Back about 1992 a friend of mine was taking a creative writing class at the University of Akron and I happened across one of her assigned texts, a slim volume of essays called The Triggering Town by a poet I’d never heard of named Richard Hugo. The book is (or was) considered a classic and was assigned to creative writing classes across the country. I loved it. As a fumbling, clueless novelist, I found the advice in Hugo’s book to be bracing. Also I experienced a gratifying twinge of fellow feeling too, because Hugo worked a desk at a manufacturing company for fourteen years (he worked for aircraft giant Boeing), and I’d just started a similar job myself (I stayed over sixteen years in truck equipment manufacturing sales).
For many years I ransacked that book, they gradually forgot about it as I got older and my cynicism increased. Recently, I ran across my copy of The Triggering Town, frantically underlined and scribbled with my marginal notes. I dipped in and found still much to be admired – Hugo is an engaging writer and a true gentle soul. But the poetry – Hugo’s poetry, which is featured throughout the book – I found to be awful – a kind of “Deep Image Lite,” with long passages of just “Lite” – plain-voice aw shucks stuff with incontinent descriptions of wind and water and the sun and stuff. That was a dominant mode back in the ’70s and ’80s, the American equivalent of the Georgian Period (browse a back issue of Poetry from that era to see what I mean). Hugo, glad to be rid of Boeing and quite comfy at the University of Montana, was a booster of the burgeoning university poetry scene:
“Mark Strand remarked recently in Montana that American poetry could not help but get better and better, and I’m inclined to agree. I doubt that we’ll have the one big figure of the century the way other nations do, Yeats, Valéry. Giants are not the style of the society, though the wind knows there are enough people who want to create them, and not just a few who want to be them. I think we’ll end up with a lot of fine poets, each doing his thing. There are a lot of bright and substantial young people writing and a lot of good poetry-writing teachers available to help them, poets who earned the title the hard way and who are generous enough to pass on all that they learned for themselves…”
(From the essay “Stray Thoughts on Roethke and Teaching” from The Triggering Town, 1977, p. 33).
Sign me up, please. So I would’ve said in 1992. Now I read this with dismay. For sure we have no “big figures” in American poetry – Elizabeth Bishop (died 1979) is perhaps the last “big” American poet. And we certainly do have lots and lots of poets “doing his thing.” But has American poetry – I mean the individual poems – gotten “better and better” since the 1970s? I don’t think so, and whenever somebody make such a claim I ask what poem they have in mind, what individual poem endures the way Bishop’s “One Art” or Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” or Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” have?
Throughout history people have tried to professionalize poetry (“Shakespeare can’t be a poet, for he didn’t go to university,” sniffed the University Poets). These are not the poets “who earned the title the hard way” so much as they are poets who have established their credentials and careers. But real poets don’t have credentials and careers; they only have poems. Which leads me to my next, and for me far more bracing and truthful quote, by the desolate poet, critic, and possible suicide Randall Jarrell:
“Writing good poetry is only occasionally difficult: usually it is impossible. But writing what seems to you good poetry is always easy, if only, somehow, your standards of what constitutes a good poem can be lowered (and specialized) to what you write; this unconscious and progressive lowering of taste, a sort of fatty degeneration of the critical faculties, is the most common of ends.”
Randall Jarrell, from his essay “Poets: Old, New and Aging” in Kipling, Auden & Co. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980), page 44.
A very terrifying quote; it scared me to pieces when I first encountered it 15 years ago or so, around the time my infatuation with The Triggering Town had started to fade. That “usually it is impossible” got to me at first, but as the years went by I became even more uncomfortable with that “what seems to you good poetry is always easy.” What a blighted, limited, pessimistic, and unhelpful way to look at the art! What a grump. Isn’t poetry something to be shared and taught in schools and workshops and senior citizen living centers? Isn’t poetry something to be mastered, with an extensive M.F.A. and Ph.D. academic apparatus in place to instruct and nurture and matriculate the worthy (“a lot of good poetry-writing teachers”)? Isn’t poetry the embodiment of the truth that every person has a story, thereby every person has a voice?
