On the Monied Muse

A couple of weeks ago, The New Yorker published an article by Dana Goodyear, "The Monied Muse." It covers the after-effects of Ruth Lilly's bequest of $200 million to Poetry magazine, focusing especially on John Barr, the executive of the Poetry Foundation which administers the money.

Barr is a cultural conservative, and in the article, he articulates arguments against contemporary poetry that are echoed by the likes of Billy Collins, Dana Gioia, and Christian Wiman, criticisms that are more than 30 years old, actually, and they are getting threadworn. Goodyear quotes from Barr early in her essay, and this more or less sums up his various arguments against contemporary poetry:

In the essay, Barr declared, “American poetry is ready for something new because our poets have been writing in the same way for a long time now. There is fatigue, something stagnant about the poetry being written today.” Poetry, largely absent from public life—from classrooms, bookstores, newspapers, mainstream media—“has a morale problem,” he said; it is in “a bad mood.” Poems are written only with other poets in mind, and therefore do not sell. (Two thousand copies is the industry standard.) He argued that the effect of M.F.A. programs, increasingly prevalent since the nineteen-seventies, has been “to increase the abundance of poetry, but to limit its variety. The result is a poetry that is neither robust, resonant, nor—and I stress this quality—entertaining.” In a section titled “Live Broadly, Write Boldly,” he urged poets to do as Hemingway did, and seek experience outside the academy—take a safari, go marlin fishing, run with the bulls. “The human mind is a marketplace, especially when it comes to selecting one’s entertainment,” he wrote. “If you look at drama in Shakespeare’s day, or the novel in the last century, or the movie today, it suggests that an art enters its golden age when it is addressed to and energized by the general audiences of its time.”

Charge #1: Poets have been writing in the same way for a long time now. So John Ashbery writes just like Adrienne Rich who writes just like Denise Duhamel who writes just like Vikram Seth who writes just like Yusef Komunyakaa who writes just like Louise Gluck who writes just like Kevin Young who writes just like Dean Young who writes just like Eavan Boland who writes just like Janet Holmes who writes just like Mark Doty who writes just like Thylias Moss? There's no difference in the aesthetic or philosophical assumptions between LANGUAGE poetry, New Formalism, Cave Canem, Expansionist, neo-Lyricist, Cowboy, Spoken Word poetry?

Charge #2: Contemporary poetry, thanks to M.F.A. programs, is no longer robust or entertaining. Evidently all the ills of contemporary poetry is due to the burgeoning growth of M.F.A. programs--this is a charge that has been around even before I attended Indiana in 1981. This is one of the most tiresome arguments of the cultural conservative critics. I would argue that M.F.A. programs have decentered poetry in the United States, and for good and ill, that's about the extent of thier effect. There has always been really bad poetry, both within and without the academy. More distressing is this idea of poetry as entertainment (this is the Billy Collins phenomenon), that it needs to be in the marketplace, holding some central ground in our culture. Even with an infusion of $200 million, even with the stewardship of John Barr and Dana Gioia at the NEA, poetry will and must remain on the margins of our culture. The great remedy imagined by Barr and Gioia is to set up a National Poetry Recitation Bee, something akin to the National Spelling Bee. Now that's entertainment, and that's certainly going to revolutionize poetry in the United States. Why not an American Idol competition for American poetry?

Charge #3: Academic poets need to get out in the "real" world. What's hilarious in these charges is that you have men like Gioia and Barr proclaiming some kind of access to the general audience when they have been going to Harvard and Stanford, being CEO's of large corporations, and they lecture M.F.A. programs for somehow being disconnected or irrelevant to the general culture. So they tell me to be like Hemmingway (damn, imagine the poetry Emily Dickinson could have written if she had killed a tiger or traded shots with Gertrude Stein). Gee whiz, because I am an "academic poet," I am locked away in my garret: no, I couldn't possibly have a family, and no, I couldn't have run with the bulls, and no, I couldn't have trapped and released bears, and no, I couldn't have worked as a grocery clerk, and no, I never have to go to the State Pen to visit my brother, and no, I have never stood in line for unemployment compensation, and no, I couldn't have explored the Lilly Museum in Indianapolis on acid, and no, I couldn't have a 401k plan, and no, I couldn't be a fan of Boise State Football, and no, I couldn't drive a 12-year-old pick-up truck without air conditioning, and no, I couldn't be a rock climber, and no, I couldn't have gone on week long hiking excursions in the Idaho wilderness, because I spent three years of my life chasing an M.F.A. degree taught by other folks with M.F.A. degrees.

