In a controversial essay for Harper’s titled Poetry Slam, Or, The Decline of American Verse, Mark Edmundson lit into contemporary American poetry. But the greatest part of Edmundson’s long-winded but shortsighted piece isn’t the piece itself – it’s the brilliant responses to it.
Take this gem from poet Seth Abramson in his piece for The Huffington Post titled America, Meet Your Poets:
“How should the more than 20,000 young poets who receive their graduate degrees in poetry each decade receive a review of contemporary poetry that only considers the work of “the gang [of poets] now in their fifties, sixties, and beyond”? Of what relevance is an analysis of Pulitzer Prize winners in poetry when 99.99% of working American poets have no say whatsoever in who’s selected for the honor? If Edmundson knew that the average starting age of a student at one of the nation’s 171 full-residency creative writing MFA programs was 27, would he still have written that “a great deal” of contemporary poetry “imagine[s] TV shows, video games, ads, fashions, the Internet, movies, popular music never existed and don’t make up our collective environment”? If Edmundson had spent much time in any of the nation’s several hundred bohemian and university literary communities, most of which skew violently toward twenty- and thirty-somethings, would he really have said that contemporary poetry “does not generally traffic in the icons of pop culture…it gravitates to the ancient”? These comments describe none of the contemporary poetry I review monthly for The Huffington Post, and, more broadly, hardly any of the poetry being written and regularly performed in public by my twenty- and thirty-something poet friends.”
And then there’s Katy Waldman who began her piece for Slate titled Who Are You Calling Opaque? like this:
“You go after Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Charles Simic, Frank Bidart, Robert Pinsky, and Robert Hass, even the late James Merrill, all of whom deserve pages and pages of defense (and are likely getting it: I don’t even want to think about the contents of your inbox right now, Mark). Yes, your screed was a passionate piece of writing, dripping with erudition. You quoted great poets down through history: Dante, Milton, Emerson, Wordsworth, Yeats, Frost, Plath, Lowell. You did exactly what you want today’s poets to do, which is make a sweeping, fervent argument about something that matters. Unfortunately, you are completely out of your mind.”
If this all were a numbers game, it’s clear that poetry is only getting stronger. Nearly every community worth its salt has poetry readings either within them or somewhere nearby and, as Abramson pointed out, thousands of our country’s university-educated students hold advanced graduate degrees in poetry. They took years of their life and dedicated it to studying the craft of poetry.
If we pretend the numbers do not matter then we look at quality. Perhaps at no point in human history has poetry had so many outlets, so many publishers, so much competition to be published in the top literary journals.
If we pretend the competition and the skill it can develop doesn’t matter, then we’re left with the topics that poetry covers. Is contemporary poetry addressing anything of real merit? You bet it is. 9/11, the Trayvon Martin case, Hurricane Katrina, Syria, HIV/AIDS in Africa, child labor in Bangladesh, human trafficking, globalization, divorce, tech’s influence on modern life, pop culture – the list of topics that our country’s greatest poets are addressing is endless, is constantly evolving and is usually not just in lockstep with society but a few paces progressively beyond it. In other words, contemporary poetry is exactly where it should be.