The Way We Talk About Poetry Is the Problem

October 28, 2021 | 3 9 min read

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m the only one who’s tired of the ways we talk about poetry. Maybe I’m the only one who feels a pang of loneliness every time he looks at Poetry Twitter (and then, because social media pushes my buttons so well, looks again, and looks again). It feels that way, the loneliness—the kind I sometimes feel at parties, where lonely is so obviously the last thing I’m supposed to feel.

In the grand scheme of things—hell, even in the ordinary scheme—this isn’t a big deal. But I haven’t had any luck in letting it go. And I’m not convinced that it’s just me. And I’m not even convinced that a lot of what’s happening is good for anyone—though really, the awkward guy standing against the wall at a party complaining about everyone’s supposedly-unhealthy behavior is probably the last person you should listen to. So, grain of salt.

And, caveats: in many ways, the institutions of American poetry are better off than they’ve ever been. They’re more inclusive along several important axes. There’s more room for more styles and more tastes. And much of what is wrong today has always been wrong. Favoritism, shallowness, self-dealing, competition dressed up as virtue, flatterers dressed up as sages, coteries dressed up as the elect: none of that is new. But right now, it just seems so loud.

Of course, that’s exactly what you’d expect a cranky middle-aged guy to say at a party. So, if you don’t want to turn it down, I understand. I’ll survive, yelling at clouds and chasing kids off my lawn and enjoying a lucky life in spite of it all. But just in case, I do have some ideas about what we could all do to make the party better for (I imagine) everyone.

Praise less. Which is not to say we need to tear down more. My default position is that if something gives someone pleasure, you should take that seriously. With rare exceptions, acting as if someone’s been duped because they like something you don’t doesn’t get us anywhere interesting. But there doesn’t seem to be as much of that these days.

More often, we default to a kind of praise that feels like a mirror image of those dismissals—sweeping, emphatic, all authority: if this poem doesn’t make you cry, you have no heart. And, fine. Maybe I don’t. And we should take our ecstasies wherever we can find them, even if our bedazzled presentation of them sometimes seems to overreach.

But the praise of poems most often begins with the conclusion (this is great, is everything, fire emoji, perfect, fierce), implies a consensus, and rarely moves on from there. This is especially true on social media, where the converged audience of strangers and confidants makes the purpose of any statement especially murky: are we making a case or sharing a feeling? is this about the poem or the person posting it? But it’s there in reviews, too, where a poem or book is often equated with a series of adjectives, nouns, and verbs (disruption, radical, passionate, indeterminate, questions, tradition, celebrates, confronts)[1] that are assumed to be inherently good. Why or whether those qualities are always valuable or how these poems achieve them most often goes without saying. Intensity stands in for explanation. A bureaucracy of praise takes hold. Received language locks the poems away from consideration. You get it or you don’t—and if you don’t, why not?

Better to help people see their way to some potential pleasure or effect. Better to describe. “Show don’t tell” isn’t good advice for writing poems, but it’s almost always apt for sharing what you love. Try to describe the poems you admire in ways that allow a reader who doesn’t to see why someone else would experience them that way, even if your reader won’t. I imagine we’ve all been in that situation where someone mentions something we just don’t like and says, “Isn’t it great?” Too much talk about poems sounds like that. And our supposedly critical conversations have gotten so close to the language of blurbs that anything short of marketing copy sounds damningly faint.

One last note on this: I should admit that much of what I’m describing here I’ve done. It’s been a year since I’ve written any reviews. I’ve cut way back on posting on social media. There are a lot of reasons for that, but one of them is an uneasiness with much of what I’ve written in the past. I hear too many false notes there, too many moments when I got carried away by my own rhetoric or my performance of decency. If I ever start reviewing again, I want to be done with that.

