Joseph S. Salemi
Department of Classics, Hunter College, CUNY
And yet I would like to make clear right from the start that I don't think the implication of my title is necessarily hyperbolic. A very good case could be made for the contention that poetry is in fact dying, if not already dead. About a decade ago Joseph Epstein wrote a blistering article in Commentary entitled "Who Killed Poetry?" A whole range of evidence, both general and specific, supports his contention that a murder has taken place. Just look at the various phenomena and culprits: the ideological assault on real literacy, spearheaded by our universities; the politically correct multiculturalism that strangles our discourse; the almost totally ahistorical mindset of young people; the continuing debasement of our language; the ubiquity of audiovisual entertainment; the adulation of technological gadgetry; the increasing inarticulateness of the general population; the triumph of that stupid nerd-box, the computer; and above all the vulgar commercialism and materialism of our culture, now so utterly pervasive that they define modern life. All these developments have been poison to genuine poetry. But rather than go into a disquisition on the decline of the West, I prefer to focus on the poetic situation itself, and suggest why--despite any false signs to the contrary--it is indeed moribund.
There are three problems afflicting contemporary poetry, each one serious enough to render the art irrelevant to the vast majority of intelligent readers in our time. The first problem is a quantitative one; the second two are qualitative. Let's consider them separately.
First, the quantitative one. There is far too much poetry being written and published. Never before in the history of English literature has so much text been generated by so many self-designated poets. No one, even if he were crazy enough to want to, could possibly read all the poems printed in a single year in the Anglophone world. We have more damned poems than New Jersey has mosquitoes.
Now if you are a simple-minded person, as so many people in the poetry world are, you don't see this as a problem. Indeed, your viewpoint is that this flood-tide of verbiage is a sign of life and exuberance and vitality and vigor. You see our current poetic logorrhea, replete with its workshops and readings, its conferences and little magazines, its awards and grants, and its chapbooks and competitions, as one great festival of creative energy. A starry-eyed poet here in New York recently said to me that we were "living in a renaissance of wonder," and another actually claimed that the contemporary poetic scene showed "an efflorescence of heightened perceptions." I won't mention the names of these two poets since everyone should have a free pass to be vacuous on occasion without being publicly identified.
Needless to say, such naive people are deluded. There's no renaissance or efflorescence going on. On the contrary, what we see around us is decay and deterioration masked by frenetic activity and useless overproduction. The situation reminds one of those state-subsidized factories in the old Soviet Union that cranked out tons of shoddy goods that no one wanted. More poetry does not mean better poetry. It simply means a bigger pile of stuff to wade through. And finding good poems is not like gold-mining, where the quantity of precious metal that you get is directly proportional to the amount of raw ore you shovel into your processor. Good poetry is not a natural resource like coal or oil or uranium. There isn't an unlimited supply of it out there waiting to be discovered if only we exert ourselves. If you think so, you don't really understand how poetry is produced.
A poem is something generated by an individual human mind and will, using the acquired tools of linguistic proficiency, rhetorical skill, and literary remembrance. It isn't something spontaneous, and it most certainly isn't something natural. A poem is a fictive artifact created by someone who has the special skills required for the task. It can't be produced by everyone, any more than a concerto can be played by everyone, or a ballet can be danced by everyone. Moreover, poems don't lie buried in all of us, waiting to be coaxed out by workshop discussion. The latter notion may be a profitable one for the people who run workshops, but it is certainly delusional. Encouraging lots and lots of people to write poetry isn't going to change these basic facts. It's only going to guarantee an unmanageable flood of poorly made poems.
In any age there are only a few truly proficient poets, and their number is dependent on highly volatile variables such as the quality of education available in their time, the kind of literature they are exposed to as children, and the degree to which genuine poetry receives acknowledgement and recognition in their society. Add to this a whole range of individual factors--family background, personal experience, historical milieu--and it becomes obvious that poets, paradoxically, are both born and made. And it is precisely this duality of genesis that makes genuine poetry so rare. Innate predisposition and talent must be present, along with a series of external stimuli, both personal and societal, that allow the talent to manifest itself. You can't change the terms of this complex equation by running a lot of workshops and granting MFAs en masse to people.
