Monday, June 24, 2013

"But it matters": Mark Edmundson and the extremely bad state of contemporary American poetry

The year was 1991. I was teaching "20th Century Poetry in English" to a lively group of students at the University of Hawai`i. The day I'd chosen to have them read poetry by Frank O'Hara from the anthology, I knew there'd be a lot of laughter in class. We began our discussion. No one laughed. In fact, there was no response at all. My students' eyes looked blank. Knowing something was desperately wrong, but not sure what it might be, I read O'Hara's lines out loud, using the ironic tone of voice that's appropriate to his work. The classroom was quiet, deadly quiet.

What I learned from that day is this: Frank O'Hara is a local poet. He lived in New York City; he wrote about New York City; and his tone is New York City. This is not to say that he's not a wonderful poet. I still teach his work, though these days I ask students to use it toward their own experiences. Make his local your local, I advise them. Poetry is a goad to experience, not simply a set of marks on a page. Last semester several groups of my students did videos of Frank O'Hara's "The Day Lady Died," set here. To teach O'Hara in my classrooms is to engage in an act of translation, where I explicate not only the words on the page, but the culture of the east coast, where I grew up.

I earned my Ph.D. at the University of Virginia. Mark Edmundson directed my dissertation on the poetry of Hart Crane. The dissertation was worth abandoning, but the fault was all mine. I've followed his career as a public intellectual with some interest, if not utter devotion. I've read his books about poetry, used his critical work on the fight between poetry and philosophy in at least one of my graduate classes. So I was intrigued when I started seeing strong responses to his new article in Harper's, "Poetry Slam: Or, The Decline of American Verse." I begged a copy of the piece, outside the pay wall. Edmundson's essay reads like something out of my recent trip east. I remember these arguments, these disappointments, these poets' names, but they feel strange, as if translated from another language, another time. After nearly 23 years in Hawai`i, I read the piece as an outsider, one for whom critiques of this American poetry (and its cousins) mean very little. I can't muster up the anger expressed by many of my facebook friends, because the poetry about which Edmundson writes is not the poetry I read (or: even if I read it, I don't read it the way he reads it). Edmundson, it seems, is a local critic. His location is east coast, Ivy League-trained, New Yorker-reading, and he as much as admits that in his essay. But it's hard to find this caveat amid his strong rhetoric, namely the shoulds and the musts and the references to ambition and to a communal "we" that still reaches for some sublime space beyond us.

How does Edmundson define poetry? "It is, to speak very generally," he writes, "a moment of illumination. One might call it . . . a spot of time." Its vision needs to be comprehensive. What does Edmundson want in such poetry? By way of lines by Robert Lowell, he admires "artistry," "subtlety," "melancholy grace," "rhymes," and he wants the "ambition" of "a graying weary seer  . . . pronouncing judgment."  He wants poets who are inclusive, who use the pronouns "us" and "our" (though if they're like Lowell, they don't always consider whom they include in these inclusivities). He wants poets who speak not only an "internal language," but also make public arguments. He wants poets who hunger after "the universal." He wants poet who "have something to say." 

Edmundson argues for ambition in contemporary poetry, an ambition that might bring together lyric poetry and public intervention, a poetry that argues for something. But his own essay sounds more ambitious than it is. If, like Frost, he believes in poetry that uses a net, Edmundson's tennis court is one populated by award-winning mainstream poets, the ones published in the New Yorker, Ashbery post-tennis court oath (though he slams a few lines from that book, too) and almost exclusively white and male. Ask him for a tradition he approves of and, no matter how often he uses the pronoun "she," you get this: "Blake and Wordsworth and Whitman, and also . . . Auden . . . Eliot. It [this completeness and expanse that he yearns for] came in Frost, Pound, Williams, Hart Crane, and . . . in Stevens. One expected it of Lowell and Ginsberg." These tennis players wear white, which is not to say that they were not wonderful poets, but that their ability to write in the vatic mode was in many ways determined by that fact. This is not to agree with Edmundson's (sometimes accurate) notion of cultural studies as a purity-inducing machine, which more than cautions against crossing boundaries of race, class, gender. But it is to say that such views of the world come from somewhere other than the academy, however the academy chooses to present them. That Frost and Williams were also intensely local poets argues against their inclusion in this group, but Edmundson is into canon-confirming by name.

