Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Poet Resigns: Now It's Out—Here's What's In It

Since I've already done an official book signing at the AWP conference in Boston, I imagine it's time to officially announce the publication of The Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult World, a collection of my essays on poetry, poetics, and related matters.  It's out now, available on Amazon and elsewhere, and weighs in at 323 pages.  And it's on sale right now for a mere fourteen bucks, four dollars off the regular retail price.

Here's a general guide through the table of contents, with the main sections in boldface and the individual essays briefly described:

Instead of an Introduction: Letter of Resignation

In which I discuss my evolution from poet to critic, and the issues—mostly a love of beauty in a world of troubles—that animate both my poetry and my critical writing.

Situations of Poetry

The Discursive Situation of Poetry

In this essay I go through the various arguments people have made about the decline of poetry's readership, and conclude that, despite claims for a mid-century importance of poetry, the conditions most of the people who write about poetry's decline in popularity relative to other genres yearn for are really Victorian conditions.  To restore poetry to that level of popularity, one would have to rebuild a lot of Victorian conditions of literacy, social elitism, primitive science, and expensive publishing—conditions we should be glad we don't have.

Poetry and Politics, or: Why are the Poets on the Left?

Although most of us like to think we hold our views because those views are true, there are some good reasons to believe that the place we hold in society conditions those views—and when we look at where most American poets fit in American society, some pretty solid social theory (Alvin Gouldner, Pierre Bourdieu) give us social reasons for the leftish views of most American poets.  I mean, we're no more immune to politics that go with our jobs than are most Wall Streeters.

The Aesthetic Anxiety: Avant-Garde Poetics and the Idea of Politics

This essay looks at the poetics of Surrealism, and of Language Poetry, in terms of the equation often drawn in both movements between aesthetic and political radicalism.  I suppose you could say that the essay finds the arguments for an inherent relation between these kinds of things wanting.

Public Faces in Private Places: Notes on Cambridge Poetry

This essay kicked up a lot of dust when it came out in the Cambridge Literary Review a few years ago. It argues that the social claims made by some backers of the avant-garde British poets associated with J.H. Prynne don't hold as much water as those backers might wish, and looks for explanations why such large claims get made.

Negative Legislators: Exhibiting the Post-Avant

In which I take a stab at defining the post-avant, and look at the meaning of its politics, which are largely a matter of refusing large claims and totalizing statements.  In the end, I try out a generational explanation for why the post-avant is as it is.

When Poets Dream of Power

A fast survey of the relation between poets and power over the course of several centuries, leading up to the present moment.

Can Poems Communicate?

Not the way they used to!  This essay examines what happens to poetry when there is no shared frame of symbolic reference between poet and readers.  There's a fair bit about Yeats, who worried endlessly over the issue.

The Poet in the University: Charles Bernstein's Academic Anxiety

The essay takes a look at how Bernstein defined poetic thought and academic thought as opposites, and at a huge problem with his argument: all of his poetic thinkers are academics, and big-time, much-cited ones at that.  I seek a psychological/sociological explanation for why Bernstein would make such an argument, and claim that it has to do with joining academe late in his career.

The State of the Art

I examine the meaning of "the state of the art" at various points in the history of British and American poetry, up to the present day, when I make some perhaps dangerous claims about the current state.

To Criticize the Poetry Critic

Seeing the New Criticism Again

In which it turns out that everything we've been told about the New Critics is wrong.

Poetry/Not Poetry

An examination of where the poetry-not poetry line has been drawn since the late 18th century, with reflections on the meaning of our contemporary definition of what makes a poem a poem.

The Death of the Critic

In which I ask what it means to write avant-garde literary criticism.

Marginality and Manifesto

This was a piece commissioned by Poetry as a response to a selection of manifestoes they ran on the 100th anniversary of the Futurist manifesto.  I conclude that the manifesto doesn't have much of a function under current socio-aesthetic conditions.

Poets and Poetry

A Portrait of Reginald Shepherd as Philoctetes

This surveys the entire body of Reginald Shepherd's poetry.  I predicted that he was on the verge of emerging as one of the major poets of his time.  Sadly, we'll never know if I was right: he died a few months after the essay ran in Pleiades

True Wit, False Wit: Harryette Mullen in the Eighteenth Century

Wow, were they mad at me when I first gave a version of this essay as a conference paper down in Louisville.  I think the crowd thought I was saying Mullen was no good.  What I meant was that the kind of wit she plays with, and that we love, is exactly the kind of wit that eighteenth century critics condemned.  I add to this some thoughts about what the difference in taste regarding wit can tell us about the role and situation of poetry in different times and places, and under different institutional conditions.

