Mark Edmundson, professor of English at the University of Virginia
We don’t know which is more ridiculous: this fellow Edmundson in HARPER’S honoring Robert Lowell as where poetry—currently lacking public spirit and understanding—ought to be now, or gnats like Stephen Burt whining that contemporary poetry, as obscure as it is, is trying, damnit, and doesn’t Edmundson know that poems are being written today about Gettysburg? And by women about their children?
Who is more useless? Burt, the walking, talking politically correct cliche? Or Edmundson, the Robert Lowell cliche?
The problem is a simple one: everyone in the poetry wars (and yes it is a war) is defending a position in the furious blind manner of trench warfare; none of the arguments are even a little bit above the ground: they are petty and ahistorical.
Burt, for instance, writes
Complaints against contemporary poetry arise, like vampire slayers, in every generation and it’s easy to see why: when you compare your very favorite famous artists from the past with almost any quick or large or secondhand selection of contemporary work, the past will look better.
But to what “past” is Burt referring? It’s not an actual past–merely one that is jealous of the present.
But yes, alas, the poetry of Philip Larkin looks better than the poetry of Stephen Burt; the former is dead and the latter is at Harvard.
That is a problem, isn’t it?
And further, Larkin couldn’t care less, and Burt is sweating behind flimsy p.c—disguised as scholarship.
Burt has no argument. But let us turn to Edmundson.
Here’s what Edmundson says. He asserts an expression of public spirit as an ideal which poetry must follow.
Professor Edmundson could not be more wrong.
Poetry is its own idealized expression which creates its own public following.
Poetry shouldn’t have to trail after public ideals.
Edmundson has it backwards.
Ironically, it is on this very point, where Edmundson is most mistaken, that his critics pay him the most respect. Burt bends over backwards to make the case that contemporary poetry is “about” this or that important national topic, and Burt quotes fragments from Rich and Bidart sans any particular merit amidst a pointless rant of See? We contemporary poets do watch the news! So there!
A blogger name Elisa praises Edmundson’s public service ideals:
He sets out to do something noble…a manifesto-like call for poetry that’s more engaged…I’m sort of sympathetic to the general idea here and I’ve certainly approached student poetry with this rubric…I’ve encouraged young writers to be more ambitious, to be less afraid of showing effort, of caring.
EdMundson shames the avant-garde snots into at least agreeing with his general premise: Robert Lowell wrote on the Vietnam War, you little brats!
And now for the time being Elisa and Edmundson agree. But the alliance is fleeting. We quote Elisa, at some length, again:
But the problem with setting up a rigid system that defines what poetry can be and do is that it inevitably gets used in an agenda-driven way to dismiss whatever poetry you don’t happen to like. Mark Edmundson uses these three vague principles (skill/craft, paraphraseable and relevant content, plus ambition) to justify the poetry he does like and scorn the stuff he doesn’t. The only working poets he does admire, as far as I can tell, are Tony Hoagland and Frederick Seidel; his agenda does not make room for John Ashbery or Anne Carson. I mean, anyone who’s still pulling “That’s not poetry” on Ashbery, how can you take that seriously? His attempted takedown of Anne Carson is so hopelessly inept I can’t believe it got past the editors at Harper’s:
I cannot do much with the lines that begin “Stanzas, Sexes, Seductions” (or many of her other lines, either):
It’s good to be neuter.
I want to have meaningless legs.
There are things unbearable.
One can evade them a long time.
Then you die.
The poem is, I think, an attempt to imagine a posthuman identity. And surely it is distinctive in its voice. But it is so obscure, mannered and private that one (this one, at least) cannot follow its windings.
Really? How on earth is this excerpt obscure? Leaving aside the fact that it’s ridiculous to use five lines as a representative slice of contemporary poetry, these lines are far less mannered than the Lowell lines he quotes favorably on the first page (“Pity the planet, all joy gone / from this sweet volcanic cone,” etc.). At this point I can only come to the conclusion that this guy’s tastes are completely arbitrary, but he seems to think the quality of poems he favors (such as, improbably, Ginsberg’s “The Ballad of the Skeletons”) is self-evident compared to those he doesn’t – that list again random and improbable.
Elisa is ready to join Edmundson’s noble crusade, but she realizes that all crusades “inevitably get used in an agenda-driven way to dismiss whatever poetry you don’t happen to like,” but this is an embarrassing adolescent objection on Elisa’s part; she doesn’t seem to understand that it is everyone’s right to “not happen to like” this or that poem—it is her right, in fact, and she would defend that right to anyone who would listen—and the right not to like a poem is just as important as the right to like one. Elisa is assuming that if someone doesn’t like a poem, they have an agenda, and therefore they are not allowed to not like the poem. But whether one has an agenda or not, people are not going to like certain poems, and there’s nothing the blogger Elisa can do about it, and her attempt to connect an “agenda” to “not liking a poem” is perhaps more dubious than someone actually having an “agenda” that makes them “happen to not like a poem,” if any such nonsense can be proven. Do “agendas” influence “personal judgment” or do “personal judgements” influence “agendas?” And which is more dishonest? The whole issue seems fraught with unexamined assumptions, as one individual (Elisa) denies another (Edmundson) the right “to dismiss whatever poetry you don’t happen to like.”
Edmundson claims the lines from Anne Carson, which begin, “It’s good to be neuter,” are “obscure.” Elisa objects, “Really? How on earth is this excerpt obscure?”
Both critics are right. The lines are obscure. And they’re not.
This is a mighty problem, and one of the reasons why poetry is in such a sad state of affairs these days; the whole controversy is enveloped in a trench-warfare fog.
We need to step back, here, perhaps before the blogger Elisa busts a gut, and look at our assumptions regarding poetry in general.
Stuck In The Middle With You
Rhetoric which passes as poetry today exists on two extremes: on one end of the spectrum, we have the matter-of-fact, and on the other end, philosophical ambiguity. Intellectuals like to live on the extremes. That’s where the party always is. What we have in the middle is that which is neither matter-of-fact, nor philosophically ambiguous; it is merely what might be characterized as the Platonic “good” in words, what the public memory still identifies as poetry: Longfellow, or Emily Dickinson, poetry from “the Past,” but poetry which has an actual historical and rhetorical identity. Robert Lowell, the Frankenstein Monster of the Southern Agrarian New Critics, has an historical identity. This middle ground occupies not only a rhetorical middle, but an historical one. It is roughly equivalent to the “golden mean;” a rhetoric with an existence between two poles. One of the many reasons it satisfies its readers is because it is neither too matter-of-fact, nor too ambiguous.
The Carson example, as Elisa points out, is not “obscure,” but it is philosophically ambiguous—and, in keeping with self-conscious Modernism, matter-0f-fact at the same time. The Carson excerpt has its interest, but Edmundson, as blundering as he is, is correct: the interest is not a poetic one.
The test is very simple: Carson posits the “neuter” person with “meaningless legs” as she speculates philosophically on sexual difference, or the lack thereof. The “poem,” at least in the excerpt, however, never comes into focus; instead we are offered vague choices—a shelf full of sexual philosophy presents itself to us—is it really good to be “neuter?” How so? From whose perspective? Etc, etc?— and words do have the power to do this; but this is speculative philosophy, not poetry.
The ambiguity of speculative philosophy will always trump the softer meanings of poetry—they are not the same, and those who assume (and there are many) that the ambiguity of philosophical speculation is poetry are really lost.
When the frustrated Elisa writes, “this guy’s tastes are completely arbitrary,” one can see how absolutely at sea she is, bemoaning “agendas” on one hand, and the “arbitrary” on the other.
Edmundson has blindly stirred up the blind.