Three Things to Forget About Contemporary Poetry

As Reviewed By: Marc Pietrzykowski

I. Forget About Marketing

F. T. Marinetti’s publication of the Futurist Manifesto in Le Figaro on Feb. 20, 1909, managed to shock its readers by melding a traditional form-the individual or collaborative statement of disputation against an orthodoxy-with the language of Revolution, or, as it was later called, Marketing:

“Look at us! We are not out of breath, our hearts are not in the least tired. For they are nourished by fire, hatred and speed! Does this surprise you? It is because you do not even remember being alive! Standing on the world’s summit, we launch once more our challenge to the stars!”

[private]The tropes invoked by Marinetti were well-established, of course; the young Martin Luther, to cite but one example, declared his readiness to become “the most brutal murderer”, “to kill all who even by syllable refused submission to the pope,” only to later rebound from his papal devotion to produce the 95 Theses-a much less histrionic and, unsurprisingly, revolutionary act. What distinguished Marinetti and the Dadaists and Surrealists and the rest of the 20th century mob of iconoclasts from their forerunners was their elevation of self-promotion to a stature rivaling the actual production of poetry. Ezra Pound did much to help encourage this focus with his “Imagist Manifesto,” and then again with Vorticism, and the tradition of using self-conscious revolt against the existing order as a marketing strategy persisted throughout 20th century, with the Objectivists, the Beats, the language poets, the New Formalists, and all the others who’ve loudly proclaimed their outsider status.

In scanning the recent history of the revolt against the mainstream, then, we might follow Byron and note that “since Eve ate apples, much depends on dinner”-indeed, the idea of schools of poetry rising in a sort of purifying revolt against this or that orthodoxy has become such an entrenched idea that alternatives to the model seem hard to come by, unless one is ready to proclaim the model dead, which is one of the model’s most revitalizing iterations. Is there no way out of this ebb and flow of poetic fashion? Have we no choice but to agree with poet and classicist Anthony Lombardy that “poetic revolutions […] are cognitively inevitable”? Perhaps not, but even if we accept such a precept, can we call any of our modern shifts in fashion truly revolutionary? That all depends, I suppose, on how one chooses to define “revolution,” which seems largely a matter for the revolutionaries themselves.

Consider Thomas Kuhn’s model of the “paradigm shift,” first elucidated in his book On the Structure of Scientific Revolutions. While his ideas have long since been shown, by critics in the scientific community, to be inadequate to what they hoped to describe, the idea of the “paradigm shift” has had a broad effect on the way we examine culture, largely because the idea is somewhat self-fulfilling ( if not exactly tautological). We look for evidence of the process of ossification and revolution that results in paradigm shifts, and find it everywhere, so the shifts themselves must therefore exist. According to Kuhn: “The man who is striving to solve a problem defined by existing knowledge and technique is not just looking around. He knows what he wants to achieve, and he designs his instruments and directs his thoughts accordingly”-until these tools prove inadequate, and a paradigm shift inevitably occurs. According to T. S. Eliot, “no poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists”-until this appreciation hardens into orthodoxy, and a genius comes along to revitalize old ways of versifying. The revolution cleanses, removes worn out ideas and styles, and makes what was truly good in the past shine forth into the future.

Thus, the contemporary poet who wants to find a place in this pattern of conservation and revolution must use the tools prescribed by the process: a tradition, of course (most any one will do), but also the manifesto or body of theory; the invocation of “schools” of poetry as relevant markers for the value of a given poetics; the production of stylistics that oppose, obviously enough that their opposition is recognizable, the dominant mode; and last, but not at all least, more straightforward marketing events such as conferences and anthologies. Despite this neat little toolbox, however, the contemporary application of the conservation/revolution model has not resulted in a revolt against the conservatism of stilted, academic taste in the way Marinetti meant it, or against the philistinism of a decaying world, as Eliot wanted, but rather in a revolt taking place within an academy that has absorbed the model itself and made it the province of the Philistines who run the place, of rule by a rabble who lack talent but possess certification-in other words, no revolution at all.

Rather than an avant-garde, we have a crude landscape of styles spread between the tattered flags of Language poetry and New Formalism, the experimental and the traditional, between those who get it and those who don’t, with each gaggle commandeering their own respective traditions. And all this hubbub takes place within, the university and the now ubiquitous MFA program: despite their claims to post-structuralist revolution, the Language poets depend on the university system for a visibility proportional to their number, just as the New Formalists, despite their claims to populism, by and large make their assertions from within the hallways (and publishing houses) of academe. The fact that both movements began in, and maintain ties to, the extra-academic world is almost completely irrelevant, since validation only comes with winning a certain portion of academic market-share, which comes with gaining a certain critical mass in membership, at least, if not always in quality. Neither pole represents outsiders comfortable with remaining outside (such folks do exist, and are largely ignored by professionalized poets) since to be admitted to providence, as a group, you must be of such a size and doctrinal consistence that outsider status is no longer available. As long as the university is the center of artistic culture in the United States, shifts in fashion will be acknowledged only when the university deems it so, even if these shifts begin outside its halls (and they almost always will). For the foreseeable future, shifts in poetic fashion will be the province of MFA programs and their attendant journals.