Yes to all that, I say! I’m all for poetry and its spiritual and societal benefits. I am also for “bright and substantial young people writing.” Access to poetry – reading or writing – should be wide open. But again, too often the poems – individual, quotable poems – get lost in the rhetoric of poetry. Perhaps the most egregious symptom of this is the problem of overproduction. Since Richard Hugo came in from the cold and got a university job in the 1970s, the number of American poems published has gone critical. Even before the Internet the proliferation of journals and books was staggering. This is seen by some a sign of cultural robustness and rude good health. Which leads me to my next dismal quote:
As art sinks into paralysis, artists multiply. This anomaly ceases to be one if we realize that art, on its way to exhaustion, has become both impossible and easy.
(E. M. Cioran, trans. Richard Howard, from The Trouble with Being Born).
Ah Cioran, the Franco-Romanian philosopher who wrote approvingly about suicide for sixty years or so then died an octogenarian of natural causes. Despite the discrepancies, he’s one of my favorite writers, and he’s even grouchier than Jarrell.
“The older I grow, the more I realize that I have counted too much on poetry. I have loved it at the expense of my health; I anticipated succumbing to my worship of it. Poetry! The word itself once led me to image a thousand universes and now no longer wakens in my mind anything but a vision of singsong and nullity, of fetid mysteries and affectations. It is only fair to add that I have made the mistake of frequenting a good number of poets. With very few exceptions, they were uselessly solemn, infatuated, or odious, monsters, specialists, tormentors, and martyrs of the adjective whose dilettantism, lucidity, and intellectual sensibility I had vastly overestimated.”
(E. M. Cioran, trans. Richard Howard, from The Temptation to Exist. From the essay “Some Blind Alleys: A Letter”)
Perhaps Cioran should have stuck to individual poems, not some Grand Ideal of Poetry or the “frequenting” of actual live poets. Here is the semi-forgotten poet and critic R. P. Blackmur being relentlessly clear about this:
“The greatness of Emily Dickinson is not – to review our select list of prejudices – going to be found in anybody’s idea of greatness, or of Goethe, or intensity, or mysticism, or historical fatality. It is going to be found in the words she used and in the way she put them together; which we will observe, if we bother to discriminate our observations, as a series of facts about words.”
(R. P. Blackmur, The Expense of Greatness (1940; 1955 reprint), from the essay “Emily Dickinson” p. 118)
Ah, to stick to “the words she used and in the way she put them together” and the robotic “series of facts about words.” There’s a real trick to that – to “bother to discriminate our observations.” Besides, discriminating is bad, isn’t it? It embodies a narrowing, a limiting, a judging process that violates poetry’s vast, boundless mission to…to do what exactly, I’m not sure, but certainly it needs to be doing something, doesn’t it? “For poetry makes nothing happen,” famously said W. H. Auden (in his poem “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” – one “big figure of the century” writing about another). But I think poetry is afflicted with mission creep, we start to fret about what poetry can do rather than just letting a poem just simply be. Jarrell again, on poets, criticism, and incontinent approval:
“When we read the criticism of any past age, we see immediately that the main thing wrong with it is an astonishing amount of what Eliot calls “fools’ approval”; most of the thousands of poets were bad, most of the thousands of critics were bad, and they loved each other.” Randall Jarrell, Letter to The Nation, 1948
Bad poets and bad critics loving each other (nowadays the poets usually serve as the critics, making things arguably even worse than in 1948). Mediocrity has few defenders, because who wants to be mediocre (or for that matter, a fool)? James Boswell, who had many faults, lack of candor (at least in his diaries) not being one of them, recorded this 1760s conversation with playwright Richard Sheridan:
“We disputed about poems. Sheridan said that a man should not be a poet except he was very excellent; for that to be a mediocris poeta (see note) was but a poor thing. I said I differed from him. For the greatest part of those who read poetry have a mediocre taste; consequently one may please a great many. Besides, to write poems is very agreeable, and one has always people enough to call them good; so that a man of a tolerable genius rather gains than loses.”
Note: Horace, Ars Poetica, l. 372. (“Middling poets were never tolerated by gods, by men, or by booksellers.”)
James Boswell, ed. Frederick A. Pottle, Boswell’s London Journal 1762-1763, 18 January 1763; page 151.
“To write poems is very agreeable, and one has always people enough to call them good…” That’s more terrifying than anything even Randall Jarrell ever said.