In a recent post on the Poetry Foundation's Harriet blog entitled "It's Too Much," Stephen Burt declares, only half jokingly (I think), "Every week, every day, I get email and Facebook notices and for that matter word of mouth about the latest debate or commentary or controversy or metapoetic metaconversation (sometimes it's even attached to actual poems) on one of three dozen fine websites and active blogs and web-only or web-mostly mostly-poetry magazines . . . to be au courant, I should keep up. And I can't keep up." Burt continues in this vein for another couple of paragraphs, and though he keeps it light, he manages to touch a nerve. In my little corner of Facebook, Robert Archambeau linked to Burt's post, eliciting twenty-eight more-or-less anxious comments. Mark Scroggins picked up the post and responded at some length on his blog, Culture Industry: "Man do I sympathize. With the expansion of the internet as the primary medium of poetry, & of the endless chatter of poetry-promotion & poetry-discussion—of pobiz, in short—it feels like there's been an exponential explosion of poetic activity out there, so much being written & published & written about that no-one, but no-one, is able to grasp more than a tiny fraction of it."
Keeping this scenario in mind, we can now turn to The Monkey and the Wrench: Essays into Contemporary Poetics, a collection which, according to the copy on the back cover, "takes a snapshot of a moving target: the ever-shifting conversation about today's poetry." In their introduction, editors Mary Biddinger and John Gallaher develop this idea. They see the essays they have gathered as "open questions, beginnings or continuances of conversations around and in contemporary poetry, not manifestos or final words" (2). Given the endless online "metaconversations" that overwhelm Burt's attention, "beginnings or continuances" would seem to be our fate. Indeed, a particularly jaundiced reader might ask what makes this volume so special, since on any given day, one can simply surf the Web and find discussion enough to fill a dozen such books. Fortunately, I am not that jaundiced, and I am pleased to report that Biddinger and Gallaher have done a fine job of selecting timely and provocative essays for all of us "readers, writers, critics, students, and teachers" (1) who continue to care about, or who are "into," poetry today.
The self-conscious timeliness of The Monkey and the Wrench puts this volume at risk of becoming quickly dated, but as its editors understand, it is a risk that needs to be taken. The risk has to do, to use one of Burt's terms again, with trying to be "au courant." For the most part, the essays in this volume are oriented to poetic topics, debates, themes, and techniques. None of them focus on individual poets, nor do they provide sustained readings of individual poems. No one here seems much interested in serious evaluation or identifying contemporary models of poetic excellence, to say nothing of shaping a modern canon. The point is to describe but not necessarily critique what's happening: this is, after all, a conversation, not a lecture or a sermon. (Would the editors have invited T. S. Eliot to contribute? Just asking.) Specific poems are cited as examples; we are given quick glimpses and quotations, often as part of an argument related to poetic method or form on the "how-to" level. This makes sense, considering that most of the contributing authors teach creative writing. It is no accident that the two best essays, by, as it happens, Robert Archambeau and Stephen Burt, take the longest view and are most fully informed by an acute literary-historical awareness.
Archambeau's "The Discursive Situation of Poetry," which leads off the collection, alone is worth the price of admission. Archambeau is one of our smartest poetic sociologists, and in this essay, he tackles the biggest problem facing poetry in our time: the dwindling of its audience and the growing divide between poets and a mainstream literary readership, however the latter may be construed. Archambeau considers an ideologically varied group of critics, including Dana Gioia...