Poetic Economy (updated 11-19-2014)

Doug Barrett

I wonder how many Nevada poets were following the dust-up that occurred last year in response to Mark Edmundson's article in Harper's, "Poetry Slam:  Or, the Decline of American Verse."  Ron Charles of The Washington Post broke the story even before Edmundson's piece appeared, in an article entitled "Why Is Modern Poetry So Bad?"  It began:  "Friday morning, America's great poets will wake up to find that someone has TP-ed their trees and scrawled "COWARD" on their door."  A list of Edmundson's culprits followed:  Paul Muldoon, Jorie Graham, Anne Carson, John Ashbery, Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Charles Simic, Frank Bidart, Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, Seamus Heaney.

The outrage was nearly universal.  Who didn't have a favorite poet on Edmundson's hit list?  What could this be but an attack on contemporary poetry in general?  And in defense of poetry arose numerous responses, not all of which bothered to wait for Edmundson's piece to appear.  When it did, it became clear that, Charles' inflammatory title notwithstanding, Edmundson's marks were in fact "our most highly regarded contemporary poets—the gang now in their fifties, sixties, and beyond, who get the major prizes and the plum teaching jobs and appear from time to time in the pages of The New Yorker" (61).  What did Edmundson want?   He wanted poets who can say "we":  who aren't content with technical virtuosity and innovation, or with expressing private illuminations, but who are at least open to the prospect of speaking to, and for, humanity at large.  But our leading poets today "not only talk to themselves in their poems; they frequently talk to themselves about talking to themselves" (62, Edmundson's italics).  They focus on creating a unique personal voice that is "not heard but overheard, and sometimes is too hermetic even to overhear with anything like comprehension" (62).  Of the three capacities needed for poetic greatness—mastery of the craft, a passionate theme, and the ambition to address readers with a comprehensive vision of life—the third is largely lacking (64). 

So all of us minor poets, laboring in the shadows, could relax.  We were not the targets.  But were our sighs of relief premature?  To be sure, Edmundson didn't call us out directly.  Yet even if we aren't responsible for the failings of poetry's leading lights, we are affected by those failings—and by the situation that gives rise to them, the main features of which can be comprehended under the heading of "poetic economy."

Perhaps the strongest opposition to Edmundson came from Seth Abramson's two essays, "Why Is American Poetry So Good?" and "The Golden Age of American Poetry Is Now."  Abramson offers a long list of reasons why we're living in a golden age of poetry:  more poets writing and publishing, more poetry publications, more poetry festivals, more poetry groups, more poets building virtual communities on social media, more minority groups writing and publishing—and "[b]ecause creative writing is the fastest-growing field of study in the United States" ("Why Is American Poetry So Good?")   

"Imagine," invites Abramson, "an America in which tens of thousands of young citizens decide, on the brink of manhood or womanhood and entrance into the national workforce, to forestall the benefits of daily employment—a livable wage, a means of transportation, property ownership, the many existential comforts attendant to starting a family—to struggle in the literary arts for several years."  (In case you thought Abramson was referring a new Poetic Peace Corps, he means enrolling in an MFA program.)  As for why anyone would make such a sacrifice, Abramson's next sentence gives a clue:    "Imagine an America in which tens of millions of dollars are annually funneled to creative writers by state and federal governments" ("The Golden Age of American Poetry Is Now").  The private sector gets involved too; Abramson cites a recent bequest to the Poetry Foundation as the largest in the history of American poetry.  Yes, it may be possible these days to make a decent living as a poet.  Is that so bad?

It might be.  "Poetry now is something of a business," Edmundson observes, suggesting that the result has been a generation of writers for whom poetry is less of a vocation than a career path:  the MFA, the first book, the assistant professorship, steppingstones to a comfortable livelihood.  The process often depends on the sponsorship of a mentor, a senior poet with the pull to open career doors.  And here "the first law of success is simple:  Never outshine the master.  The well-tempered courtier knows how to make those above him feel superior.  He knows that in his desire to succeed he must not go too far in displaying what he can do.  The master will not like it—and there will be no first book, no fellowship, no job, no preferment" (66). 

