Over at The Boston Review, Amy King defends contemporary poetry against critics who have decried its demise—and who are, she argues, calling for nothing short of poetry’s “depersonalization” so that they can “systematize,” control, and profit from it.
How does she know this? Well, she just knows:
The desperate beings who claim Poetry is dying because nothing new can be said are grappling for some semblance of control. Their anxieties reach an apex via treatises that strive to master what mercurially ignores such authoritarian muscle. Poetry is untamed in its potential and various permutations, and the cages of these naysayers are poised. The stakes are high; they are motivated by their need to affix poetry’s position in a material culture for personal gain or career acclaim. But poetry forever fails the marketplace with its messy complex tissues of connectivity and exploratory bravado, bringing together what shouldn’t be, conceiving that which hasn’t been, and undoing the certainties we’ve built lives on. It is complex and strange, despite our hope for simplicity and security via epiphanies or aphorisms that make us last forever.
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The impulse behind these critiques seems to be a desire to narrow, conquer, and harness poetry as a means to establish footholds in a marketplace that disavows the necessity of poetry; poetry is useless as a monetary and status measure, and that is also its ultimate power. These critiques have forgone the complex personhood of poetry, the one that goes on intuition, lives on emotional intellect, and senses the spiritual that even a few lines of Whitman or Dickinson evoke. They suppress and resist the development of capabilities people are endowed with.
Sorry? Poetry critics who argue that poetry is in decline—many of whom are poets themselves or have spent their lives studying poetry—are capitalist vultures “motivated by their need to affix poetry’s position in material culture for personal gain”? Color me skeptical.
I’ll leave others to sort out her remarks on conceptual poetry, which I think are somewhat closer to the mark. On the other side of the fence, she singles out Mark Edmundson’s recent essay in Harper’s. I have my disagreements with Edmundson’s essay, but I certainly didn’t see any evidence of a desire to control contemporary poetry in order to profit from it. And King simply ignores other critiques from folks like Dana Gioia, David Yezzi, Tony Hoagland, Jason Guriel, Arthur Krystal, William Logan, and many others, which in no way fit her simplified and abstracted argument.
Poetry is not dead. It certainly is not as healthy as it once was, but wherever there is civilization, there is literary and visual art.
That said King’s essay demonstrates relatively clearly what ails too much of it. Rather than looking carefully at the reality in front of her, she uses predetermined neo-Marxist paradigms (“poetry’s obituaries are aligning themselves with a capitalism that is patriarchal by default”), showy but meaningless metaphors (what does it mean exactly that poetry is “untamed in its potential” and “mercurially ignores…authoritarian muscle”), and thunderous self-assured pronouncements that, once the reader has taken the time to wade through them all, add up to nothing more than poetry is process and personality, fixity and flux, form and feeling—something all poets and critics know already and have for a long time.
I wouldn’t presume to read King’s mind, but the logical outcome of her argument would seem to be the silencing of all critics, who must simply bow the knee to whatever poets write:
You might be denounced as someone who plays in the lower realm of lyrical epiphanies, or as one ignorant of how language systems function. These are all coded ways of dismissing those poets who are changing—via slow burn—the landscape of thought and language in our current economy and cultural climate. Because many prophets of poetry’s death don’t render language beyond systematized methods, they feel comfortable insulting those who do as a way of jockeying for position in what they see as a marketplace poetics. If they insult the poets, they needn’t grapple with poetry’s particulars – or even read them.
See? All criticisms of a poet’s language are “coded,” ignorant dismissals, motivated by a desire to displace the poet from his or her position of power. Better, I guess, to accept unthinkingly (or “grapple with” in a positive sense only) poetry’s new “landscape of thought and language,” and bask in its supposedly warm rays.