What’s the deal with poets, anyway?
In the English-speaking world, at least, one would be hard-pressed to find a group that in the last two centuries or so has made such consistently extravagant claims for its offerings while offering less and less evidence for those claims. Perhaps conflating his reactions to the British Enlightenment project and various frustrations in the House of Lords, Shelley famously called poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” (J.V. Cunningham, an American commoner shaped by the Great Depression, far less famously but with arguably much greater clarity, noted that this was not in fact the case, and probably for the better.) William Carlos Williams observed that poetry held something of which a deficiency caused men to die every day. That something—Vitamin P?—can rarely be found in Dr. Williams’s work, however, whether it involves a wheelbarrow upon which very little depends (or it would have been stored in a shed so as not to rust out) or a narcissistic and tautological “apology” for frutivorous theft from an icebox. W.H. Auden (of whom more below, and in a less favorable light), more modestly asserted “poetry makes nothing happen.” This may at first seem like false modesty, but the somethings of the mid-twentieth century and Auden’s most productive years went all too far toward giving “nothing” a good name.
Then there is the poetry we have before us. In late capitalism (in a late civilization, for that matter) poets, like other specialists, write largely for each other. While in these aggressively philistine times of the Barnum Administration it is important to remember that sales are not the arbiter of all other values, we nonetheless must consider that in the United States a collection of poetry that is neither brand extension nor celebrity fetish object is rarely printed in an edition of more than ten thousand copies. Poetry, moreover, seems to have disappeared from the reading habits of the average college-educated person. Bad teaching no doubt accounts for some of this decline, as does American anti-intellectualism, but poetry and poets themselves cannot be let off the hook.
Some general trends merit attention, though their perpetrators are too numerous to mention here. First, the prominence of confessional poetry converged with the self-help culture of the 1970s so as to erase in large part the distinctions between art and art therapy. Both have value, but of different sorts. The former exists to convey or share emotion with an audience, thus justifying public attention, while the latter serves primarily to identify or express the maker’s emotion for no particular audience. Putting this private activity on display has led to countless cringe-inducing moments for readers and live audiences and has arguably led some poets to abandon their journey toward improved mental health for the immediate payoffs of applause and the medium-term comforts of personal branding (i.e., schtick).
A second trend, one not necessarily overlapping with the first, is the rise of what could be called identity poetics: work by, about and sometimes primarily for members of historically marginalized groups. To the extent that the appeal of this work relies on its subject matter rather than other criteria its audience will remain limited. I will refrain from specifics in this area because in some circles I would not have standing to do so, being, in my wife’s formulation, a white, straight, Christian male from the Midwest who has never been addicted, incarcerated, molested, or tenured—the latter two to some measure redundant. This demographic standard for criticism, however, can only be carried so far. Otherwise I might only be entitled to evaluate the canon of my brother, and he has found better things to do than write poetry. It will suffice for now to note the current wave of identity poetics offers a forum to many voices previously heard little or not at all, and this expansion of opportunity is self-evidently valuable. As with dead white European males, though, Sturgeon’s Law is likely to apply, and posterity is a notoriously tough crowd.
But enough of straw men (persons, if one...