At this point, one recalls Donald Hall's critique of the "McPoem."  Just as capitalism discovered how to mass produce cars, washers, hamburgers, and computers, Hall observes, so postmodern culture has hit on how to mass produce poems—"billions  and billions served"—tasty yet unmemorable, non-nutritious, and (to extend the analogy to the fullest) produced at significant cost to the environment, by which we may understand the atmosphere of free creative thought.  "To produce the McPoem," says Hall, "institutions must enforce patterns, institutions within institutions, all subject to the same glorious dominance of unconscious economic determinism, template and formula of consumerism." 

The shift from mass production of material goods to mass production of poetry does not, however, arise simply from desire to make a good living.  It's also about that most elusive of cultural goods:  a poetic identity.  For Emerson, this means that the poet


stands among partial men for the complete man, and apprises us not of his wealth, but of the commonwealth.  The young man reveres the men of genius, because, to speak truly, they are more himself than he is.  They receive of the soul as he receives, but they more. . . .  For all men live by truth, and stand in need of expression. . . .   In love, in art, in avarice, in politics, in labor, in games, we study to utter our painful secret.  The man is only half himself, the other half is his expression.  (168)


Is the poet our unrealized true self?  Once our more basic needs have been met, do we all desire, deep down, to be poets?  Is that why thousands, awakening to the futility of contemporary life, choose to become, not passive, spineless cultural consumers, but active creators who can impose upon the world their vision of life?  So, says Abramson, we have a golden age


[b]ecause celebrities already rich and famous for skill-sets America actually values still dream of being poets when they go to sleep, and consequently publish books with silly titles like A Knight Without Armor and Blinking With Fists. Because I left a career in law to pursue poetry, and because the recent explosion in the number of low-residency MFA programs in the United States is explained by the fact that other attorneys and doctors and professionals of all stripes are now realizing that American culture can now accommodate, in a way it previously could not, the passions and ambitions of more than just its discrete bohemian class.  ("Why Is American Poetry So Good?")


In this way poetic aspiration arises among the leisure classes.  But these rising aspirations contribute to changes in the poetic economy.

            Everyone wants to be a poet, to publish his or her vision.  Fewer people these days want to read, to submit to the vision of another—an activity less flattering to narcissism.  Yes, poetry's audience is expanding, but it seems less able than ever to keep up with poetic output.  So little magazines blossom like spring crocuses, struggle a few years against the wind, and expire from lack of subscribers, or from the rigors of unremunerated editorial work.  "Support poetry, subscribe to a journal—any journal!" pleads entry after entry in Poet's Market.  Not exactly the sign of a golden age, which might be expected to produce poetry everyone wants to read.  It seems rather the formula for a recession:  when the goods produced overwhelm the public's capacity to consume them. 

            In addition, though:  when candidates for a newly prestigious profession exceed the demand, the increased competition leads to increased emphasis on credentialing and schooling.  Whom do we recognize as a "real" poet?  "Eminence," Hall observes, "is arithmetical:  it derives from the number of units published times the prestige of the places of publication.  People hiring or granting do not judge quality—it's so subjective!—but anyone can multiply units by the prestige index and come off with the product."  And this isn't just a post-publication thing; many journals want to know one's publication credits before considering one's poems.  At how many journals do MFA candidates serve as gatekeepers, sifting out work that lacks proper credentialing or that strays too far from the template of the McPoem?  Are we approaching the day when an MFA on one's resume will be required for access to first- and second-tier journals?  Is it already here?

            Here we pause to assure readers that whatever is done elsewhere, such will never be the practice of The Wildcat Review as long as the current editors are in charge.  We want your poems first, your bio after, and for your credits we care not at all. 