For many critics, the MFA degree represents but a minor exercise in product placement, a reproduction of the process of analysing the marketplace and satisfying whatever niche shows the potential for profit; the McPoems that come from MFA programs, so goes the screed, are ruining poetry and destroying its audience by flooding the world with inferior works shaped less by unfettered genius than by the unsteady voting blocs of peers in the workshop, mentors in teaching positions, and friends on various editorial boards and prize committees.

But is this nepotism the fault of MFA programs? Perhaps, or perhaps it only exacerbates long established tendencies, facilitating nepotism via apprenticeship. Would contemporary poetry be better in the absence of MFA programs? Again, perhaps; there would be less poetry, for sure, and almost as surely less of an audience for it. The question is a red herring, of course, since MFA programs have become fairly established and generate income for universities without necessitating the implicit (and basically fraudulent) promise of a teaching job at the end of the program, so they aren’t going anywhere. Since the MFA program is safely entrenched in the university, now might be a good time to lean back, look around, and change focus-instead of murderous fealty to the pope, reform of the church; instead of fevered criticism of MFA programs (or defences thereof), reform of these entities for the continued sustainability of poetry both within and without the university.

Work is being done on this front, of course; significant sections of various conferences are now devoted to the pedagogy of Creative Writing, and some schools, such as Antioch University, offer academic programs devoted to such pedagogy in order to further prove to hiring boards that poets have more to offer the university than erratic behaviour and superior parties. Perhaps paying greater attention to pedagogy is preferable to the usual mix of studio (writing your own poems), research (learning about other poets), and theory (learning about what daffy people poets are) that most MFA programs offer, if only because most poets will engage in some form of teaching before all is said and done. One could argue that too much focus on pedagogy will make for mediocre poets, but then we already have that problem, so at least mediocre poets can learn better teaching methods to nurture whatever talent drifts their way.

What, then, would be involved in devising a better curricula for teaching the writing of poetry? Well, if we must cling to the idea of teaching young poets to establish a poetic brand name (once called a “voice”), we should at least try to relegate the conservation and revolution model to the status of historical curiosity. Creative writing students learn that the recent history of western poetry is the story of styles ossifying into doctrine and then being challenged by new styles, which is all well and good for a history lesson, but serves as a pretty foolish guide for young poets trying to develop a style of their own, let alone learning how to judge someone else’s poetry. Choosing a poetics in reaction to the current period style is pretty much the same thing as going along with the period style; the little epiphany poem, for example, has given way to the little poem trying hard to avoid epiphany, as critic Stephen Burt has pointed out. In any case, “make it new” doesn’t mean that young poets-or old poets-should spend the bulk of their time developing novel styles and niches for them, since the history of English poetry is littered with terrible but idiosyncratic poets; the worry is that the Academization of poetry has created a bureaucracy of sorts that rewards poets on the basis of their ability to replicate the conservation and revolution model, allowing ontogeny to seem as though it is recapitulating phylogeny yet again.

Part and parcel of teaching young poets to develop without recourse to the shell game of poetic revolutions is abandoning the idea of schools of poetry-except, once again, as a sort of interesting but dead wrong archaism, something like phrenology or the consumption of mercury as a cure for syphilis. Few poets explicitly teach their students to be only free versifiers, or limerick writers, or hysterical conundrumists (I hope), but too many encourage such fealty in countless other ways: in the sort of attention given to certain styles in workshops, in their contest judging, and in the poets they choose for their syllabi. Most of these poets would actually claim the opposite, that they are encouraging a variety of styles, and they would make this claim because they’re professionalized-so while most won’t explicitly carry water for any particular school, they do teach their students to pay attention to what the water carriers are doing, and to try to develop a singular voice that isn’t, after all, too singular, lest they go thirsty and die unpublished. This pressure for professional validation means that few poets are willing to be the innovators, the revolutionaries, so apprentice poets learn to watch for signs of modest revolt (or what passes for revolt) so that they can adapt their not-too-singular voices to the dictates of fashion.

By propagating the idea of schools of poetry, of conservation and revolution, MFA programs (and the teachers of poetic technique who man their ramparts) accomplish two things: first, apprentice poets learn to create a tradition for themselves, or at least inherit someone else’s, to model their own reading after; and second, they make a largely moribund art form seem more vital, more controversial, and more melodramatic. Wait, no, there is a third accomplishment, perhaps the most important one, in fact: it makes filing easier-the filing done on our bookshelves, in our criticism (“drawing inspiration from the New York School”), and in our choices of how to write poems.