Most of you are familiar with the economic rule known as Gresham's Law--that is, the empirically observable process whereby bad money drives out good. Introduce a debased or unbacked currency into circulation, and very soon genuine money disappears. People hoard it and save it and squirrel it away, refusing to use it in their day-to-day transactions. In Germany during the Weimar Republic, a single pre-war silver mark was worth billions of the paper Reichmarks issued by that hapless government, but you never saw a silver mark because prudent persons saved them. Well, something analogous happens when there is too much bad poetry in circulation. The good poetry doesn't necessarily disappear, but it gets lost in the flood. Look at it from a reader's point of view: why subscribe to a poetry magazine if ninety-five percent of the material in it is mediocre and unmemorable? Is the five percent of creditable work really worth one's time and effort? Any editor will confirm that it is notoriously difficult to get subscribers to a poetry journal, except among those people whose own poetry is published in it. As a result many journals face the choice of going out of business, or serving as vanity presses for their regular contributors. This literary version of Gresham's Law also has a bad effect on poets themselves. Consider: many editors of poetry journals report receiving anywhere from 800 to 2000 poetry submissions a month. Even poets of recognized talent must lose heart when faced with that sheer volume of text. What chance is there that an overworked editor will notice a good poem in the deluge?
I am reminded of an incident that casts some light on this issue. Back in the 1960s the Dutch government, mindful of the heritage of Rembrandt and Vermeer, made a decision to subsidize graphic artists. Regular stipends were paid to anyone who wanted to devote his time to the production of oil paintings or watercolors or drawings. The government hoped in this way to encourage a renaissance of Dutch painting. The result was predictable: a huge number of persons in Holland began to crank out graphic art, most of it horribly mediocre or worse. Soon the Dutch government was storing thousands of canvases and sketches in warehouses all over the land--canvases and sketches that had been paid for, but which no one actually wanted. The Dutch were forced to rescind the subsidies, and luckily a number of the warehouses caught fire and burned to the ground, thus sparing the world a glut of incompetent painting.
Now was there some good graphic art among those thousands of subsidized Dutch paintings? On the basis of statistical probability, the answer is yes. It's likely that there were some creditable works. But the point is that they couldn't be found in all the clutter, or weren't worth the trouble to find. It's like gold dissolved in sea water--the element is present, but utterly impractical to extract. And the modest amount of good poetry being produced today is inundated by a tidal wave of junk and kitsch that renders it, for all practical purposes, invisible.
So much for the quantitative problem. Let's turn now to the qualitative ones. First and foremost, contemporary poetry is crippled by the fact that only one particular rhetorical mode is considered acceptable and prestigious. That mode is the confessional lyric. To illustrate my point, I'll direct your attention to something which should be familiar to an audience of New Yorkers. For the past few years the Metropolitan Transit Authority, in conjunction with the mega-bookstore known as Barnes and Noble, has run a series of ads in our subway system called "Poetry In Motion." I'm sure you've all seen them. These ads print short snippets of poetry--some good, some bad, some indifferent. But the melancholy fact is that almost every one of those poetry samples is in the confessional lyric mode. Whoever is making those choices for the "Poetry In Motion" series is simply reinforcing the widespread popular notion that gaseous emotionalizing is exclusively identical with what we call poetry.
Now there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the confessional lyric. It constitutes a perfectly legitimate type of poetry. But the lyric is only one out of many rhetorical modes that have been developed over the centuries, and it is by no means the most important or the most prestigious of them. We should remember that narrative, epic, satiric, devotional, comic, meditative, didactic, elegiac, epigrammatic, and erotic poetry are just as much a part of our European tradition, and they are in fact more interesting and compelling in aesthetic potential than lyric verse can ever hope to be. Quite frankly, the lyric is a limited form, confined mostly to three constantly reiterated subjects: love, death, and extremities of feeling. Contemporary poetry is starving on this restricted diet, and it's killing off its audience at the same time.