            The authority of credentialing rests in part on that of schooling—on the proposition that poetic ability can be taught.  The hope of innumerable aspiring poets and teachers is that it can.  Hence the proliferation of MFA programs, writers' magazines and websites, writing workshops, and poetry coaches.  (While it can still be a challenge to make a living as a poet, helping others become poets may enable you to hang in there until you hit the big time.)  But is this the help budding poets need most?  Hall, reviewing typical workshop assignments, argues that they "reduce poetry to a parlor game; they trivialize and make safe-seeming the real terrors of real art. . . .We learn to write poems that will please not the Muse but our contemporaries, thus poems that resemble our contemporaries' poems—thus the recipe for the McPoem."  While games, employed by the right facilitator, can liberate by loosening rigid patterns of thought and language, one can understand why poets who want to do original work might steer clear of workshop socialization.

But doesn't such individualism imply discredited Romantic ideas of genius?  Postmodern theory (the cultural logic of late capitalism, says Fredric Jameson) insists on the primacy of the socio-linguistic signifier, even at times applauding "castration by the signifier" that imprints us as social beings, creating the great unspoken "we" of conventionalist, consensualist theory.  Such an investment underlies Abramson's reliance on bandwagon fallacy.  Contemporary poetry is good, in part,


because the Association of Writers and Writing Programs has its largest membership ever and so many attendees to its annual conference that poets now take over one American city per year when they congregate for it, because poets no longer fawn over the Romantic ideal of genius and instead understand that genius is fundamentally a social rather than spiritual good.


What is genius as a "social good" but talent conformable with the taste of the time, which genius as a "spiritual good" resists?  Still, defining genius as a social good consoles us by making it available to everyone.  If you're not quite there yet, keep trying.  Maybe this self-publishing tip will help. . .

            Yet when was it ever any different?  Maybe the most valid objection to Edmundson is that all he says is old hat—it's been said before.  Indeed it has, and for good reason.  Thus Emerson, discussing an unnamed contemporary, anticipates Edmundson's complaint that current poets decline to create "a full scale map of experience":  the poet in question does not stand like Mt. Chimborazo on the equator,


running up from the torrid base through all the climates of the globe, with belts of the herbage of every latitude on its high and mottled sides; but this genius is the landscape-garden of a modern house, adorned with fountains and streams, with well-bred men and women standing and sitting in the walks and terraces.  We hear, through all the varied music, the ground-tone of conventional life. (170-71)


To how many of our prize-winning poets does this apply?  As a commenter on Beispiel's response to Edmundson conceded, today's poetic scene exhibits "a low hum of activity but . . . no thunderbolts,” to which another reader replied: 


I think the problem – with Edmundson’s argument, as well as many other things – is the expectation of thunderbolts, the insane desire for thunderbolts. I’m taking thunderbolts here to mean something impossible to ignore, something that makes it easy for critics to make bombastic pronouncements and readers to sign over their lifelong devotion. . . . . Thunderbolts are almost inevitably the minority seizing an opportunity to force something on the majority.


Precisely.  This aggressive defense of the quotidian, of complacent narcissism, of the primordial soup of Freud's nirvana principle, against the oppressive, ill-mannered stimulus of "Romantic genius" is perhaps the closest we get to thunderbolts today. 

The postmodern answer to Edmundson is that "we" has already been said by the collective voice, and that it is therefore pointless, oxymoronic even, to call on some mighty individual to sum up our experience for us.  Collective experience, by definition, needs no such summing up.  Could we call that a "universal truth"?  It's always been that way; we've just become more articulate and assertive in saying so.

Instead of the megalomanic drive to sum up contemporary experience, or the Romantic aspiration to express the inexpressible, our neo-neoclassical age prefers "unexpressing the expressible" as in the work of Ashbery, whose evasions Edmundson terms "coin of the realm" (67).  I suspect this poetics arises most deeply from two intimations.  First, that the old sources of perceptual-intuitive experience are no longer accessible.  It's not just that the direct encounter with nature is absent or irrelevant for urban poets, though that's part of it.  It's also that a parallel aspect of mind is vanishing, which we must learn to make do without.  And the source of this disappearance is the predominance of conceptual knowledge. 