Stop defining poetry. In recent years, I’ve read numerous definitions of poetry from influential poets and critics, a couple of whom I’ve met and know for a fact to be lovely, intelligent people. A brief sampling:

“Unlike other forms of writing, poetry takes as its primary task to insist and depend upon and celebrate the troubled relation of the word to what it represents.” (Matthew Zapruder)

“…poems probe the unknown, beginning on firmer ground and speaking until they have expressed the otherwise inexpressible, something sayable only in those words, in that poem.” (Craig Morgan Teicher)

“Poetry is a spiritual technology.” (Kaveh Akbar)

None of this is new. Zapruder also quotes Wittgenstein—“Do not forget that a poem, although it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information.”—and Valery—“A poem is really a kind of machine for producing the poetic state of mind by means of words.” But neither is any of it true.

Consider Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica,” which ends, “A poem should not mean / But be.” You might argue that it’s a bad poem. I’m inclined to agree. It seems to have no use for its own glaring contradiction—its apparent disinterest, outside of the blowsy metaphors that he pairs with each assertion, in following its own recommendations. Those metaphors feel merely decorative[2] and deeply sentimental in their unwitting personification of a world of poetically (or, “poetically”) inhuman things. And the assertions themselves are both untrue and unremarkable. But you can’t convince me it’s not a poem. And I don’t see how you can align it with any of those definitions.

Or, in a different vein, we could try Gwendolyn Brooks’s “To Those of My Sisters Who Kept Their Naturals,” which starts:

Sisters!

I love you.
Because you love you.
Because you are erect.
Because you are also bent.

It’s not among my favorite Brooks poems—which makes sense; I’m pretty clearly not its intended audience—but I would argue that it is good. It works skillfully (and, I suspect, successfully) toward a meaningful end. And that end is not “to insist and depend upon and celebrate the troubled relation of the word to what it represents” but rather to celebrate and animate and encourage a movement of Black women away from white standards of beauty.

Or, maybe consider a poem like Paisley Rekdal’s “The Wolves,” which includes the lines:

Some deaths are good
and it makes them hard to grieve.
She was, at times, in great pain. We wanted her
to die, too. That was important. But first
we wanted her to remember.

This one I like, very much. And I guess you could say it’s spiritual, though I don’t think you need to believe in a spirit to care about it. (I don’t, and I do.) Instead, you can hear that first sentence drawing back to make an experience not unique to this scene or this speaker yield to a kind of unshowy mastery (its simple terms falling easily across the lines, the aligned structures of grammar and causality complicating goodness as the second line settles into a more regular rhythm). That mastery gives it weight and makes its complexity proper to language—to being human—and it keeps the generality from making the statement seem generic. You can hear it returning to the specific scene, trying not to oversimplify or get carried away, to honor the sad-but-not-tragic facts of it. You can note how it makes space for human fallibility and vulnerability without giving in to self-loathing or melodrama. The effect, for me, is both a sense that this matters too much for excess, and a kind of vitality that moved inside that restraint, in its slight shifts of grammar and lineation.

It matters that this poem has something to say, and though it would be different and even less if it were said differently, that’s true of most successful essays and stories, too. It’s true of most successful works of art—and of the unsuccessful ones, too. It’s even true, though to a lesser extent, of a simple conversation among friends. And though it obviously pays careful attention to the language it uses, it does not do so in conflict with its work of saying something about a human experience.

Even more frustrating than people defining poetry is the tendency to define poets, too. For Zapruder, “…that choice to be ready to reject all other purposes, in favor of the possibilities of language freed from utility, is when the writer becomes a poet.” Teicher claims that “Poets work to express the questions roiling beneath their statements, the statements beneath their questions. Poets rarely trust assertions.” These are probably true for many poets at many times, but “poet” is not an ontological category, and poets are not a unique species. Stephanie Burt describes poetry as “a name for a complicated history.” There are a variety of impulses that might lead someone to add to, alter, or draw from that history. We should quit talking as if all of them (the people and the impulses) are the same.

Don’t treat art as a competition. Here, too, the problems aren’t new. Artistic prizes and contests have always been absurd. They’ve always presented taste as objective assessment and, at least in the U.S., commercial interests as celebrations of something supposedly pure. They’ve always distributed finite resources based on questionable standards, often funneling those resources to those who already have the most—the most resources, and the most connections.