Let's take another illustrative example close to home. Haven't you ever wondered, when reading the New Yorker or some other conventional outlet for orthodox versifying, why you feel an irresistible impulse to flip past a page that contains a poem? It's quite simple. You know, unconsciously, that nine times out of ten the poem will be just another ecstatic or lugubrious expression of personal feeling, another therapeutic soul-baring by some emotional exhibitionist. And quite sensibly, like everyone else in this new century, you've had enough of that drivel. So you turn the page and look for an entertaining New Yorker cartoon instead. A good case could be made that the only people who read the poems printed in the New Yorker are those individuals who have written them, or that vastly larger crowd of social-climbing wannabes who aspire to be published in the magazine themselves. Another example is the sclerotic leftist magazine The Nation. That journal publishes poems occasionally--indeed, it even runs an annual poetry contest called "Discovery"--but one senses that this is more out of a fossilized committment to an art form as obsolescent as the magazine's politics. And again, the poems published are almost exclusively in the lyric mode.
Whenever I raise this point about the near-universal hegemony of the lyric in contemporary verse, I usually get the following four objections:
1. The lyric by nature is short, and therefore more easily written and conveniently published.In short, according to the critics who raise these objections, the only thing left for us is the confessional lyric. It's brief, it's sentimental, and it's vague, thus conforming to every contour in the mentality of the ordinary American reader.
2. Epic and narrative are too long to hold modern attentionspans, which have been decisively shortened by television.
3. Satire and epigrammatic verse go against the soft, sentimentalizing tendency of modern American thought, which is deeply uncomfortable with anything that might conceivably be offensive or pejorative.
4. Devotional and meditative verse are radically incompatible with contemporary secularism, which tends towards a bland vagueness on religious or philosophical issues.
In my view, there are four devastating replies to these objections,and they can be couched in the form of the following questions:
1. Is a poem's value to be determined by the ease with which it is produced and published?and finally and crucially
2. Is television to be the touchstone by which we determine what we read?
3. Is politically correct sentimentalism to be allowed a censor's veto over an art form?
4. Is intellectual incoherence something that we should value?If you can conceivably answer yes to any of these questions, there's really nothing left for me to say--our worldviews are so distant that further discussion would be futile. But if, as I trust, you think that poetry has a value and a significance beyond trendy posturing and careerist bootlicking, you should at least begin to realize that the dominance of the lyric mode in contemporary poetry has become a liability to our craft.
There's nothing shocking in this assertion. Similar things have occurred in the history of English literature. By 1600 the sonnet had become a liability in English verse, and needed a couple of centuries of benign neglect before it could be used again. By the end of the eighteenth century the same thing had happened to the heroic couplet, and despite the dazzling efforts of Lord Byron it has never quite been resuscitated. Right now the short story is a lifeless art form, having been worked to death in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. That is why short stories no longer appear anywhere except in tweedy little journals published by college English departments. When academia has charge of something you can be sure that rigor mortis has set in.
Art forms die, and art forms are reborn. The great task of criticism in the twenty-first century will be to convince poets, readers, teachers, and commentators that the confessional lyric is now effectively dead, and deserves to be mummified for a couple of centuries. Our descendants in the year 2300 can take it up again and invest it with a vigor that is historically impossible for us. We instead must begin the daunting task of rediscovering all the neglected rhetorical modes and genres that have lain fallow for so long, and which are now ready to explode into new life.
Finally, let us turn to the last problem afflicting contemporary poetry. It is the most serious of the three, but strange to say, it is largely invisible. The invisibility doesn't mean that the problem is not real. Anthrax is invisible, but we all are painfully aware of its presence. No--the invisibility of the third problem stems from the fact that it is so utterly pervasive in the mental habits of those who write verse today that no one even notices it. In fact, millions of people think that the sickness I am about to diagnose is the heart and soul of poetry.
Those of you who have read my criticism in the past know that I refer to this problem as "Portentous Hush." Portentous Hush is directly related to the unhealthy dominance of the ]yric mode, but is not identical with that phenomenon. It can infect any genre of verse. What is it, you ask? Well, Portentous Hush is an atmosphere, a tonality, an attitude. It is the tendency of contemporary verse to generate an air of highfalutin sanctity about itself, to pose before the reader as Something Of Great Importance, with capital letters. A poem in the grip of Portentous Hush has all the hieratic resonance of a prayer or an incantation. When you read such a poem you can hear the poet whispering to you, in a tone of hushed awe, something like the following: "This is a high and holy moment of deep significance, and you must pay reverent attention!" It doesn't matter what the poem is about. The real subject of such a poem is the celebration of its own heightened sensitivity.