A deconstructive poet like Ashbery, "challenges the domination of the mind over the universe of experience" and "unmakes sense" (Edmunson 66).  He does so, however, not by regenerating presymbolic experience, but by undoing the symbolic-instrumental complex from within.  This move is what D.H. Lawrence called "sensation":  "the undoing of a complete unit [of consciousness] into the factors which previously went to making its oneness.  It is the reduction of the iris back into its component waves" (393):  the generation of new experience out of the finite store of old experience by breaking down, defamiliarizing, and innovatively recombining the elements of sense.  For the Puritan in Lawrence, this innovation by the deconstruction was the quintessence of decadence.  Ashbery, however, dismantles sense without recourse to the vulgar "flux of corruption" of Poe, Rimbaud, Dostoevsky.  All is sunny and high-minded, dreamlike yet untainted with the chthonian, wonderfully refined and fit for polite society, and almost inexhaustibly fascinating.  This is no mean achievement.  And to be fair to Ashbery, his deconstruction of sense is largely an appearance.  Ashbery has something to say about internal states of mind, and his oblique constructions, as Edmundson suggests, are fruitful when poets, rather than simply imitating them, absorb them into more public projects.

            Yet even if all we're doing is challenging the symbolic-instrumental complex, why must Ashbery's be the only game in town?  Poetry (at least Romantic poetry) has always opposed the hegemony of knowledge (hence the old war between philosophy and poetry), and has most successfully done so by re-energizing the older perceptual-intuitive complex.  This was the great project of Blake, Lawrence, and Pound, to name a few.  If the Fall consisted in succumbing to the knowledge of good and evil, poetry counters this by cleansing the doors of perception, admitting the preconceptual data that destabilize symbolic dualisms, and opening us, if we're fortunate, to an apprehension of the world in its "Is-ness"—to things in themselves prior to symbolic constructs and instrumental relations. Why not try, then, as Blake proposed in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, to revivify the sources of experience in the ancient perceptual-intuitive complex, and let these sublimate into a new vision of life that scours out the rubble of ossified knowledge with new perceptions first registered in poetic metaphor?    

Since perception naturally and inevitably sublimates into conception, poets are, for this reason above all, Shelley's "unacknowledged legislators of the world," bestowing on us our categories of thought and morality, all of which must be continually refined and updated by fresh perceptual and intuitive influx.  From this perspective, postmodern sensation has a certain logic to it.  If the symbolic-instrumental complex is the root of our discontent, and the perceptual-intuitive complex naturally sublimates into the symbolic, then our salvation might require us (as Derrida seems to have intuited) not just to deconstruct symbolic dualities, but to deconstruct perception as well.  Yet after perception is deconstructed, how long will sensation and evasion suffice?

And it could be argued that the problems caused by perception, now as in Blake's day, are as much political as theoretical.  While there are undeniably questions of temperament (patrician distaste for Whitmanian barbaric or Blakean bardic yawp), we have to ask to what extent the root of psychic scarcity lies in economically-imposed restraints on perception and imagination.  What would direct perception of late capitalist reality look like?  It could hardly occur without major amounts of anger—mitigated, one hopes, with doses of humor and humility, as in Ginsberg.  But how many Ginsbergs can our ruling classes afford? 

As Blake saw it, "The Enquiry in England is not whether a Man has Talents & Genius? But whether he is Passive & Polite & a Virtuous Ass: & obedient to Noblemens Opinions in Art & Science.  If he is; he is a Good Man:  If Not he must be Starved" (642).  It's not just one's mentor or the poetry establishment who must be pleased, but also the corporate sponsors, the prize donors.  Could one reason for corporate and government support of poetry be to buy the silence of poets, to gentrify this otherwise ungovernable outlaw territory?  Who, in the end, are going to be the unacknowledged legislators of the world?  Who ultimately is going to be allowed to say "we"?

