Monday, January 10, 2011

Monkeys, Wrenches, and the Discursive Situation of Poetry

Rejoice!  Mary Biddinger and John Gallaher's new collection of essays on poetics, The Monkey and the Wrench, has finally appeared (at least in my mailbox, where a set of contributor's copies arrived today).  Not only does it look good, its svelte 175 pages contains a wealth of good stuff for anyone interested in contemporary poetry and poetics, including:

• Stephen Burt on rhyme in contemporary poetry
• Cole Swenson on hybrid poetry and its discontents
• Elissa Gabbert on the common moves of the contemporary poem
• Michael Dumanis on litany
• David Kirby's "A Wilderness of Monkeys"
Essays by Benjamin Paloff, Elizabeth Robinson, and Joy Katz
• A symposium on hybrid aesthetics featuring Arielle Greenberg, Michael Theune, Mark Wallace, and Megan Volpert

The only defilement of this otherwise excellent volume is my own contribution.  It's called "The Discursive Situation of Poetry," and it attempts to explain why poetry has declined in popularity and influence since its heyday (which was not when most commentators think it was).

It begins like this:


The Discursive Situation of Poetry

“Why do poets continue to write?  Why keep playing if it’s such a mug’s game?  Some, no doubt, simply fail to understand the situation.”
—Sven Birkerts

The important point to notice, though, is this:
    Each poet knew for whom he had to write,
Because their life was still the same as his.
    As long as art remains a parasite
    On any class of persons it's alright;
The only thing it must be is attendant,
The only thing it mustn't, independent.
—W.H. Auden

Statistics confirm what many have long suspected: poetry is being read by an ever-smaller slice of the American reading public.  Poets and critics who have intuited this have blamed many things, but for the most part they have blamed the rise of M.F.A. programs in creative writing.  While they have made various recommendations on how to remedy the situation, these remedies are destined for failure or, at best, for very limited success, because the rise of MFA programs is merely a symptom of much larger and farther-reaching trends.  These trends are unlikely to be reversed by the intervention of a few poets, critics, and arts-administrators.  I’m not sure this is a bad thing.  Or, in any event, I’m not sure it is worse than what a reversal of the decline in readership would entail.  Let me explain.

While we don’t have many instruments for measuring the place of poetry in American life, all our instruments agree: poetry has been dropping precipitously in popularity for some time.  In 1992, the National Endowment for the Arts conducted a survey that concluded only 17.1% of those who read books had read any poetry in the previous year.  A similar N.E.A. survey published in 2002 found that the figure had declined to 12.1%.  The N.E.A. numbers for 2008 were grimmer still: only 8.3% of book readers had read any poetry in the survey period (Bain).  The portion of readers who read any poetry at all has, it seems, been cut in half over sixteen years.  Poetry boosters can’t help but be distressed by the trend.
            Poets and poetry lovers have somewhat less faith in statistics and rather more faith in intuition and personal observation than the population at large.  They’ve intuited this state of affairs for more than two decades, beginning long before the statistical trend became clear in all its stark, numerical reality.   As far back as 1983, Donald Hall sounded a warning note in his essay “Poetry and Ambition.”  Although he did not blame the rise of the graduate creative writing programs for the loss of connection with an audience, he did feel that M.F.A. programs created certain formal similarity among poems.  The programs produced “McPoets,” writing “McPoems” that were brief, interchangeable, and unambitious.  His solution, delivered with tongue firmly in cheek, was to abolish M.F.A. programs entirely.  “What a ringing slogan for a new Cato,” wrote Hall, “Iowa delenda est!” (Hall).  Five years later Joseph Epstein picked up Hall’s standard, and carried it further.  In the incendiary essay “Who Killed Poetry?” Epstein argued that the rise of writing poems led not only to diminishments of ambition and quality — it furthered the decline of poetry’s audience.  The popular audience for poetry may have shrunk by the 1950s, argued Epstein, but at least the poets of midcentury were revered, and engaged with the larger intellectual world.  By the late 1980s, though, poetry existed in “a vacuum.”  And what was the nature of this vacuum?  “I should say that it consists of this,” wrote Epstein, “it is scarcely read.”  Indeed, he continues,

Contemporary poetry is no longer a part of the regular intellectual diet. People of general intellectual interests who feel that they ought to read or at least know about works on modern society or recent history or novels that attempt to convey something about the way we live now, no longer feel the same compunction about contemporary poetry.… It begins to seem, in fact, a sideline activity, a little as chiropractic or acupuncture is to mainstream medicine—odd, strange, but with a small cult of followers who swear by it. (Epstein)

