American Culture

Does contemporary poetry lack heroism and commitment?

In an article in the September issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, poet Tony Hoagland traced the legacy of the New York School’s poetics. That legacy, he argues, has left contemporary poetry infused with “distractedness and haplessness,” which lowers the stakes and makes poetry “harmless in itself, quirky-cute, a sherbert-flavored course of hallucinogenic dessert art.”

There is, he suggested, “a kind of heroism and commitment missing from contemporary American poetry….”

Hoagland’s own poetry is filled with heroism of the everyday kind: slightly broken people trying to move through the world even as they’re besieged by consumerism, vapid media, and stuff. He’s wry and witty and keenly insightful, and everything always comes back to the struggle to understand what it means to be human.

Much contemporary poetry—at least of the post-New York School—forgets that struggle, though, and instead gets preoccupied by all that stuff.

Hoagland characterizes the New York School as being “[s]paced out on the page, distracted, full of domestic minutiae and vagrant parentheticals, dropped lines of though, and goofy asides” that “declare their harmlessness with a vengeance.” They are ruled, he says, “by the muse of deviant triviality: Dissheveled Lite.”

As someone who recently considered poetry a foreign language, I freely admit that much of Hoagland’s essay went right over my head because there was much name-dropping I didn’t recognize—poets so famous and influential that they obviously made no dent on me, an innocent bystander outside poetry circles. (Frank O’Hara, I at least recognized, and his infamous off-the-cuff casual happenstance poetry.) Hoagland also assumed a familiarity of poetic traditions and trends I could only scratch my head at. I’m not a poet or a literary critic; I’m just some schmoe who occasionally consumes poetry as a casual reader. This semester, I even tried to write some, and I was such a novice that I felt like I needed a lot of handholding to get through it.

But to suggest that much contemporary American poetry lacks “heroism and commitment” seems like a big enough statement that even I, in my ignorance, have to sit up and notice.

After all, as a writer and teacher of writing, I preach the Gospel of Risk: something must be at stake in the writing; something must be at stake for the writer; something should even be at stake for the reader. Such risk-taking requires courage—some might say “heroism”—and commitment.

That’s what I like so much about being here at S&R: there’s an urgency about much of the writing here.

Hoagland argues that the malaise affecting poetry results from “many forces.”

He cites “middle class manners, shyness, a learned humility, media saturation, a sense of powerlessness as citizens and humans, and embarrassment for same.”

My stomach dropped when I read his list because it articulates exactly the very things I’ve struggled with recently in my own writing. I’ve even tried to capture my frustration and disappointment in my poetry, but I’ve failed miserably. I’ve not been able to find a voice to articulate the discontent I feel with my artistic self—but Hoagland suddenly nailed it for me.

Some of the poetry I’ve heard from my own contemporaries at Binghamton University have absolutely amazed me. My peers—most of them at least a decade or more younger than me—struggle in their poetry with loss, addiction, poverty, alienation, and the terrifying feeling of being unloved and unlovable. I have seen honesty and rawness and anguish, all on display in the least pretentious, most vulnerable sorts of ways. It’s the old writing saw “in the specific lies the universal” put into action in the very best of ways.

Much of the success comes from the guidance of poet Maria Gillan, who urges poets to “go to the cave”—that dark, haunted place inside ourselves where our scary stuff lives. Go to the cave, she says. Spelunk.

Whatever a poet brings back from the trip must be honest and true. The best poets have taken that truth and given bold voice to it.

In comparison, I’ve felt like I write in the vanilla voice of the polite middle class. I don’t have angst to exploit. I don’t have a bunch of horrible things in my past to exorcise. I have the constraints of courtesy and the privilege of a white, middle-class, middle-age man.

Don’t get me wrong: I thank my lucky stars that I’ve not had to live through personal calamity and misfortune. I have heartbreak to draw on, and that’s no small thing, and it’s universally recognized.

Besides, if I’m honest with myself, I realize that an anguished past is not a prerequisite to be an artist. I don’t need angst to make art.

Part of it, I know, is my own frustration with the times—because I am very much a product of them, like it or not. “Our present environment,” says Hoagland’s friend David Rivard, “is already speeded up, superficial, bright, distracted, sensation-filled, and wholly approving of personal pleasure as a birthright.”

Good God.

I’m doomed.

It doesn’t help, Hoagland argues, that “a more insular and self conscious poetry world” has largely failed to engage that present environment in a meaningful way. The result, he says, is a shortage of “the visionary.”

“Can the pleasures of mobility, deflection, fragmentation and wit be joined to the resonance and gravity of adulthood?” Hoagland asks.

I don’t know enough about contemporary poetry to know the answer to Hoagland’s question. I don’t know enough to know if he’s right about a shortage of “the visionary.”

But I’ve sat in a room with a bunch of young poets who have struggled to engage the world and their place in it in meaningful ways through their art. They have gone to the cave and have confronted themselves there. They have found words to express the truth they’ve found, and they have done so without gimmicks, without detachment, without “distractedness and haplessness.”

So, perhaps, I’m not doomed after all. The visionary is out there. I have seen it and have seen that it comes from within, from those with the courage and commitment to go to the cave to confront what they find. In the struggle, they continue to find those things that make them—that make all of us—human.


3 replies »

  1. I often don’t “get” a lot of the poetry I see published in the New Yorker. Like you, I’m not a poet myself and so when I say that poetry (like any writing) needs to be accessible for me to like it, perhaps I’d be sniffed at by poets. I’m not saying I don’t want to work to reach that place of understanding, only that there must be some germ, a thread I can follow, that makes it worthwhile. Too often, I miss it.

    Two years ago Wednesday, a poet I knew died of cancer. Jack Myers was the husband of one of my dearest friends, a minor U.S. poet. But his last book of poems (published posthumously) is stunning. I’d point you especially to “In the Dark,” written for his son Jacob who committed suicide just months before his dad’s death; and “Desert is the Memory of Water” from which the book took it’s title. The latter is quite possibly my favorite poem ever (at least for now), and manages to touch on live, love, loss and faith in a few short and powerful stanzas.

  2. Thanks for the tips, Barb. I’ll go looking for it.

    I agree with you that poetry should be accessible. Poets (or any writers) who try intentionally to be obtuse are a little too smug and self-centered for me. They’re writing for themselves, not for audiences–and yet they’re among the first to bitch about the fact that no one reads poetry any more. A good poet, I think, wants to invite a reader into the poem so he/she can share the experience/image/idea.

    • The problem is that we have become so “reader-based.” Which means that if the reader doesn’t get it, it’s the writer’s fault. Well, maybe the writer is being needlessly obtuse. Or maybe the reader simply isn’t very adept. I was amazed at how bad people in my MA program were at reading poetry sometimes, for instance. Had he come along today Yeats would never have had a chance, what with all his symbolism and educated language and such.

      Step one is figuring out what audience you want to write for. If that means leaving some people out, then that’s what you do and you accept the consequences. The alternative is dumbing it down and that’s where so much really bad writing comes from. We live in an age of butt-simple pedestrianism as it is, so I’d hate to see too much more concern with simplifying…..