            How many Blakes, how many Shelleys, can our ruling classes afford?

            Thus from the rarified heights of theory we find ourselves yanked down to vulgar economic determinism.  How do we move beyond that?  What can be done to move poetry from its current all-too-literally "golden" age to a period of more abundant, refined, and sublimated riches?  I don't have the answer; I'm far from having beaten the system myself.  But there seem to me a few things worth considering by those interested in getting off of/out of the beaten path/fast track/poetic rat race.

Have a day job.  If you don't depend on poetry to pay your bills, you can write as ambitiously as you please.

Consider the global impact of what you do to gain a poetic identity.  If all poets did likewise, what might be the result?

Understand the psychology and economics of the professional advice-givers:  poetry coaches, writing gurus.  Whether by intuition or trial-and-error, get a clear sense of what they can—and cannot—do for you.

Don't depend on the poetry establishment to make your name.  Consider finding ways to take your work directly to the public, as pianist Valentina Lisitsa did with Youtube.  Though it won't make you a Plath or a Pound, creative self-promotion that remains subordinate to creative art could be a good thing.

Lower your standard of living. 

Keep an eye out for kindred spirits to start a new movement with.  Wordsworth and Coleridge did it.  Pound and Eliot did it.

Reread the masters.  There's a difference between "making it new" and the latest sensationalist revolution.  Could you put your hand on it in the dark?

And study the proto-historical and pre-historical traditions, what remains of them.  

            Follow Horace's advice:  keep your stuff in a drawer for nine years.  After that, make sure someone sees it.

            Most fundamentally, recognize the historical conflict not just between philosophy and poetry, but also between Mammon and . . .  well, whatever you want to call it.  And that to follow the Muses faithfully is to risk social and economic marginalization.  The climb to a well-paid associate professorship isn't the only model available for a poet's career.  Other visions exist of what poets can do and, by extension, of what poetry is. 

For Robert Graves, "The function of poetry is religious invocation of the Muse; its use is the experience of mixed exaltation and horror that her presence excites" (14).  The Muse is a jealous goddess, refusing those who deal in Apollonian court poetry.  You can't fool the Muse; only total devotion will please.  "Every Muse poet must, in a sense, die for the Goddess whom he adores" (489)—yet the right to so die must be earned by hard-won independence from every form of groupthink.  Beneath superficial cultural differences, Graves recognized his White Goddess as India's Great Goddess Kali (410-11; 483-84), revered of the tantrikas.  In poetic lore, the figure of the Goddess by whatever name—Kali, Cerridwen, many-breasted Artemis—represents the poet's potentially fatal encounter with naked reality.  The tantric depiction of Kali mounted upon the phallus of a corpse represents the simultaneous ego-death and erotic surcharge that, marking the encounter with unconditioned experience, free the psyche from social conventions but also from social safety nets.  Thus it is said that "Anyone who actually carries Tantra to its ultimate degree, as real devotees must, can only end up a scandalous outcast. . . . The truly successful Tantrik yogi . . . can only beg in order to live" (Rawson 27, 196)—a fox without a hole, a bird without a nest.

There are, of course, compensations. 

A kinder, gentler version of the disreputable tantrika might be Ryōkan, the  Japanese poet-monk who, when a thief came to rob him, had only his clothes to give him, and then, sitting naked in the night, regretted not being able to give him the beautiful moon.  To the poetry establishment, Ryōkan had this to say:


Who says my poems are poems?

My poems are not poems.

After you know my poems are not poems,

Then we can begin to discuss poetry!  (Stevens 39)


As for Ryōkan's poetics:


Easily moved by beauty—such is my nature

I take a few phrases

            and they just turn into poems.  (Abe and Haskell 107)


And his economics: 


I don't shrink from making a distant journey with

            only my water bottle and begging bowl.

But my robe has become so desperately worn

            it's almost like wearing nothing at all.