Emancipation of the Dissonance: The Poetry of C.S. Giscombe

A survey of the whole of his poetic career, in which he evolves from a kind of Black Mountain poet into something else.  I trot out some music theory from Stockhausen, Schoenberg, and Duke Ellington to get at the meaning of avant-garde form and the interrogation of race in Giscombe's poetry.

In the Haze of Pondered Vision: Yvor Winters as Poet

Where Winters is remembered at all as a poet, he's seen as an arch-formalist.  But he started off as an Imagist, publishing alongside Gertrude Stein and the like.  I try understand what happened.

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Poetry

Since Robert Lowell and Allen Ginsberg, there's been this sense that poets need to break through inhibition into something more open and genuine.  This essay examines a tradition of reticent poets that runs counter to all that.

Power and the Poetics of Play

John Matthias has interrogated the meaning of play, and its relation to a world of power and danger, more than anyone.  It's one of the reasons I've remained drawn to his poetry for decades.  This essay introduces his work from the aspect of power and play.

Neruda's Earth, Heidegger's Earth

It turns out there are strong parallels between Neruda's poetry and poetics and some of Heidegger's darker moments.  I worry the issue a bit here.

The Decadent of Moyvane

The sad fate of the Irish nationalist poetic tradition in post-nationalist times.

Modernist Current: On Michael Anania

James Joyce was born in Omaha in 1939.  At least that's what I say here.  And I'm pretty sure I'm right, despite what you may have read on the internet.

Laforgue/Bolaño: The Poet as Bohemian

What does it mean for poetry when the poet lives as a bohemian, as opposed to a professor of creative writing?  The editor of an earlier version of this essay found the conclusion so irksome he had it changed.  But it's back to its original form here.

Oppen/Rimbaud: The Poet as Quitter

The question of the poet who leaves poetry means something to me.  Looking at Oppen and Rimbaud helped me feel better about the whole issue.

Remembering Robert Kroetsch

Robert Kroetsch was one of the grand old men of Canadian poetry, and one of the progenitors of a movement virtually unknown outside his country.

Myself I Sing

Nothing in this Life

A meditation on Nick Cave, which is really about what it means to come from the provinces and to care about literary culture.

My Laureates

What poets have meant to me, and how they've helped me live.


I'm very glad to see this book come out.  I hope you'll check it out.


  1. There were several places in "Instead of an Introduction" where I found myself roaring with laughter. That's so rare. I couldn't help noticing that immediately after those moments some compelling insight had me shaking my head in agreement and appreciation for something precisely right on. So this combination of joy and intelligence is winning the day, to say the least. I think the reason I feel so relaxed in my reading is that you do not shy away from the reality of pain, and as a result you're asking the questions of poetry that I too wish to have asked and answered. All to say, I'm optimistic in regards to The Poet Resigns.

    But tell me, why metal folding chairs of varying sizes?

  2. You are too kind!

    The folding chairs? Ah! I asked the good people at the press about that. It's meant as a sign of my resigning, folding up and moving on.

    Thanks for reading!


  3. "No shared frame of symbolic reference" haunts every word I write.

    I'm adding your book to my reading list....

    1. Thanks! It also makes a great gift for birthdays, weddings, Valentine's day...

  4. I hope to be able to read your book soon. At the same time, from your thumbnail summary here of your assessment of the politics of poets, I am skeptical. That poets are usually on the political left is unsupported by my experience and my own reading. I have met numerous argumentative right-wing poets in many venues, and they are often as loudly vituperative as their political compatriots in the public arena. Whether or not I agree with them, they are there. So I guess I don't agree with the assumption, and therefore arguments in favor of it—in the absence of more detailed evidenced, which hopefully I shall gain from reading your section on the topic—seem to me to be inductive rather than deductive reasoning.

    On other fronts, I'm intrigued by the Neruda mention. Sounds interesting.

  5. I posted a notice of your book on ars poetica library blog...

    And I'll be reading it anon.