Essay on the Demise of the Art of American Poetry - Blog

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Essay on the Demise of the Art of American Poetry




Was there ever when

We were less aware

of where high art has been?

And do we even care?


Ever climb a stair

To find it leads nowhere

Because you had forgotten

The race is to the bottom?


Welcome to Lost and Found

I provide a service

One that makes academia

Exceedingly nervous.


Whatever happened to the art of poetry in the United States? It is not declining; it is dead. Been dead for fifty years or so.

The evidences of its death are everywhere. Ever notice that the Sunday Book Review of The New York Times in its contents page has no independent category for poetry? When, on rare occasions, a book of poetry or poetics is reviewed, the category for FICTION is changed to "FICTION AND POETRY." Makes poetry merely an afterthought, doesn't it? And anyone who knows anything about modern poetry as art knows that poetry is more allied with NONFICTION than FICTION, as poems are not prose, no longer tell a story, and only subconsciously communicate a meaning, if at all.

Ever despair upon reading poems published in the Book Review, The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine? The latter publication, fueled by a $200 million contribution from the Lilly heiress, regularly distributes circulars wherein it lays claim to publication of "the most important voices in American poetry before they have become established figures," adding that "You'll discover poems before they are 'literature'." What they don't tell you is that the poems they are now publishing don't have a ghost's chance of ever becoming literature.

Ironically, Poetry Magazine, seeking subscribers, regularly circulates an article by Adam Kirsch from the New York Sun while proclaiming Poetry's rebirth. Yet the article convincingly and correctly documents the seeds of poetry's demise as an art of literature, citing Dana Gioia's 1991 essay entitled "Can Poetry Matter?" and deriving therefrom conclusions that poetry "had become a profession - cloistered in university writing departments, indifferent to the general reading public, and incapable of honest self-criticism." Based on the essay, Kirsch also maintained that: "Until [poetry] began to address and care about the common reader, poetry would never reclaim its place as the highest branch of literature; instead, it would dwindle into a mere craft, a hobby for the MFA set." Anyone who bothers to explore Gioia's writings and Poetry Magazine's embrace thereof will find that, in the end, they both prescribe that the solution to poetry's rebirth lies in the "dumbing down" of poems to the level of the common reader (by which they mean persons without sufficient cultivation and intelligence to grasp what makes poems works of art). They do not tell you, because they do not know, that poems become art by reason of their "writerly" qualities: their language, craft and lyricism.

Fifty years ago, before the howls of the beat poets, the popularity of "free verse," and development of a theory of poetry as "an art of subjective expression" (quoting Susan Sontag in the sixties), the common reader of poetry (not as defined above, but readers of poetry who admired the works of John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Emily Dickinson, George Barker, Robert Frost, Richard Eberhart, E.E. Cummings, Marianne Moore, Dylan Thomas, and so many more lyrical poets without assistance from the MFA crowd) placed these poets in the pantheon of American literature. They did so because instinctually they asked the right question when confronted with lyrical poems. That question is not "What did the poet say?" but "How did the poet do it?" (judging the work not by prose standards but by poetic standards, focusing on the language, the musicality, the versification, the tensions and suspensions of the poetic line and stanza and the poem as a whole, and - first and foremost - its lyricism).

In this era of digitalizing language and "content streaming," we may never return to a time when the literary art of the poem is cultivated and appreciated in American society. But we should not fool ourselves into thinking that the pathetic efforts currently being published (but mainly not being published) as "poems" are the rebirth of an art that in the past half-century has simply evolved from lyricism to self-expression.

Want further evidence of the decline? The very day this essay is being posted there appeared in The New York Times in the review of a movie about South African poet Ingrid Jonker the following: "This movie reminds you of the extent to which poetry has been marginalized as a cultural force since the early 1960s." Hear, hear!

Vocation: Wall Street Trial Lawyer (Retired)
Avocation: Poetry and Poetics
Studied poetry with Jose Garcia Villa 1970-1997
Writer and Publisher of Poetry


  • Guest
    Jon Tuesday, 08 May 2012

    Great post! It is nice to see someone trying to start an intelligent conversation about the reasons why poetry has declined rather than just chalking it up to a nebulous cultural shift.

    Question, do you think the movement from "How did the poet do it?" to "What did the poet say?" reflects a shift across all writing genres away from a focus on form and technique?

  • Bob King
    Bob King Saturday, 12 May 2012

    Speaking of prose in terms of “normal” (mainstream) prose and not in terms of prose that has poetic effects such as the writings of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and Thomas Wolfe, prose words are the everyday language of speech and function like a projector, projecting onto the screen of the reader’s mind the meaning of the prose words. The words themselves are then dissolved as no longer necessary to the transmission of the mental concept, the meaning. In poetry, however, meaning is secondary and in some poems even unimportant. The poet uses words to create a disinterested work of art. It is disinterested because it has no desire to communicate a message but simply an artistic structure. Meaning is the graveyard of poetry – a poem that starts from an idea already has a birth defect. That is why one asks, after reading a poem, “How did the poet do it?” – not “What did the poet say?”

    The shift to asking "What did the poet say?" invests poetry with prose consciousness, diverting attention from what makes "poetry" poetry, its language, music, rhythms, magic, lyricism, as well as its form and technique. Many present-day "poems" employ prose language, which is unexciting, prose construction, which lacks tensions and suspensions, and prose form, which projects only conscious meaning on the screen as the words are dissolved.

  • Guest
    wer Tuesday, 01 October 2013

    Reading this blog reminds me of the problem why poetry has become more and more difficult and complicated to understand?
    The more poetry is concerned with the common people, the less interesting it is to the common people, since the most ordinary and common people would like to see and read "writerly" poetry. They love true art and they have an eye for the true art. In contrast to the false poets who disturb the water thinking that the present situation of having turned from concern for how to write to what to write is what true poetry is all about. But to common people that is the true reason the poetry is no longer interesting to them. The same situation happens from time to time here in China.

  • Guest
    Jason Saturday, 12 July 2014

    Interesting debate here. I came here looking for a contemporary poetics. Horace joked about all the poets who were writing drivel in his day, so I don't suppose it is unique to our times to have to wade through the rubbish. Anyway, I applaud your attempt to get to the other side of it.

    What poems would you define as good? And why?

  • Bob King
    Bob King Saturday, 12 July 2014

    Jason: I'll give you three poems, and why they are good (for different reasons). The first one is Marianne Moore's "The Fish," which, while saying nothing important, is an absolutely masterful job of versification. The second is Richard Eberhart's "The Groundhog," which is an excellent example of lyric poetry (which is simply magic and song) happily stalemated with great meaning, great by reason of its spiritual vitality, its deep humanism, its vision and illumination and sense of wisdom [it is important to note that this great meaning was achieved by the poetic process, that is, it generated itself from the verbal and musical development of the poem]. Finally, my third choice is Gerard Manley Hopkins' "The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo," which is remarkable for its masterly usage of language to make music, investing it with a word play that is astounding and, in my judgment, unequaled down to the present day.

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