I know I haven't a thing in my purse

And all because nature's beauties led me astray!  (Abe and Haskell 141)


Notoriously absent-minded (he regularly left his begging bowl out in the rain), and happily bearing the religious name "Great Fool," Ryōkan spent his time in meditation, begging trips, calligraphy, visiting with friends and, most famously, playing with children.  Dwelling in the northern province of Echigo, far from cultural centers, he seemed to embody Emerson's prophecy at the conclusion of "The Poet," or perhaps Chapter 20 of the Tao Te Ching—the holy fool left to suck the breasts of the Great Mother.  Only after Ryōkan's death did his friends collect and publish his verses, leading eventually to his enshrinement as one of Japan's most beloved literary figures. Ryōkanmade no public statements, never invoked the communal "we," seldom if ever spoke truth to power in the way we use the term, yet his influence, moral and aesthetic, has turned out to be incalculable.

            Well, all of us can't be Ryōkan.  Probably none of us can.  The contemporary social structure has no real place for solitary mendicant monks.  Yet Ryōkan's example, adapted as best one can to current realities, might be a useful counterweight to the pressures and enticements of the poetry business.

Don't be a careerist, Edmundson advises.  Don't sacrifice art to get recognition, Hall pleads.  Accept obscurity willingly, counsels Emerson.  But should one never seek recognition at all?  If we think so, every blade of grass pushing through the sidewalk refutes us.  A poet must keep his or her verse alive, at whatever cost.  To be sure, don't expect too much.  But just because the cause looks lost is no reason to abandon it.  As Žižek says, revolutions, (poetic ones too?) are made by one failed repetition after another.  Just don't let the newspapers make you into the next officially-sponsored victim, a slave who waits for someone else to free him.  Whether or not that works for other groups, it won't for poets.

The Goddess doesn't like it.


Works Cited


Abe, Ryuichi, and Peter Haskel, eds. Great Fool:  Zen Master Ryōkan:  Poems, Letters,

            and Other Writings.  Honolulu:  U of Hawaii P, 1996.  Print.

Abramson, Seth.  "The Golden Age of American Poetry Is Now."  Spoon River Poetry

            Review 38.1 (Summer 2013).  Web.  12 July 2013.

---. "Why Is Contemporary American Poetry So Good?"  The Huffington Post 20 June

            2013.  Web.  12 July 2013.

Beispiel, David, "David Beispiel’s Poetry Wire:  The Cynicism of Mark Edmundson." 

The Rumpus.  21 June 2013.  Web.  6 Nov. 2014.

Blake, William.  The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake.  Ed. David V. Erdman. 

            New York:  Doubleday/Anchor, 1988.  Print.

Charles, Ron.  "Why Is Modern Poetry So Bad?"  The Washington Post 20 June 2013. 

            Web. 12 July 2013.

Edmundson, Mark. "Poetry Slam:  Or, The Decline of American Verse."  Harper's

Magazine July 2013:  61-68.  Print.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo.  Essays and English Traits.  The Harvard Classics.  P.F. Collier

            & Son, 1909.  Print.

Graves, Robert.  The White Goddess:  A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth.  New

            York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966.  Print.

Hall, Donald.  "Poetry and Ambition."  Poets.org. 2013 (1982).  Academy of American

Poets.              Web.  12 July 2013.

Lawrence, D.H.  Phoenix II:  Uncollected, Unpublished, and Other Prose Works by D.H.

            Lawrence.  Ed. Warren Roberts and Harry T. Moore.  New York:  Viking, 1970.

Rawson, Philip. The Art of Tantra.  Greenwich, CT:  New York Graphic Society, 1973.

Schopenhauer, Arthur.  Essays and Aphorisms.  Trans. R.J. Hollingdale.  London & New

            York:  Penguin, 1970.  Print.

Stevens, John, trans.  One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryōkan.  Boston:  Weatherhill/Shambala, 1977.  Print.