II. Forget About Religion

Is any of this even remotely new? Don’t great poets arise despite, rather than because of, the tension between tradition and innovation? Let’s look again at that bit of Marinetti’s manifesto and see where else it might lead:

“Look at us! We are not out of breath, our hearts are not in the least tired. For they are nourished by fire, hatred and speed! Does this surprise you? It is because you do not even remember being alive! Standing on the world’s summit, we launch once more our challenge to the stars!”

Manifestos and revolutions are such fun, so exciting, but can’t we collapse Marinetti’s screed-can’t we collapse just about all artistic manifestos-into just the first three words of the quoted selection? Both New Formalists and Language poets perform remarkable acrobatics trying to evade the fact that they rely on the academy for market presence while depending on a contrived tension with the academy for cachet, and all either group is really saying is “look at us!” The fact that these two sloppy cabals still possess credibility as stylistic bellwethers speaks volumes about the timidity of professionalized poetry, of professionalized revolutions, of the ongoing battle over style, of all things, as though style were the sole animating force of good poetry. It seems about time to simply let the question rest and declare that form and content are equally important, and that content is within the realm of criticism, both in publications and in classrooms. When every poem, regardless of style, seems to make the same argument-I am a work of art, damn it-then what else is there to do but piddle on about amphibrachs and spacialization?

The idea that poetry can be used to make an argument is enough to make some people recoil, and with any luck they will recoil all the way into their bedrooms and shut the door. This abhorrence for the idea that poetry could sully itself with anything so worldly as a making an argument is, of course, the continued legacy of the Romantics: the perception that poetry is something akin to religious feeling, that poets are shamen, or at least nerves o’er which do creep the else unfelt oppressions of this earth; the belief that we make a special kind of knowledge. This perception has become a great plague on all houses of poetry, formal or experimental, open or closed. We can communicate knowledge in a special way, but when the idea that the only good poetry is that which takes the top of your head off, well, of course mediocrity rules the day. The current fashion, as I mentioned earlier, is for poems that scrupulously avoid being obvious about their intent to reproduce epiphanies by lashing together images and ideas in a sort of hipster sprezzatura, and yet the argument-I am a work of art, what I communicate is more precious than what I am saying-is the same one made in Kubla Khan. Here are two examples, taken at random from MFA-aligned poetry journals, with the authors’ names and the titles omitted:

Everything I’ve seen of you I like
Especially what I haven’t seen of you.
I know that’s cheap, but I can’t bear
The expense of shame. You have film noir
Looks, with extra fog thrown in. I don’t
Like to be Anglo, I like to be Frank, except
The laws of transmigration
Won’t let me. Can I be Earnest? No,
That’s much too aggressive. Then can I

Invite you for a day at Dry Creek Water Park,

where the fluid times recall themselves
So vividly they don’t need to exist? Humor me,
But don’t satire me. I’m pathos already,
I’m afraid. Where’s the bus? Jaunting its way
Among green rocks, measuring the mountainside
With its yellow self.


This was good science – the mud,
cold womb for life. The non-living
bearing the small creatures.
See the meat, how it transforms to curls of maggots,
the grain composes furred bodies of mice.
The world was more hopeful back then,
mere stuff, the ingredients for being.
A rag, a dark corner, a piece of cheese,
a spot of still water littered with leaves –
I have these things around,
but I know ex ovo omnia –
everything comes from the egg.
What were those great thinkers thinking,
before Pasteur proved that pure air is barren,
that only the living cause the living?
And yet, the sudden shadowy cockroach,
the silverfish appearing like dust –
we are all capable of misconceptions
and terrible conceptions.
You too have wished
to make a life out of nothing.

These are not terrible poems, nor are they especially good (though I think the second much better than the first); instead, they are overwhelmingly typical, and their desire, as poems, is to make a certain trope–associational logic, I suppose–the substance of the poem, as though simply being lyrical in this way constitutes a special body of knowledge. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with writing poems this way, and some great poems might result; the problem lies in the context in which they are produced: a market glutted with similar sounding poems.

When taught as part of the system of professionalization embodied by MFA programs, the idea that poetry grants the reader a direct route to some higher plane of consciousness results in a poetic nation of snake oil salesmen. Certainly poetry can manifest this sort of transcendence, but not everyone (or anyone for that matter) should be encouraged to try. Poetry is not a secular religion. If a religious explanation of the world is what you want, then go get religion, and then commence with your poetry.

