Pinhole Poetry

When I was in college, I read poetry with great interest because I was interested in writing poetry. It all started, of course, with the composition of terrible sad poems when I was in high school, but as I read more and wrote more, I grew more interested in poetry as an art rather than just as a way of sharing how I felt about things. I went on to get a minor in poetry writing and was considered, I suppose, among my peers and teachers to be not altogether lacking talent (though not the voice of my age either).

When in college, I read all sorts of poetry, Romantics, Victorians, Modernists, mid-century folks, and contemporary poets. I went to poetry readings any time I could. I curled up in the periodicals section in the library with the latest poems of the day. I picked random slim volumes from the poetry shelves and fairly well immersed myself. And in my writing, I emulated those I liked — Wordsworth early on, somewhat comically, and William Carlos Williams, occasionally Creeley. I wrote in conventional poetic forms as often as not but was also interested in turning convention on its head, probably more as a gesture of a sort of bratty defiance than as anything terribly meaningful or original.

After college, I wrote much less. I continued to read poetry for years, though. I kept a subscription to Poetry magazine, let it lapse, and then renewed it. I was less tapped into contemporary poetry, but there was a handful of people whose work I kept an eye open for (I’ll still go out of my way to read Atsuro Riley). A couple of years ago, I let my subscription to Poetry lapse again. I found that, more and more, I enjoyed the prose sections of the magazine but found the poetry opaque, trivial, irrelevant to me, above me, or, maybe, sometimes, just bad. There were better magazines to read for good prose content.

In the July 2013 issue of Harper’s, Mark Edmundson writes an essay entitled “Poetry Slam: Or, The decline of American verse” that eloquently captures some of what has led me away from poetry in recent years. Of course he also says plenty of things I hadn’t really thought of.

There’s a danger of seeming simply to be a malcontent in articles like Edmundson’s. Someone is always saying that the world has gone to pot along one axis of interest or another. The critics of 200 years ago had plenty to say about the poetry of their day. Still, Edmundson does an admirable job of describing some of the things that sapped my interest in poetry, so for me, his essay registers as more than the ranting of a malcontent.

For example, in describing how the most respected poets of today often write blandly and circumspectly, he says the following:

Their poetry is not heard but overheard, and sometimes is too hermetic even to overhear with anything like comprehension.

Edmundson’s central complaint seems to be that poets write on a small scale. No more do we have poets writing about the human condition from the perspective of a universal “we.” Instead, they navel gaze, sometimes make attempts at writing in the vatic voice without much of discernible substance to say. He goes on:

When contemporary poets do write at length, with what appears to be large-scale designs, they tend to lapse into opacity and evasion: witness Paul Muldoon’s “Madoc: A Mystery” and [Jorie] Graham’s “Dream of the Unified Field,” two poems by talented poets that, for this reader at least, fail to make repeated reading worthwhile. “Madoc” is about Wordsworth and Coleridge and their poetic collaboration: I have studied and taught these poets all my adult life and still have barely a clue as to what Muldoon is going on about.

And (of a selection from Graham’s “Dream of the Unified Field”):

The lines are portentous without touching on any fundamental truth of human experience. Who wouldn’t like to write as if he or she held the key to the universe? But at a certain point the key must fit a groove and turn.

Edmundson warns that — as happened with me — one of the dangers of writing either unmoving or opaque poems is that doing so shuts out the common reader. But he also warns that it gives too much power to critics. For Edmundson, this is a problem not because he desires to strip the critics of power but because the poets are leaving the job half done. Although this may seem like a sort of old-fashioned criticism, I’ve read enough poems and stories in which I felt that the author had hung me out to dry by making me wonder what interpretation to arrive at or how even to begin formulating one that it seems apt.

I’ve never had a great relish for long or grand poems, so Edmundson’s arguments about the function of the poet and the need for poets who’ll write on grand topics of humanity bear only so much weight for me. I have no quarrel with his arguments, but I’m not more likely to sit through a long poem that does what he pines for than I am a poem today that doesn’t.

What he does say very well that describes why I essentially gave up on poetry, goes as follows:

What is a poem now? It is, to speak very generally, a moment of illumination. One might call it — after the poet who is, however indirectly, behind much current work, Wordsworth — a spot of time. Suddenly, through luck or grace, application or inertia, the poet sees into the life of things — or more likely into the life of his own being. Yet this moment of illumination need not contribute to any coherent whole. American poets now usually do not seek to weave a comprehensive vision… Now the poem is a pinhole in the massing darkness, not part of any grand illumination in the making… The poet writes the fragment that is given him to write; the idea of chronicling all experience, or all experience that matters, is entirely foreign.

I’m happy enough to read a poem that does a nice job evoking one of those pinhole moments, but ultimately these works feel lightweight and unimportant to me. I also enjoy looking at the pictures my children draw for me, but they seldom provoke thought or, on their own merits, stick with me as significant works of art. So, for all that I’m not terribly interested in reading contemporary epic-length poems that take on the human condition, I also have trouble taking pinhole poems very seriously, especially when I have to pick them out from among the poems made awful by opacity, in-jokes, and so on.

Edmundson writes a bit about poetry in the academy and a bit about fairly recent folk like Yeats, Eliot, and Ginsberg, who didn’t always get it right but who at least took strong positions rather than hedging and who wrote big.

For all his complaints, Edmundson’s not wholly down in the dumps, though:

I often think that our poets now write as though history were over and they were living in a world outside collective time. They write as though the great public crises were over and the most pressing business we had were self-cultivation and the fending off of boredom. Many of our poets are capable of work that matters. There’s a lot of talent in the room. But we need them to use it and to take some chances. We need their help.

I don’t know how much I agree that we need the poets’ help. We’re not a society much inclined to poetry, which maybe is why poetry now isn’t much inclined to take on the problems of our society. If you’re shouting into the wind, you may as well shout things for yourself. I’m not at all convinced that a poetry of the sort Edmundson craves would work today. The audience for it would be so very limited, would be the audience that’s already considering the universal “we” in one way or another. Still, I found much of Edmundson’s article convincing. I admire his passion, and I appreciate that he wrote a piece that articulated better than I’ve ever articulated it for myself some of the things that’ve turned me away from poetry (both reading and writing — for it’s not as if I ever wrote more than pinhole poetry myself). It’s worth a read if you’re a reader or writer of literature or criticism.

One thought on “Pinhole Poetry

  1. Thank you for posting this. I do feel the article author’s bemoaning the solipsistic nature of contemporary poetry is well founded, I also believe we can rarely appreciate good poetry in its time.

    For me, aesthetically, poetry hits the mark when it presents a pinhole moment that, after reading, unfolds, origami-like, into a window on the human condition. William Carlos Williams is the model I recall most vividly achieving this.

    I’ve studied and can appreciate epic, long, allegorical poetry. But I just don’t care. Give me short and perfect and let it unfold later, else write prose.

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