There’s been good news in recent decades. As Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young note in their extensive survey of poetry prizes, while “For most of the twentieth century, the prize’s definitions of literary excellence included only white writers,” “the racial diversity of prizewinners more or less begins to echo the racial demographics of the US as a whole in the 2000s.” Still, their study makes clear that, as they report, “Despite changing the demographics of the prize, these larger shifts have not changed the insular nature of prestige networks.”

Just as important as that insularity—which I’ll say more about in just a bit—is the inherent problem of competitive art. Ambition is one thing: it can embody a reaching after meaning, insight, value, beauty—and almost anything else that art might usefully offer us—at the same time as it answers to a writer’s hunger for fame, domination, wealth, and the rest. The entanglement of the best and worst of us in our artistic ambitions is inevitable. We live in a fallen world that was always fallen, and there is no way to separate artistic virtue from human complexity. But competition flattens that out into the two-dimensional layering of rankings and hierarchies. With their layers of winners and finalists and shortlists and longlists and also-rans, these prizes and contests[3] endlessly replicate the structures so many poets congratulate themselves on resisting in the very poems they submit for judgement—and that might then go on to be exalted by such layering.

Doing away with contests and prizes wouldn’t make a dent in the scarcity of resources and acclaim, nor would it make the distribution any more equitable or just. And, honestly, they’re just not going away. Kudos to the publishers who at least offer pay-what-you-can entry fees to minimize the effects of a system that uses those prizes to turn writers’ hopes into sustenance for publishers, many of whom are facing their own precarity. But we’d be much better off if we could remember that winning means very little beyond the material and professional rewards it provides, and that even in an ideal world, all of these honors would mean no more than the fact that a single person or a small panel of people like this work better than something else—and like it for reasons that, when explained at all, come in the same marketing-style language of pseudo-objectivity I described above. The institutional imprimatur shouldn’t make that person’s, or those people’s, tastes matter more than they otherwise would.

And, as Spahr and Young’s essay makes clear, and as anyone who’s spent much time looking at who picks whom for a given prize already knows, we’re in no such world. The frequency with which a major prize goes to the former student, close friend, or professional connection of a judge or juror has probably diminished since the days of Foetry, but not nearly enough for us to pretend these prizes are any more significant than any other validation given by a system of self-replicating privilege. So, if you or your friend wins something, be happy, celebrate, enjoy what you’ve received. But even if you believe in such a thing as “best” when it comes to art (and, really, best for what? for whom?), don’t present the results as evidence of it.

Consider strangers. Again, social media is tricky. Even putting aside the way it commoditizes our feelings and ideas, the way it turns our intimacies and ideals into a competition, it leaves us in the awkward position of publicizing our relationships and turning our tastes and emotions into public acts. It’s inevitable that we’ll lose track of the lines between caring for the people we care about, promoting ourselves for jobs and acclaim, and making claims about value and truth and even something as simple as what we actually feel. Lord knows I’m guilty of this.

But surely, even as we live with that confusion, we can work against it, too. What if we tried to share two poems from a stranger (living or dead) for every one we share from a friend? Or one for every two? What if we dedicated a day a week or a month or a year to sharing writing from people we don’t know and who can’t be of any use to our careers? Someone with no power? Someone whose gratitude would do nothing for you? Or what if we just tried to be more honest about what we’re up to and do better than that? We’d still leave out more writers than we’d let in, still be dependent on all these institutions of the fallen world to help us find poems and essays and other works of art to share. But maybe we’d be a little more aware of what we’re missing. And maybe we’d let a few more people—writers and readers—in.

[1] It doesn’t help that many of these terms continue a tradition of turning matters of taste into political hierarchies, as in the now mostly defunct claim that free verse is on the side of human liberty while fixed forms are inherently fascistic.

[2] Which is not to say that decoration is inherently bad. Alexander Pope, in another poem that doesn’t fit into these definitions of poetry, argued for the importance of “True wit,” which he described as “Nature to advantage dress’d; / What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d,” and there are plenty of wonderful poems that offer just that.

[3] Which are becoming more numerous and more inescapable: except for the most lauded and/or connected, it’s increasingly rare for someone to get a book published outside the contest system.

Image Credit: Public Domain Pictures.

is the author of That Peculiar Affirmative: On the Social Life of Poems and the Editor in Chief and Poetry Editor of At Length.

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