It's very tempting to shoot back a list of names, as some of my facebook friends have done. One sputters with names of amazing poets not on this list, nor even on the list of Edmundson's contemporary failures (Hass, Muldoon, Ashbery, Olds, Rich, et al). But part of the problem with that argument is that it too closely resembles Edmundson's own: it's about names, about individuals, and not about the real state of contemporary poetry. Poetry is more than the individual lyric voice or the individual vatic call to "us" and "we," which Edmundson repeats over and again, without questioning the demographics of the "we." (It's not my students, or likely yours.) Poetry is a way of looking at the world, one that involves particular lenses, those created within and across traditions. Sometimes it's not verse, but a frame, a vision. It is a way of reading literary history that includes political, economic, and cultural histories, and not just those of MFA programs, which he goes on to bash as career-establishing institutions only. Romantic poetry involved "spots of time," but contemporary poetry has other ambitions.

Some of these ways of seeing the world are as follows. I leave out (most) names deliberately, though if anyone wants names and titles I'd be happy to offer them up. Even better, I'm happy to recommend presses far away from FS&G. Most of these modes overlap:

--Language writing. Though it has not existed in its pure form since the 1980s, its influence has been vast. Based on a critique of advertising language and the language of governmental dishonesty, this mode retains a power to intervene in the way we think about the world. No, it does not offer the direct arguments Edmundson wishes to hear, but that is part of the point. Direct arguments are too often canned, too easily composed because they are already floating in the virtual air like templates, or Hallmark cards.

--Documentary writing/poetry, which takes as its foundation the prosaic news of the world and offers arguments about it, arguments that are not about God or transcendence but about politics and grieving. The poetry of witness is part of this. So much to witness: war, crimes against humanity, Alzheimer's.

--Long poems, those that navigate philosophical and material vocabularies. An astonishing number of contemporary poets are working in this mode, and successfully.

--Ethnic poetries. Choose one. African American. Native American. Asian American. Latino. And yes, Euro-American.

--Post-colonial poetries, or anti-colonial. These poetries often overlap with postmodern poetry, not for reasons of belief but because colonialism shatters cultures and languages. See a different version of Eliot from Edmundson's. See Brathwaite, who found inspiration in Eliot.

--Feminist poetry. Not just Adrienne Rich, either.

--Gay poetry. Edmundson devotes some space to Ginsberg, without ever mentioning that one of Ginsberg's real ambitions was to break poetry out of its sexual closet.

--Conceptual writing and flarf.  I'm not a huge fan of these modes, but they're out there, and conceptually (at least) they work against the mainstream. Even when their ambition is/was to be unambitious, that was part of the intervention in the larger culture. Flarf began as a mom-and-pop response to Target. That it now sometimes seems more like Target than like the local superette (if it indeed survived) is part of the problem of late capitalist culture.

--Ecopoetry. Ahsahta Press has an enormous new anthology, and that's just the tip of the iceberg (what's left of it).

--Poetry of spirit. Not spirit disengaged from world, but deeply implicated in it.

--Yes, even slam poetry, outside the essay's punning title. Not always my cup of tea, but most of its practitioners are engaged with external realities, not simply internal meanderings. They, too, are interested in "voice," but in a public/private voice.

But even if Edmundson hasn't read these modes of poetry, he has read John Ashbery. Back in the late 1980s, he told me (after I asked him to write about JA's work for my Tribe of John) that Ashbery lacked the kind of clarity he valued. Fair enough. But that is not an argument. In this essay, Edmundson leaves it at this slap to the face: "From the point of view of the reader who hopes occasionally for prophecy, Ashbery's work is a perpetual hedging." Along with the word "hedge," Edmundson offers "evasion." He lumps all of Ashbery's work together, as indeed he does Heaney's and other poets with long careers. If the best lack all conviction, then Edmundson puts Ashbery in this category; otherwise, he finds only disappointment there, in the pages of the New Yorker.

