Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Poetry Magazine

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.


Matthew Thorburn said...

Hey Morgan,
Well said! I think all the changes he calls for in poetry are actually already going on, he just doesn't have a clue about them. Plenty of challenging, original work out there -- from MFA and non-MFA grads alike -- and it's entertaining too (in the positive sense of being a pleasure to read, rather than what he may mean -- the way Billy Collins is "entertaining"). It's just not (or not very often) found in Poetry magazine.

I'd like to hear what other journals Barr reads, if any, given his very outdated ideas about what poetry (rather than Poetry) is up to these days.

David E. Patton said...

I stoped reading Poetry (the maz.) long ago and as a poet I think that I should be reading the work of other poet but other then the poetry that I find on the internet its all that I may need to keep in touch with. but I am one of those poet who is a longer by nature, getting out from time to time to hear what others are writing.

Morgan Lucas Schuldt said...

I agree with you, Matthew. He's definetly out of touch. But what I find the most distressing / hypocritical is not Barr's myopic view of the poetry scene, but rather how he dismisses the reality of po-biz credential making. And yet as a board memember of the Poetry Foundation, the Poetry Society of America, etc., he's critiquing the very system of which he's a part. Barr is the status quo.

steph said...

Mostly Barr's rant feels harmless, silly, outdated, out of touch ... . I don't feel too worked up by it because, well, who cares what he has to say. (That's probably a very bad attitude.) Matthew makes a good point: Barr seems to be attempting to see this era from an outsider's perspective: to obtain an impossible objectivity. But why bother with the silly rant? If you don't like what's being written, write something new yourself.

In my humble, limited experience, innovation doesn't develop in leaps and bounds anyway, but with slow progress. Or, I'm open to considering whether it is more like a rubber band, either expanding or contracting with great force?

I think what Barr really wants to talk about is the nature of creation. But his is such a conservative approach.

amfine said...

I agree with Steph and those a wee touched off by Barr's balderdash. The thing is, what is the Poetry Foundation and the Poetry Society of America to this guy? I he just a money guy or what? I read his S-say, article, whatever...and I was shocked. Only for a moment though. I agree with Steph; no matter what, what he's wanting to happen is happening. Just not at Harriet's sweet old zine. How I miss her, sigh. Sounds like someone in the forefront's been trying to convince him for some time. Ahh poetry, you're adorable.

Morgan Lucas Schuldt said...

That's exactly the problem--the disconnect between the "establishment" and the trenches.