December 7, 2012


The Man Who Killed Poetry: Joseph Epstein And His Essays (David X Novak, 06 December 2012, Contemporary Poetry Review)

[T]he original essay merits consideration, in light of Epstein's other literary writings, if just as a historical relic. Epstein, carefully modest, has asked and answered, "Will my writing outlive me? I am reasonably certain that it won't". But if any of his literary writings merit survival (I cannot speak for his fiction), I would place "Who Killed Poetry?" first in the queue, and not just for the contention it seems to have stirred, but for what it said.

The substance is not simply, as he writes elsewhere, that "I happen to think that we haven't had a major poet writing in English since perhaps the death of W.H. Auden or, to lower the bar a little, Philip Larkin." Greatness in poetry can be reduced to Auden's formulation--a "risky generalization," according to Epstein--that "to become a poet of the first rank, great talent is not enough; one must get born at the right time and in the right place." This, insofar as it escapes being a tautology, is probably true. Yet is that enough to raise the ire of established authors like Philip Levine? Epstein's piece--indeed his literary outlook--is about more than that.

The crux of Epstein's argument is this: "Whereas one tended to think of the modernist poet as an artist--even if he worked in a bank in London, or at an insurance company in Hartford, or in a physician's office in Rutherford, New Jersey--one tends to think of the contemporary poet as a professional: a poetry professional."

Not all responses to Epstein's article were negative. Commentary ran letters of affirmation, including one from Brad Leithauser, who called Epstein's diagnosis "precisely right" concerning "the present poetry 'scene' (the readings, the academic appointments, etc.)" and pinpointing "a peculiar sociological phenomenon." Epstein's view jibed with Leithauser's experience as a teacher himself:

As poetry becomes "sadly peripheral," hundreds and hundreds of jobs for poets open up.... In numerous ways, these many jobs for "poetry-writing teachers" conceal from our poets themselves the situation we find ourselves in.... Instead of readers we have undiscerning and potentially idolatrous undergraduates; each campus is like a little kingdom.

"The poets who come out of this [insular] atmosphere", Epstein wrote, "are neither wholly academics nor wholly artists." As such (the implication was) they performed neither function very well.

In a wildly incoherent article published in 2006, titled "Who Keeps Killing Poetry?", D.W. Fenza (then and still Executive Director of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs) wrote, "To discover that a writer as witty as Joseph Epstein dislikes contemporary poetry may be a sad and curious happenstance" (which is not what Epstein said). But more pertinently: "Writing programs support artists for who they are and not what they do. AWP and its many colleges and universities have created the largest system of literary patronage the world has ever seen." This may be the case, but it begs the question: is the writing supported any good? (Not so to judge by Fenza's own. To wit, his justification of writing programs as "effective curators in building audiences" for contemporary poetry: "When I was an English major in the 1970s, my professors, classmates, and I referred to [Elizabeth] Bishop as merely 'pretty good for a woman poet.'" But, "Contemporary poets and feminist scholars taught, anthologized, and elevated the status of Bishop's work, as they had Dickinson's. When I attended my graduate writing workshops, my peers and teachers extolled Bishop's work; they chastened me. My constellations were mightily realigned; the sky improved.") Not only that. In their "curatorship", writing programs helped: build audiences for working-class poets, African-American poets, gay and lesbian poets, Latino poets, and poets from many nations. Academe has helped to expand the horizons of literature by adding new experiences: what it is like to be a mother or sister, what it is like to be a soldier in Viet Nam, what it is like to be Vietnamese, and so on.

Sorry, but those are not "new experiences" and the Vietnamese, with a literary history and culture of their own, did not need a workshop to teach them what it feels like. As the Devil ("I'm all o'ersib to Adam's breed") might have whispered, "It's pretty, but is it Art?"

Fenza's comments are echoed (actually antedated) by Philip Levine: "I think poetry now is very healthy. It's open house. It doesn't matter how tall or short you are [John Keats didn't know there was a proscription!], what color you are or what sex you are or what nine sexes, you can put anything in your work. Leaving aside what he means by "nine sexes", let's follow Levine's ambrosia: "You can write about anything. No matter how badly you write you can find someone who'll publish you. Time will sift the good stuff from the bad. As far as readership goes it's the largest it's ever been."

Time will sift, so we don't have to. "Standards have collapsed so completely," writes Thomas Bethell in The American Spectator ("Poets Galore and Subsidized Poets," March 2009) "that only political criteria now seem valid when it comes to deciding what's good and what's not."

The question is: what modern English department would have a great poet on its staff?
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Posted by at December 7, 2012 8:58 PM

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