regard, I don’t think Epstein lets such praise go to his head. He knows the blurbs which he would most like to have grace his covers are unlikely to come in this world. (T.S. Eliot: “He is a writer I take very seriously indeed.” Marcel Proust: “Il est un écrivain exquis.”)

If Epstein’s “inchoate love of literature” sets him apart from the university crowd, he describes his ascent (or descent) into that much denigrated realm, academia, as being almost something of a fluke. Even though “I held no degree more advanced than a B.A. in absentia from the University of Chicago, and “no real qualifications”, a visiting editor chum

came out to give a talk at Northwestern University in Evanston, [and] dropped by my apartment. Talking about my brilliant career, he suggested that teaching might not be a bad idea; it would give me health insurance and other benefits, and make it possible not to have to scribble under full financial pressure.

What “must have been an impressive sales job” did the trick, and before the chum had “left town, I had a call from the chairman of Northwestern’s English department, asking if I would [come] speak” at what Epstein recognized “would be an audition of sorts.” He got the job. Not so accidental, really: Epstein has described himself (if I remember the phrase correctly) as “socially aggressive,” and has even written a book on the subject of Friendship in which he admits, as I recall, to having at least 400 friends none of whom he seems to like very greatly. This may just be self regard: it is hard to enthuse about other people. Yet Epstein and I have (or had) friends in common, and I never heard of his being anything less than affable company.

Here it is time to introduce personal anecdote. Epstein and I corresponded for a time. When he writes, “I do receive a fair amount of e-mail from younger readers (in their twenties and thirties), but many of these readers have aspirations of their own, and write to me seeking advice”, he could have been talking about me. I was old enough to barely fit under his rubric, yet young enough be unaware that he must be positively inundated by aspiring authors, which is why I took his cold shoulder more personally than I probably should have. (I asked if he would look at some of my writing, but he declined, and, though he is friendly enough that I felt that if I pressed the matter, he would concede, I declined to do so.) For some time after that, when I thought of his essay with the title, “Who Killed Poetry?”, my mind had its answer at the ready: “You did, sir!”

In the decade or so since, I have realized, that while the emotional response is just, the fact of the matter is different. In many respects, I have come to recognize what Epstein already knew: that a poet may be considered

fortunate to have been neglected. For one thing, a writer in a society where there are no obvious institutions of recognition for artists is automatically released from currying favor; nor need he worry about expressing things that might be impolitic from the standpoint of advancing his career. For another, in such a society, a writer may develop at his own pace; he is unlikely to feel, as he might in a different setting, that if he hasn’t won this prize by that age, or published that much by this age, he is a dismal failure. A neglected poet, in other words, has time to develop.

Such is exactly the kind of society we have, at least in regards for poetry, insofar as no audience appears to exist for the art except those actively engaged themselves in the overproduction of it. One might as well live on the face of the moon. For when Philip Levine writes, “No matter how badly you write you can [always] find somebody who’ll publish you”, he refers to publication within the academic system. As Epstein writes, “The center of literary life today is the university…. Which [is to say] that the center of literary life does not exist except in an attenuated and abstract form.” Moreover (to use again one of Epstein’s familiar essay-writing crutches), “To win certain literary prizes is enough to encourage self doubt”, especially in a world in which “every publisher’s or critics’ prize has been drained of its importance” and become “so dwindled in significance… that scarcely anyone can remember who, over the past five years, has won them.”


The American Scholar

Epstein’s fine editorship of The American Scholar was roughly coterminous with his teaching career, and he derived from it, he felt, “immense prestige.” Apart from that inherent in the office itself, the prestige was justified. As Epstein describes it, he had inherited a publication about which “one didn’t have the sense of a strong hand at the helm” and turned it into something formidable. With figures such as Bernard Lewis and Arnoldo Momigliano on its board (and appearing in its pages) you would expect it to be. But under his stewardship, the quality of submissions rose. He explains his evolution as an editor:

I soon lost either the interest or the energy to rework everything I ran in the magazine. Better, I felt, to acquire writers who were themselves attracted to careful prose style. The only editing standard I applied—to poems as well as to prose—was intelligibility. We would publish nothing we didn’t understand ourselves.

Before reaching his twenty-fifth year at the helm, however, some bad press in the gay community “left an opening” for adversaries among the publishing entity to force his ouster. “These were, for the most part, academics who had an investment in feminism, black history, and gay and lesbian studies”—subjects, by his own account, that Epstein “had mostly treated… by ignoring them.”