The principle culprit in the sidelining of poetry was, for Epstein, the credentialing and employment of poets in graduate writing programs.  “Whereas one tended to think of the modern poet as an artist,” argued Epstein, “one tends to think of the contemporary poet as a professional,” and, “like a true professional, he is insulated within the world of his fellow-professionals” (Epstein).  The poet, instead of responding to the audience-driven world of the book market, responds only to his peers, with the effect that the audience simply melts away.
            Après Epstein, le déluge.  The 1990s saw a phalanx of poets and critics complaining about the decline of poetry’s audience, and linking this decline to the rise of M.F.A. programs.  Dana Gioia fired the loudest shot when, in Can Poetry Matter? (published as an article in The Atlantic in 1991, republished in book form a year later).  “American poetry now belongs to a subculture,” said Gioia, “no longer part of the mainstream of intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group” (1).  While he allows that they have done so “unwittingly,” it is “the explosion of academic writing programs” that is to blame for this sad state of affairs, as far as Gioia is concerned (2).  Gioia was by no means alone in this opinion.  Vernon Shetley’s 1993 study After the Death of Poetry: Poet and Audience in Contemporary America tells us that poetry has “lost the attention not merely of common readers but of intellectuals” (3) – and that creative writing programs have contributed to this loss by cultivating “a disturbing complacency” and by “narrowing of the scope” of poetry (19).  Bruce Bawer introduces his 1995 book of criticism Prophets and Professors by lamenting the professionalizing of poetry.  He tells us that “those who read poetry — which, in our society, basically means poets” shy away from being too critical of the art, since “they conside[r] poetry so ailing and marginal a genre that criticism was… like kicking an invalid” (8).  In the same year, Thomas Disch claimed in The Castle of Indolence that “for most readers… contemporary poetry might as well not exist.”  The reason, he says, is

…that the workshops, which have a monopoly on the training of poets, encourage indolence, incompetence, smugness, and — most perniciously — that sense of victimization and special entitlement that poets now come to share with other artists who depend on government or institutional patronage to sustain their art, pay their salaries, and provide for their vacations. (5)

Blaming writing programs for the isolation of poetry extended beyond the fairly conservative literary preserves inhabited by the likes of Bawer, Disch, and Epstein. Charles Bernstein’s 1995 essay “Warning — Poetry Area: Publics Under Construction,” argues “it is bad for poetry, and for poets, to be nourished so disproportionately” by universities, adding that “the sort of poetry I care for has its natural habitat in the streets and offices and malls” (Bernstein).
            By 1999, the chorus had grown so loud that Christopher Beach claimed we were “discussing the death of poetry to death” (19).  Not that this stopped anyone.  In 2006, Poetry Foundation President John Barr caused a stir with “American Poetry in the New Century,” an article in Poetry magazine in which he noted poetry’s “striking absence from the public dialogues of our day,” as a sign that we have a reading public “in whose mind poetry is missing and unmissed.”  The problem, he asserts, stems from the writing programs.  These produce poets who “write for one another,” producing “a poetry that is neither robust, resonant, nor… entertaining.”  It cannot exist without “academic subsidies” and fails in the market, unable to sell in “commercial quantities” (Barr).  While Barr surveys the terrain from the heights of the Poetry Foundation offices above Chicago, more recently the poet Daniel Nester has come to similar conclusions (albeit without the invocation of the values of the marketplace) from the depths of New York’s poetry scene.  Nester has characterized that scene as the product of the writing programs.  Looking around at poetry events, he says he’d see university cliques such as the “Group of People Who Went to Iowa” and those starting “Teaching Jobs Out West.”  The scene was isolated from a larger engagement with society, with “a lack of connection to the reader” and readings attended only by “other aspiring poets” (Nester 2009).  “It’s an unsustainable system,” he said when asked by an interviewer about his article.  “Even the most niche of niche art forms has an audience.  Not so with contemporary poetry” (Nester 2010).
            As even this brief and incomplete survey of writers makes clear, American poets have noted the decline of the audience for poetry, and found it troubling.  But when decriers of the decline make M.F.A. programs their whipping boy they misunderstand the role such programs play in the distancing of poet from audience.  In fact, poetry’s decline of popularity predates the rise of writing programs, and such programs are properly seen as the latest episode in of a larger and long-enduring drama, a drama that began in the nineteenth century.


Well, I go on from there for quite a while. But fret not: I don't argue against MFAs, or against poetry mattering — but I do try to look at the conditions under which poetry is hugely popular, and those conditions usually entail a lot of social negatives. 

Anyway, don't let my contribution prevent you from getting the book!  Copies are a laughably cheap ten bucks at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or actual bookstores, if they're hip.