March 19


The Problem with Modern Poetry

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…I started a project that involved reading thousands of pages of new, unpublished poetry.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;

or this

Last night,
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.



Bishop, getting poems published, how to write a poem, Joshua Mehigan, poetry magazine, Rossetti, Rumi

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  • David Dykes says:

    If i were reading submissions, i wouldn’t decide poems based on their first lines, but on their entirety. The Bishop poem, for example, isn’t a strong poem because of the individual strength of those lines, but rather on the power that formal repetition takes over the lines, the way that form undoes through repetition, creating a crisis than breaking itself over that crisis. If anyone wrote a villanelle with that sort of formal power, yes I would accept it. I would be less likely to accept the other two, the Rossetti because it adheres to archaic forms and language that meant one thing in its original context but that would read as reactionary and sentimental in today’s context, just like i can love Shakespeare, but would reject any poem someone submitted that unironically said “thou dost” . The Rumi is from such a different tradition and age that comparison seems even further from productive.
    My diagnosis of the problems of contemporary poetry are on very different terms, mostly about class, race, privilege, and identity. But most of all, i think that the reason that poetry is less important than ever for Americans is because we get our poems from lyricists in music now- most the poems I see in print are inferior to the lyrics of songs by people like Tom Yorke and Leonard Cohen, David Byrne and Jack White, Laurie Anderson and Bob Dylan. And yes, music does forgive a lot of sins, but i am talking about just on the strength of the words themselves. These people see their art as a way of reaching out into the world and transforming what they experience and see, from the political to the personal, the nonsensical, the quotidian and the surreal. Most poets produced by workshops seem to me to be trying to get the world to look at them rather than trying to reach the palm at the end of the mind.
    All that said, there are still plenty of great poets working out there, many more than i have read, I’d imagine. We like describing poetry as being in crisis because it’s a good way of externalizing our own crises, our own anxieties. If you don’t like the poems out there, write the poems you want to see in the world. Just don’t think that a manifesto is going to make dull work look good or change the aesthetics of a bunch of writing programs that sell write-a-poem lessons for cash.

    • David Dykes says:

      Sorry that post id so full of typos. I’ll do better next time.

    • Thank you for the reply, David. You’re right–my experiment is not as effective or as clear as I hoped it would be. The question was not meant to be a gotcha–would you have published Elizabeth Bishop?–but more to ask: while reading these openings of poems, did you experience an “internal modernist” whispering against them, wondering if they were not literary enough?

      In other words, do we hope for one kind of poetry in the abstract (human, open, sincere, concerned with the real concerns of life), but when we actually sit down to read (or write) new poetry, do we experience an anxiety about how seriously other writers would take such lines? And then do we write (or, as editors, publish) something different, in order to appease that worry?

  • Having re-read the original article, I think the line that most strikes me is “It vibrates with the superficiality of fashion: there is nothing better for it to do but stand there being cute and empty.” I think that work that fits the above description (under the name of being experimental or surreal) does lack a humanity that poems CAN have and still maintain the spirit of experimentation. I don’t mind if a poem is obscure or difficult if I can ultimately FEEL something from it. If it feels like it’s part of a club for which I have no decoder ring, then I am not willing to do the work of going past a superficial reading. There is no need to remove humanity from poems to push the boundaries of form and idea.

  • I’m inclined to agree with Mehigan, though with the caveat that vacuous/fatuous poetry has been a given in all eras. My belief (delusion? hope?) is that the slush pile makes the truly resonant poem stand out, the one that thrums like a grouse in the undergrowth. And I still believe in educated, attentive editors–why else, for pity’s sake, would they be doing it? Very few things have ever been “new” in spite of Pound’s advice; the best that a poet can do–and what I think Pound was recommending–is to render the complexities of the moment we inhabit with the same power, grace, and clarity inherent in being alive itself–not so much new as genuine, in spite of the artifice we use to create it.

  • I think it’s a fair point about what surfaces to the top of the slush pile, and I agree with David that Bishop would still make the cut based on the whole effect (though the other examples may have a harder time). I often find myself sympathizing with editors against my will as I think after reading dozens or hundreds of submissions in one sitting or in a day, the mind is bound to go a little fuzzy and perhaps what we are actually seeing demonstrated in many lit mags is that the result of having to get through such large volumes is that it takes shock words or a Frankensteinian juxtaposition of images to jolt the mind out of a text-induced trance. Anything soft or subtle is much easier to glaze over, even if the overall quality of the piece is excellent, especially in shorter works sandwiched between a myriad of other poems/stories.

    • Dawn, I worry about that process in fiction, too. If one has to read hundreds of short stories in a slush pile, there must come a point when the standard openings start to seem very dull, and a wild non-sensical first sentence seems, in contrast, like the work of a more experienced artist, just because it’s a break from the norm.

      The difficulty is that the non-writing reader has not had this experience (of being bored by hundreds of submissions), and so does not feel the same desire for mold-breaking. Such readers probably wonder why magazine editors often publish such strange stuff.

  • Does anyone nowadays write a decent sonnet? I’ve yet to read one…

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