I've not read Ashbery's new volume with the care I mean to read it. But there is ample evidence that Ashbery is not simply hedging his bets. If Stevens wrote about the "climate" as a mode of thinking, then Ashbery engages the actual climate.  In "Recent History," he opens with "Desperate asks, how driven batty / by climate change." In "Laughing Creek": "We were in Samoa. The sea will wash over us. He came like the Johnstown flood." If Ashbery follows these lines with "It was worth waiting around for," that is not to say he believes it; typical Ashbery undermining (the deconstructive urge Edmundson alludes to) expresses more anxiety than glee. He is undermining his own poetic practice, finding the precise lack that Edmundson finds, but with more lyrical subtlety. "We're very into whatever it is we're doing. / I say. // But it matters." What else matters is the economy, and Ashbery's got more hedgefund than hedge invested in such material. In "This Economy," he writes an elegy to the U.S. (or is it "us"?):
Somewhere in America adoring legions blush
in the sunset, crimson madder, and madder still.
Somewhere in America someone is trying to figure out
how to pay for this, bouncing a ball
off a wooden strut. Somewhere 
in America the lonely enchanged eye each other
on a bus. It goes down Woodrow Wilson Avenue.
Somewhere in America it says you must die, you know too much.
This is the America that also fills Ashbery's poems with terms like "anti-personnel" or "Marine" in the sense not only of the ocean, but also of "Action figures [that] take us just so far, to the edge / of the abyss. The fucking man swears by rifles." There is "Time enough for the purple brine of consequences," for "bugle and castanets." And it's "bungled." Woodrow Wilson was an idealist; he invented the League of Nations. He failed, and Ashbery knows it. Knows too much.
A more direct poet is Seamus Heaney, but Edmundson also takes him on for his evasions. (There are not enough American poets for Edmundson, so he takes on an "adopted" one, which makes this reader wonder where Derek Walcott might be, or Kamau Brathwaite.) The lines of Heaney's taken to task are these:
I can feel the tug
of the halter at the nape
of her neck, the wind
on her naked front.

It blows her nipples
to amber beads,
it shakes the frail rigging
of her ribs.
Edmundson claims that this verse is about "voice" only, that it lacks the ambition that comes with content. He claims that it does not have an argument. "Here and often elsewhere, Heaney can't find a difference he won't split," Edmundson writes. But it does have an argument that anyone who's lived in a colonial or postcolonial space understands. That Heaney sympathizes both with those who would punish the woman (for sleeping with the enemy) and with the woman herself (she is a human being, after all) surely makes sense. It makes the sense of ambivalence, which is also an argument, one that points to the knot created by colonial situations. It speaks against pure ideology (aka argument, in Edmundson's words), and as such, is an important call to wait, to consider consequences, to empathize. The sublime contains no empathy (as I found myself in trouble in the ocean once, I realized it would not stop for me), but "our" poetry "must" include that impulse too, no?
Odd, then, that Edmundson finds fault with theory, with the "war of philosophy against poetry" that has interested him for decades now. For Edmundson is himself theorizing a mode of poetry that hardly exists for readers like me and my students. While much of it may be worth reading, this poetry usually feels beside the point. Ironically, this is what Edmundson argues.  There's no good poetry post 9/11 he argues. But that's because he's not been reading anything except the prize-winners.  A strong argument often leaves out a great deal. But Edmundson makes the mistake of not including the counter-argument that is writ all around him, and not in water. He wants a poetry like that of Robert Lowell, whose "we" included us all: "Now, using Lowell's 'our' and Whitman's 'we' can register as a transgression against taste and morals." I happen to agree with the sentiment, without abiding by the content of Edmundson's sentence. The "we" that might be spoken is a terribly complicated thing, and operates largely outside of the otherwise wonderful tradition from Blake to Whitman to the Ginsberg who is all bard, and not a minority poet (Jewish homosexual). Had Edmundson simply admitted that he was writing about one tradition, not many, the essay would have been more persuasive, if less ambitious sounding. But Edmundson's voice demands ambition, and that's what sinks his simplified argument. 
I've occasionally wondered what my intellectual life would have been like had I stayed on the east coast, had I been a good enough student to get a plum job (so-called), to have published in the organs of good poetry. I can't imagine that it would have been so interesting a life as that of a diasporic academic living in Hawai`i and reading work whose "we" explicitly excludes her own. I can't imagine that it would have been so good as to be in a place where a student (again, long ago) read Ron Silliman's "The Chinese Notebook," and rewrote it as "The Chinese-Italian Notebook," because those were his ethnicities. I can't imagine it would have been as rewarding to start a small press whose utopian goal was to create communities out of writers who did not yet know of one another's work or existence. With the narrowing of my sense of who "we" are has come a paradoxical expansion. Empirical, but without the empire. These new thresholds and new anatomies are available to the readers of Harper's, but only if they wander off I-95 and into the side roads. Sometimes the road not taken does not resemble the one that got took.

Thanks to everyone who sent pdf of the article or promised one. You can read the Harper's piece here for free.


Scott Abels said...

Julia Cohen's "Open Letter to Mark Edmunson" adds to this conversation as well:

NaNH said...

Exactly! Thanks for speaking for us!