In a long but engrossing essay on literary history, Stephen Burt asks: “Is American poetry still a thing?” Pithy questions need long clarifications. Here are his:
I take my title from the transatlantic cultural critic John Oliver, whose television show asks “How is (Columbus Day, Daylight Savings Time, Televangelism, etc.) still a thing?” Oliver implies that the thing in question has become useless, harmful, or obsolete. I do not ask whether individual poems are useless or harmful, but whether “American poetry,” as a category and a concept, might be obsolete, and whether the term and the set of works to which it has pointed no longer cohere. If that is the case, what should replace it?
The best way answer to this question is with either a book or a few paragraphs. I’ll opt for the latter:
It’s pretty clear that for the moment American poetry is done.
Below, three theories and some idiosyncratic remarks on why/how this is so.
1) There are no great American poetic imaginations.
Great cultures uncannily breed the great imaginations that will embody, refine, and then propagate them to the rest of the world. Twain in America, Dickens in England, and Joyce in Ireland are a few examples. Unfortunately, the American imagination is currently anti-poetic, as it’s lost a sense of its own strangeness—our strangeness, really—which I construe as an appreciation of the chasm between what we are and what we imagine ourselves to be.
Poetry once spoke to and touched that uncommodified part of human subjectivity that could conjure new meanings it could marshal against dread and incongruity. But that strange, unchartable space no longer exists. It is the parking lot that used to be paradise.
2) Too much American poetry reads like prose.
Under conditions such as 1), even the most brilliant American poetry can no longer sing as it once did. It’s not poetry anymore because we’ve lost the capacity to read it as such.
3) There’s enough prose that’s poetry.
The poetry of today is algorithms. It’s propaganda. It’s marketing. It’s conspiracy theory. It’s porn. It’s un-metered, non-rhyming discourse—symbolic and syntactical structures denatured of any obligations to truth-value or correspondence to discreet circumstances in the world. Instead, poetry’s replacement creates “the world.” This is the stuff that really sings now to the black box within each of us. Whoever the lead developer of Swift is, whoever re-imagines the latest Avengers movie as a costumed gang-bang has the inside track on being America’s most important living poet.
I think of these discourses as “dark poetry,” as they re-mystify that which poetry had previously clarified in terms of Enlightenment subjectivity and values. The poetics of algorithms, propaganda, marketing, conspiracy theory, and pornography are “dark” because there currently are no equally sophisticated counter-codes that can at least expose them unequivocally for what they are.
I wish that I had a novel account of how the processes that led to 1), 2), and 3) came about, but it’s nothing more than that we’ve debased certain values that enable us to truly hear what real poets are trying to tell us. In doing so, we’ve opened ourselves up to the kind of social control that inoculates us against what poetry is supposed to do.
So, not only is American poetry no longer a thing—we’ve even lost ideas of what sort of thing it should be.
IMAGE SOURCE: Creative Commons photo by ideonexus.com