Portentous Hush is everywhere in poetry today. Poets escape its malign influence only by a conscious act of the will. It is the single most destructive and offputting characteristic of contemporary confessional lyrics. Besides being offensive, it is presumptuous and pompous. It turns a poem into a disguised sermon, whereby a reader is compelled to sit quietly and listen and absorb somebody else's emotional plangencies, as if they were a religiously sanctioned revelation. Portentous Hush adds a kind of pathetic moral earnestness to a poem that renders the piece not only unpleasant, but ultimately ridiculous. It is absolutely fatal to any humor, wit, or rhetorical brilliance.
You can find Portentous Hush at every level of current poetic composition, from the whining of some lovesick adolescent in a collaborative workshop to the boring but well-remunerated exhalations of Diane Wakoski and Rita Dove. It's all the same in both cases: the oracular tone, the inflated self-importance, the complete failure to perceive that poetry need not be overheated vatic utterance. Throughout America there seems to be a widespread assumption that every poem ought to be written in the voice of Arnoldian high seriousness, and as if it were to be declaimed from a windswept cliff by some brooding genius. This is a lethal assumption, for it persuades poets that they must go into an absurd priestly posture when writing, and it convinces the vast majority of listeners that poetry is just a form of pretentious self-hypnosis. If there is one thing that is killing poetry today, it is Portentous Hush. And yet as I mentioned before, a vast number of people, including editors, believe that it is the heart and soul of poetry.
When you are dealing with a problem of these dimensions, where the entire literary class of a country is unaware of an aesthetic limitation, there seems to be little hope for change. Portentous Hush is inculcated into American children from the moment they take that first haiku class in grade school. It is nurtured in every collaborative workshop and MFA program. It is rewarded with grants and prizes; it is published abundantly; it is emulated by aspiring writers. You cannot open a page of any poetry journal without being hit in the face by it. And yet the biggest task that confronts American poetry in the twenty-first century, in addition to silencing the confessional lyric, is the discrediting of Portentous Hush. It won't be easy, and it won't be pleasant, but it has to be done.
To sum up, I locate the source of contemporary poetry's malaise in three things: overproduction, lyric mode hegemony, and Portentous Hush. The question of why these three problems have come to afflict us requires a complicated answer that I cannot go into here and now. But I will say that the answer is essentially an extra-literary one, rooted in powerful social and psychological distempers that have plagued the Western world since the French Revolution. We can neither change the history of those distempers, nor pretend that their consequences do not exist. But we can be aware of their potency, and how they have circumscribed the conditions for genuine poetry in our time. And individually we as artists can take steps to insulate our own work from their malign influence. As a start, I would suggest the following eight rules of thumb for practicing poets. I could have provided a lot more than eight, but I think these will do for a start.
1. Do not write any poem using the pronoun I, unless that I has a completely fictitious referent.As I said at the beginning of my talk, speakers are allowed the liberty of overstatement. I shall conclude, therefore, with this final thundering judgment: If poetry does indeed die, it will have deserved its fate. A literature that remains stuck in the rut of a single rhetorical mode, and that can offer nothing but emotional plangencies and hieratic posturing, ought to sink into tongueless oblivion. Who knows? Something better may arise from the silence. But poetry's current illness is not necessarily fatal. If we, as poets, have the stomach for real introspection about our art; and if we are willing to admit that some radically unpopular things have to be said publicly; and if we realize that we are not in this business to make friends and promote our personal careers, then the art of poetry might just have a chance.
2. If your language is indistinguishable from common speech,give up poetry.
3. Rather than write directly about an emotion, reconfigure it in some imaginative manner.
4. If you write a poem and it sounds like a transcript of a therapy session, throw it away.
5. Do not write any poems about your grandchildren, your pet cat, or the natural beauty of the New England woods.
6. Avoid any declamatory, hieratic, or self-important tone that might infect your poem with Portentous Hush.
7. Write as much satirical, comic, and erotic verse as you can,and make sure that it is highly offensive to somebody.
8. Remember that, in a semi-literate world, your primary audience is yourself and your own personal criteria of excellence.
Joseph S. Salemi