If its author John Barr (admitted president of the Poetry Foundation and former board member of the Poetry Society of America, Yaddo and Bennington College) didn't take himself half so seriously, one might expect to see his essay, "American Poetry in the New Century", lampooned in the back pages of Poetry's annual "humor issue." As it appears this month, however, the essay (not at all intended to be a tounge-in-cheek send up of anything) reminds one just how easy it's become to laugh at any issue of Poetry, especially when the editors court such ridicule themselves, presuming, as they do, that Poetry retains any kind of aesthetic credibility among those writers it ostensibly wants to instigate into new heights of creative fervor.
A glance at any recent issue confirms how as a platform the magazine is defunct, how in its aesthetic taste decrepid, and has been since at least the 1960's. As if the work in the September issue weren't bad enough (Kevin McFadden and D.A. Powell appear to be the only exceptions), Barr's naive missive might just be the most convoluted pseudo-manifesto-ing Poetry has ever had the obligation to publish. Full of the same lamenting after lost accessibility, the same re-tread schtick about the blight of MFA programs on originiality, and the same old pining after those great days of yore when insurance executives and pediatricians could hold down a job AND re-invent American poetry, one wonders if this is the best PR $150 million dollars can buy.
Barr's thesis: "The manner of [modern poetry] has long been mastered. Modernism has passed into the DNA of the MFA programs. For all its schools and experiments, contemporary poetry is still written in the rain shadow thrown by Modernism. It is the engine that drives what is written today. And it is a tired engine."
Tired, certainly. Nearly as tired as Barr's contradictory posture. Indeed, for an essay concerned with contemporary American poetry's aesthetic laziness (its reliance on Modernist models), this essay indulges the very same laziness it purports to decry. Sadly it's an irony lost on Mr. Barr. Eliot, Stevens, Moore, Williams, Stein, Pound, Frost--each is dished up as a quick quip or easy anecdote, and all in a sappy, self-satisfied tone.
Wanna inspire your poetry, dear writer? Stop worrying about your credentials and follow Ernest Hemingway's example--"live more . . . write better."
How else but as stunningly naive can one describe Barr's essay when, with a straight face and in all earnestness, he asks "Will the next Walt Whitman be an MFA graduate?" Or when we stumble across such hackneyed new-age-isms like this: "Poetry, like a prayer book in the wind, should be open to all pages at once."
Perhaps the most disturbing of Barr's contentions is his belief that poetry must be more entertaining, saying so first in relation to MFA programs: "The effect of these programs on the art form is to increase the abundance of poetry, but to limit its variety. The result is poetry that is neither robust, resonant, nor--and I stress this quality--entertaining . . ." And later, in relation to poetry's wider cultural relevance: "The human mind is a marketplace, especially when it comes to selecting one's entertainment . . ."
If Barr, instead of skimming its surface mythologies, had delved a bit deeper into literary history, he might have remembered how much of what is now considered Modern was, in its time, defiantly erudite, wilfully challenging. That is, the very writers he today reveres aspired to be anything but entertainment back in the day.
If only Barr shared such aspirations . . .
Matthew takes issue with the essay over at his blog.