Wednesday, February 25, 2009


The Chronicle Review brings us another interesting editorial, this one on "poets' puffery," the phenomenon of grade inflation as it relates to the reputation of contemporary poets.

Evidently, the calibre of poetry today is uniformly "excellent," at least according to its own press. In contrast, author Jeffery Gray, professor of English and editor of The Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Poets and Poetry, muses on how the historical record seems to suggest that mediocre poets once existed.

"My own favorite entry, on Gertrude Bloede (19th century), sums up a poet's bad dream of posterity: 'Interest in her work, always limited, declined after her death.'"

"Curiously, it is almost impossible to find such modest assessments when one turns to contemporary poetry. Indeed, the problem of neglect or insignificance evaporates in a situation in which, in spite of the vast numbers writing (800 to 1,000 books of poetry are published in the United States per year; thousands of other poets publish in journals and quarterlies), we have no minor poets. Everyone today, like those above-average children of Lake Wobegon, is brilliant and sui generis."
Gray goes on to wonder if the sheer literary output of modern poets (he cites one poet billed as "underground" who nonetheless has published more than 100 books) makes inflation of their assumed quality necessary if they're to be heard above the din. Poets of past eras, few of them full-time writers, typically produced less.

"The historical reasons for the obvious disparity in output include the demands of living in pre-20th-century America, in times when almost no one was a 'professional' poet; the absence of any sense, before Matthew Arnold, that poetry mattered at all to ordinary working people; the complete absence of any institutional support, like that which has proliferated in the United States in the past half-century — i.e., grants, residencies, teaching positions, workshops, and the like; the general absence of any publishing opportunities besides a few popular magazines; and, of course, much shorter lives."

"Perhaps, most of all, it is hard to imagine being 'lonely like that,' as Adrienne Rich wrote in the early 1960s (in 'Face to Face') of earlier times in this country; hard to imagine, for most of us, 'all that lawlessness,' each person living

with his God-given secret,
spelled out through months of snow and silence,
burning under the bleached scalp

"This humble, sequestered idea of poetry is no longer with us, in spite of voices like that of the poet and critic Richard Howard, who has said that 'we must restore poetry to that status of seclusion and even secrecy that characterizes our authentic pleasures.' Or, more recently, the critic James Longenbach's observation that the large audience for poetry 'has by and large been purchased at the cost of poetry's inwardness ... its strangeness.'"

Have we traded the possibility of great poetry (except by its own account) for our quest for celebrity?
"It is easy to argue that poetry would benefit by returning to its magical desert spaces, but few poets, living or dead, have wished for obscurity. And fewer still would hand back a grant from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation or the National Endowment for the Arts, preferring to work in poverty and loneliness. Though it might be the best rebirth of all, no one can persuade poets to write less."

...Also regarding poetry, Anne Hocker sent these links, found on Terry Moran’s twitter (anchor of ABC Nightline): which referenced this good poem:, the first stanza of which reads:

Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd -
The little dogs under their feet.


Steve Bodio said...

Anyone remotely interested in these matters should immediately get Dana Gioia's Can Poetry Matter? It is a great as well as entertaining work by a practicing poet.

Matt Mullenix said...

Thanks Steve. That looks like a good one.