Monday, March 12, 2007


I think it's time to break out of the visual world, and consider the written word. After all, there's plenty going on in the world of poetry and there's plenty going on here in Indianapolis for those interested in it (what's going on in Indianapolis will come in later posts).

First, I think we should discuss John Barr's September 2006 essay (and the continued fall out) in Poetry Magazine. Barr is the president of the Poetry Foundation, which was formed after Indianapolis' Ruth Lilly reportedly gave $200 million to Poetry.

His essay, "American Poetry in the New Century" was a call for a new poetry. I remember reading the essay and being shocked by its boldness. Read it here. Here are three of the most quoted lines from that essay:

"Modernism has passed into the DNA of MFA programs. For all its schools and experiments, contemporary poetry is still written in the rain shadow thrown by Modernism. It is the engine that drives what is written today. And it is a tired engine."

"Contemporary poetry's striking absence from the public dialogues of our day, from the high school classroom, from bookstores, and from mainstream media, is evidence of a people in whose mind poetry is missing and unmissed."

And, when coming up with a solution for this dilemma, he suggests that "Poets should live broadly, then write boldly" (he gives as example Hemingway's predilection for safaris, Steven's career in the Insurance business, and Williams' career as a doctor).

I'm not going to break down the essay -- I would probably do it poorly, and others have done it well (see below). But I'd be interested to hear what people think about the importance of poetry (this is the first time it's been brought up on this blog). Also, I'd be interested to hear what people think of the importance of MFA programs, for both visual arts and literature. This is one of Barr's central points: that they are not helping to produce artists, that they are actually hindering them. Since Indianapolis is without an MFA program in the visual arts or creative writing, by this logic, it would be an ideal place to produce artists that would fit Barr's model.

Anyway, Here are 2 very recent articles that discuss these issues in depth, the first from the New Yorker, a lengthy piece titled "The Moneyed Muse." Even if you're not interested in poetry or Poetry you should read that article here because it has a brief look into the life of Ruth Lilly and the story of her giving the $200 million. And when you are done reading that, you can read the response to that article in the New York Times, "Annals of Poetry" here. I have no idea how long those links will be active, but they were when I posted this.

Hmm ... here's a late addition, Poetry Foundation has responded to these two articles and also has provided a lot more links to other points of conversation regarding this topic in a note called "What to do about Poetry: the argument that keeps on giving". Get it here.

7 Responses to “Poetry”

Anonymous said...
March 13, 2007 at 11:06 PM

His comments about poetry are comments that were made many times about contemporary art in the past decades, but more people are warming to contemporary art because it did open up. There is a lot of poetry being written that is extremely accessible while still being intellectually demanding, but people aren't being introduced to it in school. The idea of contemporary poetry is totally novel for most people. I'm not sure that this is entirely the poet's fault. Reading poetry has never been easy, it takes trust and imagination and a certain amount of rigor to read any of it, if it's any good. I'm not sure that people are as interested in putting that much into reading when they can go to the movies and experience something that seems just as emotionally gripping as a good poem.

Anonymous said...
March 15, 2007 at 12:25 AM

thanks for posting this article. Poetry and the visual arts have a lot in common. Poetry, though, is always a decade or two behind.

Anonymous said...
March 15, 2007 at 1:11 PM

Many thanks from me as well for this post. I didn't know anything about the NYT article, but I've been reading the New Yorker regularly for a year now and this review echoes my thoughts almost exactly. I can recall only a few poems I've read in the New Yorker that seem autonomous-- almost every poem makes me wishing I was reading from the poet's collection so I had some inkling of context. For me, reading them is disorienting & ultimately pointless.

Furthermore, in my observation The New Yorker does little to combat what I sense to be the prevailing public opinion about their audience: it's nothing but rich old white folks. The insinuation of croneyism that the NYT author makes might equate them to another organization that's been accused of the c-word. I wonder what Hendrik Hertzberg would write about that in Talk of the Town.

FYI- John Barr's rebuttal to the Goodyear article was published in a subsequent issue. I couldn't find it online.

Cavu said...
March 17, 2007 at 4:14 PM

Interesting post.

I'm an MFA student finishing up my coursework and starting my thesis in poetry. There wasn't much contemporary poetry in my Literature undergrad work, but I've been attracted to it in my own studies and haven't felt an absence of it--because I go buy the books, download the podcasts, have a writer-community here and go to readings. I don't expect anyone to hand it to me. I go get it because I'm interested in it, so its absence hadn't occurred to me. Comments about poetry being "behind" other arts scenes sound uninformed to me. Amazing, current work is out there, and needing to evaluate it's hipness isn't releavant to my purpose with it.

My own work isn't fueled by (or thwarted by) the reactions of others. I've been published, and it's nice to have that. I write because I'm driven to write, though. I want to learn the skills, I enjoy the creative endeavour. I want to be good at it, of course, and to share it. But my ego feels pretty detatched from my motivation.
It sounds like there are many MFA programs that are corrupt, and many students who go for an ego boost, or to crush others, or to gain validation, or to acquire the secret nugget that will help them write well and get paid for their work. That is all a problem, and hasn't been my experience at all.

There's another bunch of programs and students who go to actually learn craft skills, to have a community of others who are on a similar journey (cultivating their own work, revising, learning, sending stuff out) that has to do with support--not hobbyism or egoism. My program is challenging but respectful. It doesn't tolorate pretentiousness or facilitate an abusive environment. I plan to write books and to teach at the university level when I'm through--the latter wouldn't be possible for me without the MFA, and the former will be improved because of it.

I debated going to an MFA program altogether. I believe an artist needs to learn the rules before he or she can break them. Picasso learned to paint perfect landscapes before he created cubism. MFA is both training in how to paint landscapes, so to speak, and a supportive place to experiement and try to develop one's own version of cubism, so to speak.

Anonymous said...
March 20, 2007 at 3:45 PM

Let's not talk about how Picasso knew how to really paint before he started to paint. How about a new example?

Richard said...
March 20, 2007 at 6:06 PM

While the Picasso analogy may be a bit worn out, I thought his point was a good one. And the analogy was succesful. I wonder where you were confused, anyonymous. It seems even more tired to trash a whole post for one anology.

I think the thoughts about going to graduate are important, and directly related to the discussion of the importance of grad schools. As an argument for an MFA degree.

Anonymous said...
March 23, 2007 at 10:58 AM

The problem with the Picasso analogy is that so many of the greatest poets of all time -- and even recent times -- never learned how to paint poetry landscapes before they wrote. The article that prompted this discussion makes that clear when it says no widely known American poet has an MFA degree. So all of the others -- Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Walt Whitman, the beats, etc. -- didn't have that training. It seems logical then to think that the training, while important to the visual artists, isn't helping poetry much.

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