When I mentioned earlier that the sustaining of reputation might be one key to the problem posed by MFA programs, what I had in mind, I now realize, was not the professionalization of poetry itself, but rather the professionalization of this aspect of post-Romantic poetics, this doctrine of poetry as revelation of received knowledge, of poems as precious, fragile things-some few are, of course, but if everyone is aiming at the same target, we’re back to the fin de siecle, except that we have made poetry a modern profession and offer apprenticeships to the priests and priestesses of poetry. Why not aim at some different targets: write more satirical poetry, combative poetry, genre poetry, proposals for public policy poetry, political poetry, anti-political poetry, documentary poetry, verse essays on migratory fowl-poetry that argues something other than “look at me! I can get you to the top of the great chain of being! No lines, no waiting!” We can do better than subsisting on the sale of indulgences to one another.

III. Forget Poetry

Let’s look at Marinetti one more time:

“Look at us! We are not out of breath, our hearts are not in the least tired. For they are nourished by fire, hatred and speed! Does this surprise you? It is because you do not even remember being alive! Standing on the world’s summit, we launch once more our challenge to the stars!”

The false religiosity of this statement, the breathless language, the appeal to the abstract and eternal, all seems a bit silly at this point, and maybe that is the point. Religions, for the most part, offer people a way out of the disappointment of life, while poetry offers a way further in, so to speak, and when an authentic religion grows the crust of orthodoxy, reformers and revolutionaries of all types appear and claim to speak for the needs of the laity. So too with poetry. Critic Dana Gioia, for example, discusses the revitalization of oral poetry via rap music, and slam, and spoken word poetry in his essay “Toward a New Bohemia,” in which, unsurprisingly, he claims that the use of meter and rhyme is the key to the success of these forms, but then most “spoken word” poetry is not rhymed or metered in any but the most irregular way; and while you can explain till blue in the face how Jay-Z uses iambic pentameter, well, he doesn’t actually say it that way, despite how it might scan. What is successful about these forms is their lack of pretension to special knowledge, to revelation, to some Kantian gleaning of the noumena. They speak to a large audience because they use the language of the day to communicate the knowledge of the day; they allow us to go further into the experience of being human by sharing experience with their audience in interesting and intelligible ways.

Poets are not taught to do this in MFA programs, by and large, because their audiences are presumed to be, well, other poets, and because the academy doesn’t particularly value this sort of knowledge; when scholars do try and value the sort of knowledge embedded in popular culture, they generally end up producing jargon-laden monstrosities such as cultural studies. So we have poetry, back on its heels after the great audience kiss-off of modernism, joining forces with the university, a corporate entity that pays lip-service to academic integrity so that professors can believe they possess (and profess) special knowledge about the way ordinary folks live-’tis no wonder that the best this marriage has yet to offer is the workshop, an exercise in self-edification and manufactured controversy eerily similar to the self-contained dithering that goes on at countless academic conferences, where arguments about the number of angels dancing in the head of a pin have long been replaced with happy-hour recreations of their actual steps.

Instead of sitting through a series of workshops designed to edify or horrify the participants and thereby indoctrinate them into the sacred world of poetry, then, why not have MFA students spreading the poetic word by submitting their work to newspapers, by offering classes in public libraries and homeless shelters and country clubs, and more importantly, by trying to ascertain what these audiences might want from poetry, and even more difficult, by learning how to value what this audience wants? If poets really want a larger audience, a larger place in civil society, they must begin to consider-in the context of every tradition they can muster-that the best way to gain this audience is through an exchange of knowledge with a public that has lost interest in what poets can provide. The audience, if it can be engaged, will let the poets know what is good for them, what they want, even as the poets persist in the arduous process of helping the audience understand what they, the artists, value as well, not as doctrine, not as received knowledge, but as an explicable function: the means by which poetry helps us know the world. Arguments about style compel stylists. Arguments about things that matter to people compel people to act, to buy books, maybe even to pay a little attention to stylistic concerns.

A haiku parses our daily voice one way, ottava rima another, translation another, beat rhythms yet another-but more importantly, all possess the ability to force us to concentrate, to distract us from the three-second pulse of everyday life, which is the longest most of us keep a thought in our heads, most of the time. I trust all would not simply descend into schlock and treacle, should the MFA system become a focus for engagement with a more broad readership; on the other hand, things are humming along pretty well for some few in the poetry popularity contest, at least in terms of salary, and the rest of the rabble can always continue to pucker up and hope to win the lottery, or else form a school of stylistics and shout “look at us!” in the direction of some straw man or other. I suppose the public would never understand, anyway; there must be something wrong with them if they can’t recognize just how special we are. If they won’t come around to our way of thinking about poetry, well, it’s their loss. Hell, most of them prefer prose….[/private]

About mpietrzykowski

Marc Pietrzykowski has published poems and reviews in The Antioch Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Rhino, Exquisite Corpse, Red River Review, Pinyon, White Crow, Figdust, and River Oak Review. He lives in Atlanta, where he is enrolled in the graduate program at Georgia State University.
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