Much Ado About Nada: Harper’s “Poetry Slam”
June 22, 2013
Okay, so I read the Mark Edmundson article, “Poetry Slam, or the Decline of American Verse.”
The essay was supposed to have all us poets rending our garments and pounding our chests in anger. At least, that’s according to Ron Charles of the Washington Post, whose summation you can read here.
To read the full article, you have to buy the July 2013 issue of Harper’s, because you can’t access it without a subscription. Which begs the question, who subscribes to Harper’s anymore, really?
What I found there was nothing earth shattering. Edmunson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, makes some fairly common complaints about the baby boomer generation of contemporary poets, a generation of which I am on the cusp. (In the interest of full disclosure, I studied with one of the poets he criticizes and had a poem selected for recognition by another.)
Edmundson offers criticisms of some usual suspects (John Ashbery, Jorie Graham, Robert Hass), a decidedly weak argument against Seamus Heaney, and one of the first, valid pot-shots I’ve seen aimed at Paul Muldoon and his tenure as tastemaker of poetry at The New Yorker.
He also pokes fun at Anne Carson, who is overdue, but for her part has been poking fun at us readers for years, so what’s the point?
Ultimately, Edmundson seems to be arguing for much the same kind of politically aware and socially engaged poet that Ginsberg, Whitman, and Eliot (!) represented. And the sort of heightened language deployed by Robert Lowell in his best days. Edmundson longs for the liberal left, activist branch of poetry — although he admits that Fr. Eliot doesn’t really fit that mold.
In addition, he calls for a poetry that exploits the same veins of popular culture — references to TV shows, the Internet, and current events — that a younger generation has been mining for the past decade.
Reading his essay, I wonder whether Edmundson has read any poet born after, say, the late 1950s? He clearly has not spent any time with poets as pop-culture savvy as Matthew Zapruder, Dorothea Lasky, and Matthew Rohrer.
I doubt Edmundson has read the “unapologetically queer poet activist, ” CA Conrad, who can best be described as the love-child of a ménage à trois between Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, and Anne Waldman wrapped up in glitter, nail polish, and parapsychology. (And I write that with affection for CA and his writing.)
Neither, I suspect, has Edmundson read Natasha Trethewey, who writes about race, identity, and family in much of her work.
If Edmundson really wants to read poets writing about nothing, he should check out what I call the “Seinfeld Generation” of poets: the Dickman twins (one of whom wrote that annoying Clint Eastwood Chrysler Super Bowl commercial, “Halftime in America”) or the over-lauded Timothy Donnelly, whose linguistic pyrotechnics are certainly as “perpetually hedging” as anything Ashbery has written.
Hard for Edmundson to make the argument he’s making while his reading is seemingly so “generationally challenged.”
While I agree with some of what Edmundson says — that much contemporary poetry seems lacking in ambition — his is the same kind of argument critics made of John Lennon’s last solo recordings.
They found Lennon’s mature work — he was 39 — to be more domesticated, self-absorbed, and solipsistic than his earlier, more political solo work, much of which strikes one as facile now. (Does anyone really prefer “Some Time in New York City” to John’s songs on “Double Fantasy”?)
I’ve seen some over the top reactions in defense of “contemporary” poetry resulting from this latest jeremiad about the sorry state of the art, but I suspect they didn’t read past Harper’s pay wall. At least, after reading the complete essay in the magazine, I don’t see how Edmundson’s prose could get any poet’s panties in a twist.
My friend Dan Nester had perhaps the most sober, cogent reaction I’ve read. He wrote entertainingly on the subject as part of his blog’s “Notes” series.
In the end, I applaud Edmundson for caring enough to persuade the editors of this once-relevant magazine to publish his essay about everyone’s favorite, once-relevant art form.
But, really, this essay is much ado about nothing.