Dave’s Manifesto: The State of English Language Poetry Today
I find much poetry today is really prose—people cut lines off à la William Carlos Williams or Ezra Pound—with no sense of rhythm—just try running lines of much modern poetry together and see if it makes any difference—it doesn’t. It might as well be prose. It IS prose.
There’s too little music and our verse is academic, or as I say it—acadeemic (as in anemic). Much lacks passion—is effete, demure, and wan—everybody seems to be channeling Elizabeth Bishop without her wit.
If you are going to chop lines off willy nilly, trying to follow the pauses of natural speech—I hope you have something to say! Williams made a point out of describing a wheelbarrow or a plum—since he was the first—this was refreshing—THEN! In that poem, Williams gave grandeur to a thing—a “pure product”. But since?
Look at poems in the New Yorker, Poetry, or the American Poetry Review—no passion—as I say, acadeemic. Most seems slicked over with a veneer of superficiality. To me the word that describes it is “smug” or “arch.” There’s no magic. All seems “effortless”—no craft!
Leave it to America to make an industry out of poetry—as if it was a computer app! A poem a day—are you kidding? (This what “The Writers Almanac” and “Poetry Foundation” do.) It’s poetry as a business—hucksterism and boosterism—Barnum and Bailey stuff
A character in Larry McMurtry’s novel Lonesome Dove would say it’s got no “sand,” no “grit.” And I’m not just talking about the female writers. Do we want “normal” poetry? Poetry “as usual”? I have never thought of that as poetry? Poetry should make your hair stand on end. Having read Rimbaud’s “Le Bateau Ivre” or the sainted Emily, I say no. I expect more from poetry.
The great poems, say, Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning” or work by Hart Crane or Dylan Thomas, has music and meaning—who tries to grab that ring now? Who tries for “grandeur”? The confessional poets—Berryman, Sexton, Lowell, Plath—they went deep.
Few write political “stuff”—Diane Di Prima, Marge Piercy, Ntozake Shange, and Alice Walker do. And even fewer take on the mystical as Coleman Barks does translating and channeling Rumi. I sent this Manifesto to Ms. Piercy—and she responded correctly that I hadn’t read her poems—so I include her out of guilt. (Now I have read them and they are pretty plain—but, yes, good). The black poets give us some passion in their “slams”!
People don’t generally write about the deeper “stuff”: money, sex, politics, death, ego. It’s as if they are trying to keep themselves out of the work.
Sure there can be occasional, shallow, witty stuff—like Parker, Nash, or Collins. Ron Padgett and Richard Peabody will make you laugh! (Richard has an “Anthology” out and HE ISN’T EVEN DEAD!)
At the same time everybody is at the same time (me included) saying “Look at me, look at me.”
I love the great outlaws—who did not give a shit about publication—Dickinson, Rimbaud. People misunderstood or unrecognized—as in “he/she died a pauper.” Awards are almost universally suspect. (Would Dave turn one down if he got one?)
Few write about poetry with a critical eye—it seems forbidden—but wouldn’t it be fun to have a dialogue about what we like or dislike?
Don’t get me wrong—I love poets as persons.
Lest you think I am too harsh—I must say Robert Bly and Sharon Olds, possibly Mary Oliver, Billy Collins are treasures. (Take Oliver and Collins out—after reading Logan on the two—he’s right—they’re “lightweight.”)
I realize by writing this, I may not endear myself for future publication—these are sweeping statements—“painting with a broad brush”; if it does not apply to you—you may excuse yourself (we will meet soon!)
Then too it’s partly sour grapes and jealousy because I do not get published—if I did, I’d probably change my tune and scratch bax with the rest of them. How about a prize for Dave?
I think I could succeed if I had a champion—but sometimes—not discouraged—I don’t care—how many persons have come up to you with a true and helpful understanding of what you have written—I have to say—in my case next to none—so—maybe I should just please myself and forget about publication. Does it really matter? I suspect this is true for most writers—especially poets. Write something useful—like a cookbook.
Writers, in general, are just not honest.
And one more thing—you can teach about poetry but you cannot teach IT!
I will not be giving “workshops” on the “poetic experience.”
The association of poetry with money is particularly odious. O yeh—I’d have to refuse the money.(???) (Dave fantasizes winning.)
Those who did not respond to my “Manifesto”, although there may have been a host of reasons? I assumed were NOT really that interested in poetry?
The critic, Clive James, writes in a similar vein in Poetry Notebook: I don’t want to sound like him, great critic that he may be. Read William Logan for trenchant and incisive criticism.
Actually, every poet is also inviolably perfect and wonderful in his/her unique way.
© David Eberhardt
David Eberhardt was born March 26, 1941. As a peace protester, he was incarcerated at Lewisburg Federal Prison in 1970 for 21 months for pouring blood on draft files with Father Philip Berrigan and two others to protest the Vietnam War. He is retired after 33 years of work in the criminal injustice system as a Director of Offender Aid and Restoration at the Baltimore City Jail. He has published three books of poetry: The Tree Calendar, Blue Running Lights, and Poems from the Website, Poetry in Baltimore. He is at work on a memoir, For All the Saints, influenced by Thoreau, Nabokov, Mailer, Agee, Thomas, and Cousteau. His website is http://davideberhardt.webs.com.
will print most trenchat responses here
David Taylor Nielsen
10:07am Oct 17
I take no offense. My best poems are about underwear, but there is no subject that is closer to me. 😉
David Eberhardt said:
This vital discussion happening HERE- Loch Raven Review!
fr dave- probably should b titled American poetry- I can’t claim to be an expert on the UK for example.