Epstein is notably proud that, when he got the job, his friend Edward Shils told him, “Oh, Joseph, this will be very good for the country.” Downplaying the statement’s grandiosity, Epstein happily recounts it in his humble way, “I thought he was vastly overstating things, but I believe he meant it.” While sometimes the line between humility and boastfulness is hard to discern, I believe the general assessment to be correct—would that we had such a quarterly publication today (perhaps there is, but I don’t get out much). It redounds to his credit, and the publishing society’s shame, that Epstein was given the boot so unceremoniously.

Teaching—“an unconscionably easy way to make a living” and “a soft touch, as they used to say”—originally appealed to Epstein “because of the leisure it promised.” “Every century has its cushy profession,” Epstein quotes Philip Larkin, almost as though a co-conspirator: “It used to be the church. Now it’s the academe.” Yet the leisure of the university does not seem to have been a boon to the writers employed therein. Epstein comes off the best, though even there the taint of the academia seems perpetually poised to encroach upon his elegant style. Logorrhea as opposed to costiveness has been Epstein’s main fault as a writer, and it may have been better had he been a little bit more of a “main chance man” as he characterized Eliot.

Running through Edmund Wilson’s famous checklist enumerating tasks he refused, which was printed as a postcard to return to supplicants, Epstein comments, “One of the things I personally found most impressive about his list is that everything Edmund Wilson clearly states he will not do, Joseph Epstein has now done, and more than once,” all with the rationalization that they are necessary “to acquire more readers.” This is because,

I have now come to think that writing away quietly, producing (the hope is) good work, isn’t any longer quite sufficient in a culture dominated by the boisterous spirit of celebrity. In an increasingly noisy cultural scene, with many voices and media competing for attention, one feels—perhaps incorrectly but nonetheless insistently—the need to make one’s own small stir, however pathetic. So on occasion, I have gone about tooting my own little paper horn, doing book tours, submitting to the comically pompous self-importance of interviews, and doing so many of the other things that Edmund Wilson didn’t think twice about refusing to do.

How far from the inchoate love of literature, from the exaltation of poetry, and even from the “same tone of moral seriousness” that George Orwell shared with Alexis de Tocqueville (on whom Epstein wrote a book) it has all gotten to be. Perhaps incontrovertibly so.

When Epstein retired from teaching, true to his habitual wont, he wrote an essay about it. One senses a certain wistfulness mixed with relief, that at last, however pleasurable in spots, the ordeal was over. True to his commanding sense of literary style, Epstein closed the essay with a small, lighthearted anecdote, with which to wrap up his theme, “like the lid clicking shut on a perfectly made box.” Epstein writes: “At the moment, it seemed entirely appropriate to end my thirty-year teaching career with neither a bang nor a whimper but a small puff of pedantry.”

That has been a rare vice for Epstein. Rather, he has striven for integrity in style, and integrity in compassion. Not always living up to the standard, surely, but then, which one of us does? Niggardly by turns and captivated by the salacious as well as the salient, Epstein still brings to his subjects a generous and forgiving insight, as here:

The point that one has to consider is that what Larkin sometimes said, he did not necessarily always mean; and even in those instances where he might have meant the unpleasant personal views he uttered, he never acted upon them. In middle life, in an autobiographical fragment, Larkin might refer to his mother, with her compulsiveness and irritating passivity, as a “sniveling pest,” but in fact throughout her old age (she lived to be ninety-one) he stood by her, writing to her almost daily, traveling to visit her on a regular (and frequent) basis, and seeing her through to the end as the dutiful son he was. He may have been grudging in his dutifulness, but such duty is hard, and in the end the chief thing is he performed it.

Epstein’s sympathies lie always with the human. Writing about another poet of Elizabeth Bishop’s generation—Robert Lowell, surely a poèt maudit if there ever was one (“Taken off in police wagons, straitjacketed, placed in padded cells, electroshocked, heavily Thorazined, confronted by a series of uncomprehending psychotherapists…”)—Epstein quotes some lines by the poet Theodore Roethke on the subject (“What’s madness but nobility of soul/ At odds with circumstance”) and rejects them brusquely: “Not to put too fine a point on it: Horseshit! What madness is is hell and the worst luck in the world.”

