Modern Poetry--Footnotes to Emptiness

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Yesterday I meant to say something about modern poetry. I had checked two books of The Year's Best Poetry out of the library to see if trends had changed yet.

The answer is, unfortunately, no. The Academic community appears to have poetry still firmly in its death grip, determined to choke the life out of it. And but for places like this and Lofted Nest, and other appreciators of poetry scattered around, they might well succeed. Although they tried the same with the novel, but Beckett, Robbe-Grillet, and their ilk could not kill a genre so entrenched in the popular mind. However, as we enter the age of the post literate, it appears that they may have their way with the novel yet. (My only hope comes from the popularity of The DaVinci Code, which convinces me that the academics have a ways to go before they can overcome the lure of truly poor writing.)

But, back to poetry for the moment. Flipping through this book of best of, I came upon a "poem" that consisted of nothing but blank pages with a small line and a series of footnotes. The postmoderns have triumphed in making modern poetry as vacuous and empty of delight as most postmodern art. There's no point in belaboring this--what the academic community has served up as great poetry has all but killed the genre. There is no delight in language, the is no sense of joy in discovery. Instead, we have the apotheosis of the confessional poets, staring in the mirror and noting what they see as footnotes to emptiness.

In these anthologies, there was not a single poem in a classic mode. Nothing that required the skill and artifice of a villanelle, a sonnet, or even a haiku. Free verse, and less, made up the entirety of the contents. And this is a shame because there are a great many poets producing poetry of substance that cannot make it into the market because of the academic stranglehold.

Dana Gioia asked the question some years ago as to whether poetry were dead or not. It's not dead, to that I can testify, but it's looking a lot moribund. I can only hope that the establishment eventually peters out and poetry is recovered by poets who (a) have something to say and (b) say it in a way that is memorable.

No wonder poetry has so small an audience. It's a shame because as children we have Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein and endless other wonderful, rollicking poems to read that vanish as we head toward adulthood. Perhaps children's poets should enter the market and take over. A Child's Book of Verse for adults--think about the potential. I have no doubt that nearly everyone out there can think about snippets of stuff they liked as a child. It was merely the first whiff of modern free verse that we instinctively recoiled at.

I look at the great forked road in poetry--Dickinson on one hand, Whitman on the other. And though I used to be a partisan of the latter, I discover now my affinity for the former. There is less and less of Whitman about me, and more and more of Dickinson, and I consider that a blessing.

So it leads me to my new motto--Free Verse! Write sonnets

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from The Blog from the Core on May 7, 2005 7:32 AM

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A Children's Book of Verse For Grownups: that's brilliant!

Which house are you going to pitch it to?

>> Free Verse! > Write Sonnets!

Steven, this makes me think. My favourite poems as a child were probably A.A.Milne's: King John's Christmas, James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree(-- oops, that has a title, it's Disobedience), The King's Breakfast. But we KNEW them, I mean, we memorized them and recited them together -- they were dramatic.

Maybe we need to go back to memorizing and reciting poetry! I remember my grandmother in her last days asking me to look up poems -- she was unsure of a line or two and frustrated that she no longer had perfect recall -- and I was amazed at the breadth of her memory. She must have had hundreds of poems memorized. But on long winter nights before electricity, that is what one did.

I've always thought of poetry as an oral art, and I don't know how footnotes would work into that.

Dear Talmida:

Re memorizing poetry: I couldn't possibly agree more. It has been an endless source of enjoyment for me to be able to recall certain pieces at my own behest and then just think about them for a while. Bits and pieces of poetry surface in my mind every now and then--Prufrock comes to mind. And Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" ("The grave's a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace"), Donne, Blake, Dickinson, Plath (even though I don't particularly like her work, I find some of it utterly haunting in way that her protegees never achieved), Roethke, Seuss, Stevenson, Carroll ("For the Snark was a Boojum, you see."). In fact to be inside my head one would be caught in an endless worddrift, fragments of poetry, prose, speeches, you name it.

Poetry is a spoken art. If it is not spoken it has lost a great deal of its power. The Psalms are different works read quietly, read aloud, read anitphonally, and chanted either singly or antiphonally, and thus they affect you differently. I will be introducing Samuel to the joys of memorization shortly. When he was quite young he could recite "The Owl and the Pussycat." Who knows, it may have stayed with him.

Thanks for writing and thus giving me license to ramble on endlessly.



Fortunately, when I studied creative writing in college, our poetry professors had us study poetry from all genres--but we didn't as much as look at any of the postmoderns. My prof's favorite poets were Anthony Hecht (who penned some verse expressing his disgust of postmodernism) and Elizabeth Bishop. For my part, I adore W.H. Auden, among others. Postmodernism has touched all aspects of art, including my other love, music (you've heard of John Cage, I'm sure). Don't worry, though--only the great ones endure, and these folks are just not great.

I think of Whitman as The Great Destroyer.

Jousting the mirror
Bleeding from ten thousand wounds
Opponent shattered

I agree with your assessment of modern literature, But see other forces at work. Electronic broadcast media conspires with an under-motivated public education system to produce a dumbed down nation with a collective attention span no longer than a
sound bite. Todays poets suffer from a lack of societal support. This damage is tripled against haiku artists, who seem to shrink from Shakespear's centuries long shadow. "For sooth, whither comest thou hence?", and "Holy snit!Where did you come from?" Demonstrate twin ideations, separated by decades of linguistic evolution and specialization. In an era when thinking for oneself can be a dangerous business, I follow my haiku muse beyond the comforts of pixelated party politics. Perhaps I indulge in linguistic shadow-boxing, yet I learn from every battle, preparing for the ultimate profound short-form written challenge; the ballot.

Writers held hostage:
Political correctness
Sues to stay stupid.

I giggle when told
This is not poetic art
So stop giggling

Bunnies chase rainbows
Through seventeen syllables
Before it's haiku

All is fair in love
Industrial martial crafts
But not three lined verse

So I frown at the pretty panel, savoring edgeless dark introspections, for which post-modern poets are so funnily known. I stare at my shoes, and wait for the muse, or leave nasty notes on your meta-haikus.

Man of La Mancha
Suffered a similar fate
Fighting his fictions

On sanity's edge
Only one coin buys supper

Bold poet
Pleases muse


Who respects
Poet infested

No even
The poet himself
Smiles when done



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on May 3, 2005 7:23 AM.

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