To the Editor:
Joseph Epstein [“Who Killed Poetry?,” August] was precisely right about the current poetry “scene” (the readings, the academic appointments, etc.). It’s a peculiar sociological phenomenon. As poetry becomes “sadly peripheral,” hundreds and hundreds of jobs for poets open up. . . . In numerous ways, these many jobs for “poetry-writing teachers” conceal from our poets themselves the situation we find ourselves in (and I speak as someone who has taught his share of classes). Instead of readers we have undiscerning and potentially idolatrous undergraduates; each campus is a little kingdom. And how are you going to convince people that the world itself is in trouble when the kingdom is running fine? . . .
When poetry becomes sadly peripheral, an unavoidable disaffection sets in. The poet knows that he has dedicated himself to the finest and highest art that there is. (Just as the composer or the painter “knows” that he has dedicated himself to the finest art there is. One must begin with the occluded vision of the monomaniac.) And to be told, implicitly or expressly, that the finest and highest art doesn’t really matter leads to all sorts of problems. The resulting alienation may in its way turn out to be productive, but it effectively rules out the flourishing of all sorts of poetry (including most light verse) that is built on the unvoiced understanding that poetry has a caring audience. . . .
I can’t help feeling that the “crisis” of contemporary verse is in large part methodological. Poets (even if not all of them know it) are tired or mistrustful of the iambic line that has dominated English-language verse for half a millennium. In a number of cases, I’m afraid, this distaste comes from an absolute inability to work skillfully with meter—but there are also sound, commendable reasons for wishing to create something new. The alternative to iambic verse would seem to be free verse—but it seems tired at the moment. It isn’t inexhaustible in the way that metric verse is. If many poets don’t recognize the situation clearly, they at least perceive it dimly, and are made uncomfortable by it.
South Hadley, Massachusetts
To the Editor:
. . . Joseph Epstein is absolutely right that no one, today, is awaiting the next utterance of any writer in the same way we once—only to be disappointed—awaited the next “big book” by Hemingway. As a cultural matter, writing seems to matter less today than it once did. On the other hand, if I attend to my own personal experience, as distinguished from my cultural experience, things look very different. There are recent poems that do mean a great deal to me.
“In a Free Country,” by Daniel Mark Epstein (1978), for example, seems to me breathtakingly successful. A sort of sonnet, it has a daring of hyperbole that reminds me of John Donne. His “Miami” also seems to me a very powerful and successful poem, about his father who was a gangster. I would also recommend Donald Justice’s poem about Henry James in Coronado Beach. Finally, there is much to be excited about in Richard Wilbur’s New and Collected Poems. . . .
Still, Mr. Epstein is on to something in his essay. Maybe poetry is now too easy to write, in a certain sense. All the technical devices, invented with great effort, are now completely accessible. Maybe the academy has replaced the muse. . . . I cannot imagine Yeats teaching at Amherst, for instance. . . .
Department of English
To the Editor:
. . . Who—or what—did kill poetry? . . . All the causes mentioned by Joseph Epstein are valid to some degree. In general, it just isn’t in our culture right now to produce “major,” enjoyable poetry. (There is perhaps an illuminating key to the puzzle in the analogy of the failure of atonal music to find a public. . . .) If we are looking for a single answer to the question, I think it is to be found near the end of Joseph Epstein’s article in the words “chilled in the classroom.” Poetry is taught to young people who take “electives” and have no real education that might supply the matrix for it, and it is taught in a second-hand “scholarly” fashion involving influences, references, allusions, technical terms. . . .
Mr. Epstein has done a good job. I would add one line to his list of favorites, the opening line of Yeats’s poem, “Sailing to Byzantium,” by the poet whom T.S. Eliot himself called the greatest poet of our time.
To the Editor:
Joseph Epstein, in his anatomy of a murder, did a good job of rounding up the usual suspects. But along with the writing workshops, the reviewers, the non-reviewers, the readers, the non-readers, and the poets themselves, he should have arraigned a couple of other culprits who alone would have made poetry’s death absolutely inevitable—at least as a popular art form. Their names are Edison and Marconi.
It is pretty clear that poetry has existed through the history of human culture because of two interrelated characteristics: (1) it provides moments of emotional or aesthetic intensity, and (2) it provides these moments in a memorable and memorizable way. These moments can be as short as a phrase, or as long as an epic, but they are sustained by the way poetry works to lodge itself in human memory, through meter and rhyme. Meter and rhyme also work to make poetry reproducible—the phrases, the lines, the paragraphs don’t go away, but are there to be drawn on and replayed to oneself. . . .
In one generation, between the invention of the gramophone and the invention of the radio, poetry lost its exclusive claim to the properties of memorizability, reproducibility, and emotional intensity. Popular song . . . has usurped the features that once made poetry an indispensable part of the texture of human life. . . .
So I think it hardly matters that the poets of Robert Lowell’s and John Berryman’s generation weren’t good enough—the invention of the gramophone and the radio would have doomed poetry anyway. The recording, and its instant, constant availability, has made the human technology of meter and rhyme a highbrow luxury—like original-instrument perfomances of classical music. And that is why the closest thing we have to the great best-selling poets of the 19th century like Tennyson and Byron are Robert Zimmerman (a/k/a Bob Dylan) and William “Smokey” Robinson, alas. . . .
