New article from New Pop Lit editor Karl Wenclas:
Recently the arts/news site Buzzfeed published three poems by Nick Flynn.
What’s noteworthy about the poems isn’t their utter mediocrity—I receive better submissions nearly every day for the New Pop Lit website (www.newpoplit.com)— but the way their author has been rewarded for his modest talent by the literary establishment. Simply scroll down from the poems to Nick Flynn’s biographical information. Read the list of plaudits and prizes.
This tells me the world of establishment poetry is in bad shape. Little is risked by approved poets—and little is achieved.
Why do I care? Not just because I co-edit a literary site, but also because I love to recite poetry. Today there’s little worth reciting.
I can’t help thinking that poetry has been trapped of late on two poles. One is hip-hop based street poetry dependent on sing-song rhythmn and rhyming. It’s made to be read aloud. More, to be performed in front of the audience. The style has become predictable and is seldom artistically challenging.
The other pole is academic poetry. I can’t claim to understand the thinking behind it—I just know it reads like bad prose, looks bland on the page and puts audiences who dare listen to it read aloud to sleep. Contemporary academic poetry is sure proof of how institutionalizing an art form kills it.
Modern poetry is not at all in “good working order” as Ezra Pound would say. The Nick Flynn poems linked in the post are completely underwhelming. I do not know much about Flynn; I am sure he writes what he believes in. His lengthy list of awards ties into a much broader issue with our managerial elite: the phenomenon of the Intellectual-yet-Idiot, a term coined by the superb author Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Taleb’s other charge to managerialism is that managers have no “skin in the game;” i.e., they aren’t responsible for the consequences of their actions.
In the literary world, the IYI is quite commonplace. Why? Even though commercial publishing is still a large industry, many of its authors are immune from the forces of market (not that the market is right all of the time: see James Patterson). Literary fiction authors have books published by New York, yet receive grants from the government and foundations. Several authors come to mind: David Foster Wallace (Whiting Prize, MacArthur fellowship), Johnathan Franzen (Guggenheim fellowship), Don DeLillo (also Guggenheim), Cormac McCarthy (Guggenheim, MacArthur, American Academy of Arts and Letters fellowship), among others. Patronage like this is historically quite normal–anyone versed in Renaissance history knows this. My intention here is not to disparage the talents of these particular authors (McCarthy ranks among one of my favorites). The point is that since the creation of the modern university/foundation centered era of literature, we have had a generation of authors insulated from having to write anything that relates to the reading public. The emergence of this new patronage is one of the most important factors in the emergence of Postmodernism–rather than the grassroots movement of the Modernists. The work of the Postmodernists reflects the tastes of a small group, rather than that of the rest of the nation.
The matter of contemporary poetry makes sense in this light. Most poets must teach in order to make a living, and in some way must appeal to the academy in order to gain some kind of recognition. The other problem with contemporary poetry published in literary reviews and journals is its lack of value to the reading public. Poetry read aloud was entertainment prior to the advent of recorded music. Poets were well regarded in popular culture and often frequent subjects of gossip columns. At the end of the First World War this started to decline, and certainly by end of the second war popular music was primary delivery for verse instead of poetry. Our best poets in the past sixty years have not been poets per se but songwriters. At the same time, the academy has done to poetry what they have done to fiction: create stale, “competent” work incapable of leaving any impression on the reader.
If you want good poetry, look to musicians and songwriters. Or, if there are aspiring poets, follow Pound’s advice and “make it new.”