However much Epstein seems to get sidetracked briefly by the telling of an irresistible anecdote, or the interjecting of some not always germane witticism (and laughing at it to boot), or even seeming to fall entranced to the cadence of his own prose—his interest is always at last with his subject. That is what makes his essay on poetry so important, even if nothing conclusive gets settled, and poetry—or the Muse—lilts on ahead in defiance of the greatly exaggerated reports of her death.


About David X Novak

David X. Novak is a poet and playwright living in Chicago. His books include Against Holy War and Sonnets, published by Non Fit Press. He is a member of The Society of Midland Authors, and a former contributing editor for The Chicago Poetry Letter News.
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  1. I don’t know how much of a circle-jerk it is to post on CPR but really, who cares?

    This is a lovely piece.

    I don’t know if I buy the Twainian reports of poetry’s death, though. Epstein (as you say sometimes) is damnably on the money when he talks about the problems with contemporary poetry. Codrescu says we should kill all the MFAs (I hope he means programs) but then continues to praise and publish incoherent waffle.

    Much of the problem with contemporary poetry is its smallness in scope (say poems about frogs where we’re supposed to supply some greater meaning I guess) which is a direct result of the fetishes of academia. But the answer (as Epstein evidenced through his professional life if not his prose) is not to flee academia (necessarily) but to flee writing for academics (of course you could argue that you can’t separate these).

    Many poets, of course, will tell you (as they’ve told me) that they don’t write for academics or for anyone but themselves (forgetting, of course, that they’re academics) but that in and of itself is a problem. If you’re writing for yourself, keep a diary.

    But anyway it’s important to talk about the health of poetry (especially American poetry) though one is best advised to avoid rhetorical questions as rhetorical devices (Who Killed Poetry? and Can Poetry Matter? being less than satisfactory questions 20 years on) but we have to remember (as Epstein appears to in general) that the health of poetry depends on the words, the writers, and the readers.

    The position of all three planets of the potential syzygy is the thing to keep our eye on.

  2. “his highest praise for a writer. . . Saul Bellow”:

    Epstein does not think much of Saul Bellow. See “The long, unhappy life of Saul Bellow” in the December 2010 New Criterion or “My Brother Eli” in the Autumn 2006 Hudson Review.

  3. This is a side note, and a quibble. You say: ” This may be the case, but it begs the question: is the writing supported any good?” It’s a pet peeve of mine that the phrase “begging the question” is constantly misused even in very intelligent discourse. Perhaps this means that “begging the question” is changing its meaning, and I ought just to go with the flow. On the other hand, all it takes is a Google search box and a few keystrokes to discover what philosophers mean by “begging the question.”

  4. You refer at one point to Epstein’s Collected Essays, but which particular book of his are you quoting from throughout your article, and if it’s all from Who Killed, what’s that in, please? I’d always had him pegged as a bit of a lightweight middlebrow myself – though not as editor; with that ghastly Fadiman they really did lower the bar

  5. @Simon Barrett: Epstein is amazingly prolific. There are five collections of his literary essays which I especially drew on: Plausible Prejudices, Pertinent Players, Partial Payments, Life Sentences, and In a Cardboard Belt. I’m not an “Epstein Scholar,” but I seem to recall that the essay “Who Killed Poetry?” did not make it into any of those, though someone else might be able to improve on my memory.

  6. It’s difficult to make out in this well-written essay whether Epstein bemoans the loss of meter, classical figures of speech, and rhyme, in other words, does he mourn the demise of the artificer, as a Thom Gunn or Turner Cassity might be called, or does he regret the ingress of obscurity.

  7. Pingback: A Brief History of (American) Poetry’s Woes « teoppoet — poetteop

  8. Pingback: Can a poem still change anything? « teoppoet — poetteop

  9. Robert Bernard Hass

    The best treatment of this subject is still Christopher Clausen’s book-length study, The Place of Poetry (1980).

  10. Poetry like much modern writing seems to be of an industrial quantity if not strength. As if the 10,000 MFA monkeys sitting at word processors could indeed produce Shakespeare. He stole and consolidated which is what is currently needed. Instead we have jackasses given free straw complaining that the poetry they produce is treated as the dung that it is.

  11. That was a very fine essay Mr. Novak. I have followed J. Epstein for many years. You captured the good , the bad and the sometime not so nice accurately. Cheers.

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