Samuel E. Schulman
New England Monthly
To the Editor:
In answer to the question, “Who Killed Poetry?,” Joseph Epstein concludes that it was, in fact, the transfer of poetry from “the world” to “the classroom” that ultimately finished off the victim. . . . Yet poetry was never really transferred from the world to the classroom; it simply atrophied and died in the world, while a frail and ridiculous impostor has been nourished in the workshops of academia. . . . If there were a vigorous poetic literature widely published and read outside the university, no one would give a moment’s notice to the impostor. As it is, our Parnassus is so desolate that any sign of life excites attention.
What killed poetry and prevents its resurrection is the absence of that pleasure principle described by Philip Larkin. . . . An appetite for the specific pleasure, the exalted joy that can only be experienced through great poetry, has all but disappeared from the literate class, as Mr. Epstein points out. Moreover, our professional poets, for the most part, no longer have the desire, much less the ability, to create that particular pleasure for their readership. . . .
Eric B. Goodman
To the Editor:
I agree with Joseph Epstein’s very sensible analysis of contemporary poetry, but I think he does not pay quite enough attention to the argument that, as he puts it, “the great themes are gone and all that remains to poetry is a pallid subjectivity.” It used to be that the aim of poetry was to ennoble. Today one must doubt that the majority of poets even believe there is such a thing as nobility. . . .
To the Editor:
Poetry is alive and well and living in Appalachia. . . . I feel honor bound to inform Joseph Epstein that in our part of the world poetry is written and read by people who are and are not attending workshops. A partial list of such poets, living and recently deceased, would include Nikki Giovanni, Billy Edd Wheeler, Jim Wayne Miller, Wendell Berry, James Stokely, Jesse Stuart, Harriette Arnow, George Ella Lyon, Albert Stewart, and Marilou Awiakta.
I invite Mr. Epstein to look into such journals as Appalachian Heritage (published at Berea College), Now and Then (published by East Tennessee State), or the anthology Voices From the Hills (edited by Robert Higgs), to find a sample of poetry which is still alive.
University of Kentucky
To the Editor:
I hope Joseph Epstein will refresh his recollection from the following and undo his canard about the poetry of the last forty years:
“They fuck you up, your mum and dad”; “rainbow, rainbow, rainbow”; “they washed me out of the turret with a hose”; “I knew a woman lovely in her bones”; “in a pure floating/ of dark habits,/ keeping their difficult balance”; “I thought hard for us all—my only swerving”; “Wherever I am/ I am what is missing”; “a savage servility/ slides by on grease”; “at the flute end of consequences”; “and, month after month, the whip-/ crack of the mortgage.”
“My eyes in spectacles shall see/ These trees procure and spend their leaves”; “I learn by going where I have to go”; “The wet dawn inks are doing their blue dissolve”; “Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up./ Nobody is ever missing”; “We real cool”; “if I stepped out of my body I would break/ into blossom”; “And I eat men like air”; “When the bronze annals of the oak tree close”; “drive, he sd”; “I shake my wings/ and fly into its boughs”; “No. Not this pig”; “America I am putting my queer shoulder to the wheel”; “And bowing not knowing to what”; “The swimmer floats, the lover sleeps.”
“And the angel in the gate, the flowering plum,/ Dances like Italy, imagining red”; “of love’s austere and lonely offices”; “with second-rate flowers/ Awkward and milky and beautiful only to hunger”; “Driving around, I will waste more time”; “lovely white clover that rusts with its grass”; “like an arrow-shower/ Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain”; “The spirit breaks, a puff of dust floats up,/ Like a house in Nebraska that suddenly explodes”; “with many shadows interleaved,/ And pierced with a bewilderment of birds.”
I could quote poems to Mr. Epstein all night, and I expect he’d want to put in some, too—poems worth our lives if we didn’t have them.
Case Western Reserve University
To the Editor:
. . . Joseph Epstein is one of our best and most provocative essayists, and fun-loving too—a rare accomplishment in our times. But I doubt that poetry is today another Humpty-Dumpty, as he seems to imply, and that we may never see the whole egg again, and surely not the bird. . . .
Mr. Epstein complains that even recent poets he admires have not planted “language in my head.” But could this not be because he read poets like Eliot or Yeats or Marianne Moore in his youth, when words may make a more lasting impression? Surely a poem like Derek Walcott’s “North and South” has vital things to say about our society in an impassioned, original, and arresting way. What could be more magical or better said than Walcott’s “The Season of Phantasmal Peace”?
Clearly, W.S. Merwin and Galway Kinnell have written as beautifully and persuasively as their predecessors. Is Mr. Epstein prepared to demonstrate that “Lemuel’s Blessing” and “The Bear” are not great poems? . . .
I hope Mr. Epstein is currently reflecting on the death of the novel for his next provocation. At least that will give some poets a chance to laugh a bit.