In my previous post, I made gentle fun of the televised slogans that Poetry magazine arranged to beam down on writers as they arrived for the AWP conference.
Then, last week, I happened to read the complete essay from which two of the slogans had been ripped: “Make Make It New New,” by Joshua Mehigan. It turned out to be an excellent article, and is extremely recommended. In their proper context, the two slogans that I read while ascending an escalator in Boston now make perfect sense.
Mehigan argues that a desperate adherence to the slogans of modernism is ruining contemporary poetry. Pound, almost a century ago, urged poets to “make it new.” How, however, can we keep doing that, poem after poem, without becoming absurd and meaningless? Is there a point where all we can do is gesture, ironically, at newness, and where all genuine human experience becomes too un-new to include in a poem?
…I started a project that involved reading thousands of pages of new, unpublished poetry. That put me in a more thoughtful and serious mood. It was as if all the young poets had been told beforehand what six or seven qualities would be rewarded and had gone charging after those alone. It comes down to a straining for effect. This is nothing new. But that’s part of the point.
As usual everything is all about a kind of unusualness. There’s ordinary sensationalism, as when the word anus or the word hegemon suddenly appears in a poem about a bowl of fruit. There’s unconventional typography: the italic voice-from-the-beyond, secret indentation systems, banished punctuation, etc. But there is also a new, relentless infatuation with whimsical discontinuity. One tactic is obscurity, which may include nonsequential thinking, ellipsis, or dreamlike imagery…. the obscurity I’ve encountered recently is merely outlandish, and unyielding. It vibrates with the superficiality of fashion: there is nothing better for it to do but stand there being cute and empty. Non sequiturs abound, in two main flavors, quirkily funny and very — so very — serious. Undemanding punch-line-style ironies are everywhere, and so are Bland Statements of Profundity… Poetry becomes another variety of conformist nonconformism, like Green Day or ironic eyewear.
In the end, poetry looks radical only to the outside world, which ignores it, while from inside it looks static. Poets got out of these situations before by doing something new, but novelty is superfluous now. There is no way to get into the game without upping the ante, and there is no way out without bluffing or folding or everyone agreeing on a new game. If you’ve been a poet for a while you might not see how bizarre it all seems, and how monotonous, but if you shake your head and look again as a human being, you might.
I don’t read enough contemporary poetry to know if Mehigan’s diagnosis is correct. I would be curious what readers think.
But there is a way to test some of his claims, using ourselves as test subjects. We can ask ourselves if it’s true that “There is no way to get into the game without upping the ante.”
If Mehigan, or any poet who read Mehigan’s essay and approved of its argument, is reading this blog post, please would you say in a comment below whether, if you were reading a slush pile of new poems, and you saw a poem from an unknown poet that began like this:
My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a watered shoot;
My heart is like an apple tree
Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;
I was lying on the rooftop,
thinking of you.
I saw a special Star,
and summoned her to take you a message.
or even this
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,
would you publish it?
Complication: of course, those three excerpts are from three geniuses (Rossetti, Rumi, Bishop). So you must now imagine reading something like one of those, but 20% or 40% not as good.
On reading such a poem, would you, as editor, applaud its open, earnest emotion, its comprehensible diction, its desire to speak to the meaningful, soulful, human parts of life? Or, instead, would it seem a little cliched, a little obvious, a little middle of the road? Too middle-brow? Simply not “literary” enough?
That fate is what the writers of Mehigan’s “modernist” poems are trying to avoid. That’s why they are putting the “anus” in the fruit bowl. They are terrified that their poem might sound like the sort of thing people read at weddings.
And if you as editor replied, yes, you would publish it, and that “wedding poems” are perfect for the journal, would you still feel concerned that, when the magazine was published, other editors would turn their noses up? And if a respected nose or two did indeed turn up, would you change tack, just slightly, for the next issue?
And if you would not change tack, what force in contemporary poetry would assist you in doing so, in staying firm? From where would the counter-balance come?
I really admire Mehigan’s argument. He may well be right: I don’t know enough about contemporary poetry to say. However, if he is, it’s still relatively easy to ask poets for a more “human” poetry. It’s harder, but still possible, to decide on one’s own to try to write such poetry, come hell or high water. What seems hardest of all is working out how such poems would be assisted, given respect, time, and air.
It would be easy to write a version of Mehigan’s essay for literary short fiction. If I am feeling especially brave, I will write it.
Thoughts? On this blog, comments are always adored.