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.