One of the many problems of poetry, these days, are poets and editors who deem themselves as “revolutionary” but then proceed to demonstrate how little they know about the history of contemporary poetry.   You see this in many different manifestations — the hip-hop slam poet who claims to be the embodiment of the avant garde cutting edge of contemporary verse, but shows a fundamental lack of knowledge about actual post-modern poetics.  Who is John Ashbery?  John Yau who?  Ron Silliman what?  Charles Olson where?  A reader can also see this on the flipside, with the people who complain about the complacency of free-verse and Jorie Graham and her academic wannabees/worshippers.  Recently, this has popped up over at Strong Verse, an online poetry venue funded by the best selling science fiction writer Orson Scott Card.

Michael Palmer, Strong Verse’s editor, writes:

Dear poets,

Modern poetry is sick. It’s dying in its hospice bed and we should walk away from its cranky carcass before the stench of colostomy and muscle rub leaves us brainless. It’s not like we’re in the will anyway.

From the image of its corpse I propose a new direction for poetry. For the last century we’ve been tied into a strangulating mode of creating, producing, and promoting poetry. To wit: Artsy poets write impenetrable crap; Artsy journals with tiny circulations publish it (Poetry has a circulation of 30,000 – why do we want our work in it? Not because we want readers), no one reads the publications or the poems in them, and the publication line in a CV gets artsy poets jobs where they teach impressionable others that accessible poetry is evil and their excrement is the only rose worth smelling

So, psuedo-intellectuals write dense, incomprehensible psuedo intellectual verse, and these pseudo-intellectuals live in academia, where they teach young impressionable minds to be psuedo-intellectuals!   Perish the thought!  You know, this sounds a little bit like former Second Lady Lynne Cheney’s oft published complaints about “liberal education.”  However, that’s an argument for another time.  I will partially concede that “academic verse” or “MFA workshop poems” does exist.  But then again, every art form has its legion of copycats.  The publishing industry thrives on not only the next big thing, but publishing knock-off’s of the next big thing. Case in point:  young adult fantasy novels was not a super viable category until J.K. Rowling came around with Harry Potter.  Now, how many Potter “variations” sit on the bookshelf?  Academia and poetry publishing is the same way.  Charles Bukowski sells and still has wide distribution at book stores.  The heightened sense of visibility has some would be writers thinking, hell I should write like Bukowski.  It’s the same with the other usual suspects in the Barnes and Noble poetry section:  the choices usually are Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds, Marge  Piercy, Billy Collins, Charles Simic, Pablo Neruda, and a few others.  Still, this criticism of the state of writing programs isn’t what I find galling about Palmer’s assertions.

Palmer writes:

To change production of poetry we need to shift toward narrative verse. This is an easy task, as nearly all poetry published today is lyric poetry. Almost no one is writing or publishing narrative verse.

Patently wrong.  Go back to the poetry section at Barnes and Noble.  You’ll likely find contempory translations of classic epics.  Robert Pinsky’s version of Dante’s Inferno.  A new verse version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Simon Armitage.  Robert Fagles, in dactyllic hexameter, has new versions Homer’s Illiad and Odyessy.  Fagles has also tackled Virgil’s The Aneid.  Don’t forget that Gilgamesh has also had a modern translation.  Seamus Heaney has an excellent Beowulf in alliterative verse.  These titles sell, year in, year out, and they are definately examples of narrative verse.  If they didn’t, they wouldn’t constantly be on the shelf in a shopping mall bookstore.  Publishing companies seem to want to find new ways to bring out these longer works.

True, those are modern translations, not “culturally new” narrative poetry.  Still, what I find absolutely galling about Palmer’s post is that he doesn’t even know the recent history of contemporary poetry.  For all of his militant call to arms, he leaves out the fact that “militant call to arms” has already been issued by narrative poets.   It started int the 1980’s, with the New Formalist/New Narrative movement.  These folks claimed about the commonplace of free verse, suggesting that the true “avant garde” would be a return to poetical tradition.  This movement was far from cohesive in approach, but one of them Dana Gioia, ended up running the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Even more, the new narrative/new formalist militancy was pronouced.  They had a journal entitled “The Reaper” as well as a dedicated press: Story Line Press.  The Reaper once published a list of “non-negotiable demands,” in their attempt to “reshape” the face of poetry.  Here are those demands, as lifted from a blog entry:

I just want to get these down here. I’ve been looking at The Reaper Essays by Mark Jarman & Robert McDowell. I find their Non-negotiable Demands of interest.

1. Take prosody off the hit list.
2. Stop calling formless writing poetry.
3. Accuracy at all costs.
4. No emotion without narrative.
5. No more meditating on the meditation.
6. No more poems about poetry.
7. No more irresponsibility of expression.
8. Raze the House of Fashion.
9. Dismantle the Office of Translation.
10. Spring open the Jail of the Self.

It’s a fundamentalist doctrine from the narrative metrical party, and I tend these days towards that side of the hall. But it is doctrinaire, and more like a set of demands from a conquering empire rather than a striving democratic city-state. But I will grant them their sixth demand today at once without any further argument. No more poems about poetry. That shall be written in the preamble in fact.

Guess what?  Story Line Press went out of business.  And that is a damn shame, because they did put out some very good volumes of poetry . So, here is my friendly bit of advice to Michael Palmer and Strong Verse.  Know your history.   You will not change the face of poetry.  All you can ever hope to do is advocate your aesthetic in a wide, wide world.  Some people will listen to you and take you to heart, other people will scoff at your manifesto and resist.  You cannot save poetry, becuase “poetry” has become such a multi-faceted place.  I for one, think it’s wonderful.  We are living in an age where classical minded people are turning out work just as interesting as the more avant garde poets.    Personally, I find the wild variations in poetry, form, content, and theme available fascinating.  Personally, I like a smorsgasbord.  Most of all, I think our culture benefits from a variety of voices being available, as opposed to a rigid, doctrinaire one-cure for everything line of thinking.

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