From: “Dan Cuddy”
“I think what you need at the beginning of the Manifesto are examples of poems that you find to be prose. It ruffles feathers but maybe 3 examples of what you consider inferior poems. Maybe pair each of the inferior poems with one that you do admire. Dan
· thanx – there are so many examples i could choose- just abt every day from the writers almanac or the poetry foundation- but yes- good idea
From Kathy Roach “The Writers’ Almanac) (*Garrison Keillor)
About a poem by Joyce Sutphen, I had written as follows: “
12:00pm Sep 10
did you realize that this is prose?
The One True Choir
by Joyce Sutphen
First thing, she arranged us in rows
at the front of the classroom,
tallest in back, smallest in front.
Next, she pulled the shining pitch-
pipe from the hidden placket
in her black linen habit,
Kathy’s response: “No way would we ask a poet to redo their work, absolutely not. Joyce Sutphen is a highly decorated and respected poet obviously. “ (which to me means nothing).
“TWA aims to celebrate a variety of poems and poets, including those who do not write in rhyme and meter. We have an extensive archive where all kinds of poems can be found – ballads, limericks, sonnets, modern poetry, etc. Hopefully there is something to please an assortment of tastes. We do appreciate the feedback.
My response: “I would not expect you to redo- I phrase my common complaint in different ways- at last a reply- I am naturally mad that nothing of mine gets on – have sent my bks- and my day will come, possibly (as Mahler said). I have confidence in my work.
You all print a lot of dross, in my (and Wm Logan’s) opinion- and I can understand that, at a poem a day….
You’re not as bad as Ted Kooser.
“highly decorated” sounds like a military thing!!!! how about highly “defecated”
Having Garrison read your work- what an honor/thrill- how do they/who chooses (I know it has to come from a published book) (and get the feeling it has to b sent them by the publisher)- awful lot of acadeemics- but- today they did Shakespeare- a hopeful sign.
They don’t do slam poets.
twa and the poetry foundation- a whiff of starch?
William Logan-I have received several comments from this great critic:
3:33pm Jun 21
Thanks, Dave. I disagree with little that you say, but among those things: (1) I wouldn’t call Bly or Oliver or Coillins “treasures”–to me the last two are lightweights; (2) Every generation for the past six or eight has thought that the following generation was composing prose (or, to make this more nuanced, that what they were writing wasn’t poetry, in which case we can go back a few centuries; (3) Pound has a fine ear for rhythm, and I’m surprised that you can’t hear it; but, yes, we seem to be in a goofball time, where attitude is more important than content. Still, I admire poets like Michael Hofmann, Henri Cole, Angle Mlinko, Gjertrud Schnackenberg (the first three books, and I return to Hecht, to Merrill, to Justice, to Heaney, among others. / Cheers, Wm
Most of our poetry is dishonest- but here’s one that’s honest because it is so blatantly so- I even like the line lengths- although you could say it’s prose:
Poem of the Day: As Good as AnythingBY ALICE NOTLEY
“I don’t see the point of
remembering you; you’re too boring,
Iowa City, Iowa,”, etc
GOOGLE THIS POEM AND READ THE WHOLE THING- IT IS WONDERFUL!
I shld mention those I like: Bly, Snyder, Stafford, Barks, Ryan, Pagett- Billy Collins is amusing.
David Eberhardt said:
from Alan Reese:
I have read the “manifesto.” I will restrict my comments to the content and let your editor sort out the mechanics. It strikes me as a set of notes for an indepth essay or a collection of opinions without much substantiation. I’m not sure exactly what you intend by the mild rant. The idea that much modern poetry is prose disguised as poetry is interesting, but I want to see some concrete evidence. Williams may have opened the door for this, but isn’t that like saying the early versifiers fostered the June/moon/spoon school. Williams didn’t just “describe” a wheelbarrow or plums, he tried to put them in their metaphysical place in the cosmos tied to all other things and direct experience. Others who attempt and fail at this are certainly no different then those who write rhyming drivel. A poem either stands or falls on its ability to arrange language in a striking manner that excites the senses and emotions. I don’t think you judge poets as various weights. I think you hold each poem up to the light and see if it shines. Thanks for sharing the thoughts with me and they are certainly worth further discussion. The idea is certainly worth more investigation, and the acadeemic university MFA programs have certainly let loose a flood of poetasters upon the unsuspecting public, but whatta ya gonna do?
fr Mike Fallon I agree there is a lot of gobbletygook out there, but I don’t think it’s mostly because of the misuse of line breaks. I think poetry has been losing its music for some time now probably because we have gotten away from it as an oral art form. Poets and poetry readers don’t hear the music. A lot of what’s out there is boring because the poets don’t do anything with sound, form, language or imagery. Many poems are either obscure or they aren’t about anything. I think editors are always looking for something new, but what they get is obscurity and some downright weird uses of language–if you can’t be good, be obscure or weird, pretend what you are doing is intellectual and avant guard. The problem with the avant guard is that there is no army of readers behind it. I think it’s also true today that there are too many poets and too few readers of poetry. There is no one to hold poets accountable and there is far more “poetry” than anyone wants or needs. I suppose the goal might be to write a poem that people need, like certain parts of Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” The poetry world is fragmented into some many different aesthetic/ political/ fashionable points of view and these have become more important than the poetry itself. The real poetry is buried under an avalanche of words.