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Saturday, April 9, 2005

The April Poetry continues "The View From Here," a feature begun this January which presents short — and sobering, for poets writing today — essays from people outside the pobiz about poetry in their lives. These are people who read and love poetry, some of whom have many poems by heart, but of the eleven whose essays have so far been printed, only three mention living English-language poets, and of those only one cites anyone under 60: the editor of Good Housekeeping(!) writes that Deborah Garrison, Kay Ryan, and Kevin Young cannot win her from George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins, by the way, is also a favorite of the Deputy Director of the White House Office of Public Liaison, and if you allow Bruce Springsteen into the club, the Superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point also mentions an under-60 English language poet: "Ovid to Owen, Spenser to Springsteen."

The correspondents were not asked specifically about their experience of contemporary poetry, so if they were writing for the New York Times or Salon, its conspicuous scarcity might have been mere coincidence, a artifact of poor sampling. But they're writing for Poetry, one of the largest-circulation magazines devoted entirely to the publication and consideration of contemporary poetry in English. It's not coincidence.

Nor is it because contemporary poetry is "difficult" or "obscure," at least concerning the ideas and feelings represented. Compared to Herbert? Hopkins? Ovid? Auden? Eliot? Donne? Is even the surface difficulty of Shakespeare's sonnets really less than that of Silliman's 2197?

I will concede, of course, that the rewards for working your way through the sonnets are rather greater.

Memorability is probably part of it. Meter and rhyme help put a poem — the words of the poem, which are its only real existence — into the mind, making it part of the climate of thought which shapes experience, including the experience of other poetry. But one thing I've seen and heard a good deal of from poets, especially from those who consider themselves avant-garde, is a fundamental distrust of what used to uncontroversial notions: that poetry should "delight and instruct" and that it should offer, especially, insight into the human condition. Poetry's correspondents write a good deal about how poems have comforted them and offered them moral challenge, brought them joy and hope, and helped them to understand both the good and the evil in themselves and others. Poetry is not a language game, or it's not just a language game — even in the avant garde. Consider Kent Johnson's "Baghdad Exceeds Its Object."


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