Has anybody read the July Harper’s Magazine article Poetry Slam Or, The decline of American Poetry by Mark Edmundson? (sorry, the article is behind a paywall). Or, maybe you saw Washington Post blog post on it?

If you haven’t heard about it, don’t worry, in spite of some deep digs at American poetry:

Poets now would quail before the injunction to justify God’s ways to man, or even man’s to God. No one would attempt an Essay on Humanity. No one would publicly say what Shelley did: that the reason he wrote his books was to change the world. But poets should wise up. They should see the limits emanating from the theoretical critics down the hall in the English department as what they are. Those strictures are not high-minded moral edicts but something a little closer to home. They are installments in the war of philosophy against poetry.

There has only been a minor kerfuffle over it. One blogger and poet calls it much ado about nada. Another acknowledges that Edmundson has some valid points but that his cynicism ruins any possibility of his criticism being useful. And still another takes the opportunity to make a tongue-in-cheek response to poetry criticism of this sort in general.

So, pretty much, whatever big blow-up Edmundson might have been hoping for, he didn’t get it. This tickles my funnybone.

It is interesting to note that Edmundson’s criticism focuses on “highly regarded contemporary poets” who are all in their fifties, sixties and older, as if there are no highly regarded poets under fifty. There are. Take, for example, our current Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey age 47. Or Richard Blanco, aged 45, the poet who wrote the poem for President Obama’s second inauguration.

Edmundson’s main criticism seems to be centered around what he sees as a lack of vision, ambition and grandeur in American Poetry. He complains that no one is writing big poems like Robert Lowell’s Waking Early Sunday Morning. No one dares say “we” or “our” or ventures any sort of unified vision. Everyone is too insular, too concerned about voice and the individual.

More than anything Edmundson’s criticism is less a criticism and more of an outline of his personal taste, of what kind of poetry he likes to read. And because there isn’t a lot of the kind of poetry he likes to read being written, American poetry in general has gone off the rails and is doomed. Well poetry has been doomed for decades but it isn’t dead yet. In fact, it shows vibrant signs of life for those who care to look beyond their own prescriptive box.

That there hasn’t been much of an uproar over Edmundson’s essay is heartening in one way; he doesn’t say anything new or interesting and so is not worthy of note. But in another way it is worrisome. That there hasn’t been much noise could also indicate that no one outside the small circle of poets and critics really cares all that much about poetry. I hope that isn’t the case. Or, maybe it’s just that not many people read Harper’s anymore so have no idea the essay even exists? I like the magazine and read it fairly regularly, but I don’t know that very many other people do, at least not in the numbers they used to.

What do you think? Does American poetry lack ambition and vision? Or is it doing just fine thank-you-very-much in all of its glorious variety?

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