Poetry (and most of the rest of literature, but that’s another story) started hemorrhaging sometime in the last century and a half. Today, the patient’s heart rate is only intermittently perceptible. Precise dating of the earliest pathological symptoms is much contested and open to clinical interpretation. Whitman is an obvious diagnosis, but a second opinion should always be sought. What’s indisputable is that the patient’s near-death state was self-inflicted. Poets have done their best to euthanize their craft, with the assistance of critics, teachers, bureaucrats and other specialists. There’s much poetry-related activity, much happy talk about its virtues, but little of the genuine article. As John Berryman writes in his biography of Stephen Crane: “Crane was a writer and nothing else: a man alone in a room with the English language, trying to get human feelings right.” Sounds dreary, no? Berryman leaves out workshops, slams, open-mike nights and Twitter. Never have there been so many ways to write badly.
Catharine Savage Brosman notes that poetry in prisons serve principally as “therapy, a way of exteriorizing feelings. But, as Paul Valéry observed, all the feelings in the world are incapable, by themselves, of producing one good poetic line.” She might have broadened her point beyond the prison walls. Brosman’s “Poetry’s Place in America,” published in Chronicles, where she serves as poetry editor, is fair-minded, comprehensive and dispiriting. She writes like a monk in fifth-century Ireland but with more feeble optimism:
“Moreover, among others knowledgeable enough to have an opinion, even modest, on current poetry, there is widespread disillusion. That is encouraging, in a way; the common reader retains some sense of what a poem should and should not be. Art—style and form—is expected.”
Though seldom, at least by poets. Brosman doesn’t mention the rare spots of light in our dark poetic age. A few masters, after all, are still at work – Geoffrey Hill, Richard Wilbur, Les Murray, Helen Pinkerton, Eric Ormsby and David Middleton, to cite only the obvious names and to enlarge the category to include non-Americans. At the conclusion of her essay, Brosman works hard to muster hope:
“Poetry must not, however, be viewed as utilitarian; that is an aesthetic and human error. Yet nonutilitarian does not mean without place, without purpose. Poetry appeals to our senses and emotions, stirring us, soothing us, sending us soaring. Perhaps it is also like love: hard to define, not strictly necessary for physical existence, but fundamental to our natures and to all we deem worthwhile. You can scarcely live without it. We must rely on ourselves and our fellows, not the common millions and their Pied Pipers, but small circles of readers and writers (including, we hope, converts)—those intellectual and spiritual kin who appreciate poetic value.”