Charge #4: The "Golden Age" of an artform is when it is addressed to and is energized by the general audience of its age. Usually, when one speaks of poetry with this argument, they'll talk about the WWI soldiers carrying books of poetry in their knapsacks (I have yet to see any kind of sociologically-based statistical analysis of this phenomenon, by the way). Or, one will point to Robert Frost as the exemplar of the National Poet. I argue that poetry occupies both a central and energetic place in our culture (check out the thousands of web sites and blogs dedicated to poetry, check out all the poetic responses to 9/11 in small town newspapers, etc.) and on the edges of culture. In Shakespeare's lifetime, what was the percentage of people in England who actually saw one of his plays, had ever read one of his poems? Poetry is alive not because it's popular, but because it has been relevant, remains relevant, at the times we need it most.

In the end, I feel a little dirty giving John Barr this attention (he's the kind of loathsome individual who reckons that any kind of attention given his way is a sign of his importance). But the only reason for the attention given to him is not the force of his ideas, and certainly not for his own poetry, but because of that big wad of money in his back pocket.


Cam said…
Interesting post. I don't know much about Barr. A friend who doesn't no much about poetry (his assessment, not my judgement) forwarded an article about him a few months ago & I was bored by the end of the second paragraph and have yet to finish reading it.

I don't get the argument about MFA programs ruining poetry. Do journals check one's academic degrees before selecting one's work for publishing? I've never submitted anything for publishing nor do I think any of my poems are good enough for that, but am I just being naive about this? It seems so ridiculous of a charge that I can't believe that it gets the attention that it does. As with any art form there are can be trends, but as a reader of poetry, I don't feel that what I find published is all the same.

Your image of Dickinson on safari is wicked. I thought: "Because the tiger would not wait for death..." or "After the safari shoot, a formal feeling comes". Too easy, perhaps. :)

And, really? The Lilly Museum on acid -- the IMA or Oldfields? I'm impressed, Jim, but surely that confirms that you couldn't possibly be the right kind of poet, unlike Barr who as a former CEO knows the plight of the working man with sweat on his brow.

Thanks for the interesting commentary, even if Barr isn't worthy of such attention.
wendy said…
Huh...So I guess I have a leg up on you because I'm essentially uneducated..with no BA let alone MFA. Go fiure. All is poppycock. Talent is talent..wherever it sprouts from. This reeks of reverse discrimination..

I would dance a jig to earn a dime for my poems...well ok..maybe a little more...
January said…
I have the New Yorker article with me at AWP just waiting to be read.

(This is a fine rebuttal to Goodyear's article, BTW.)

When I came to the conference and scanned the book fair, I thought I had entered the Wal-Mart of poetry. "Look at all of this mediocrity," I said to myself. Look at all of these published poets that no one has heard of. And look at all of the MFA students waiting for their chance to be recognized. *big sigh*

But on closer inspection, I was surprised and thrilled at the increased numbers of independent publishers and online journals with tables at this year's conference. These MFAs are forging new paths to reach a wider audience. And a lot of the poems and journals are really high quality, which proves your point that poetry is more decentralized, more pedestrian, and more relevant than ever.
jim said…
Wendy, Cam, and Jan:

Thank you for your thoughtful responses.

I agree entirely that having an MFA says so little about the poetry itself. I'm only troubled by this rather widespread and facile belief that MFA programs are the reason for mediocrity.

With folks interested in pursuing an MFA and they want me to write a letter of recommendation or to give them advice, I first inquire what they want our of the MFA. If they don't say anything about being in a community of writers, I immediately know that they're not looking for the degree for the right reason. All an MFA can give you is that gift of time to focus and prioritize your work and to be among a group of other writers. Of course, there are other ways of getting that kind of community, and even being a great poet without ever looking for such a community.

And yes, Jan, I know exactly what you mean by book publishing having a Wal-mart feel to it, and I'm really glad (and hopeful) that you saw little disruptions to that along the way. One cool publisher is Wave Books (I don't like all the poets in their group, but I love their spirit).

And the Lilly, IMA. But that was a long time ago.