What follows is a response I wrote for an on-line interview, which was excerpted (because of course I wrote more than I should have….). I confess even I was a bit surprised at how optimistically my answer turned out. Things couldn’t possibly be this jolly. And yet it still seems rather convincing, or perhaps almost convincing….
It is tempting to see contemporary poetry as a darkling plain where ignorant armies clash by night. I would not say I am more hopeful than that, but rather that one should, pace Oscar Wilde (who said he could resist anything but temptation….), resist that temptation.
We should resist the temptation to denounce because it is a manifestation of laziness. Contemporary poetry is indeed a rather chaotic conversation, but that may well be more of an opportunity than a liability. I think our current moment, where we are still tumbling about in the rip tide of Modernism (the movement that wouldn’t die…), presents all sorts of opportunities for consolidation, innovation and growth. Taking the longest view I can, I’d argue that what Modernism gave us — in addition to many great poems — is a set of new tools, techniques and methods for reading, thinking about and making poems. Many fell into the error of thinking that these new methods had to displace everything that came before, as if they constituted a kind of objective advance over earlier ways of reading and writing; yet it is also a comparable error to reject all modern or contemporary modes because of the excesses of those claims. Just as atonal music, despite apocalyptic claims about its absolute necessity, has not and will never displace tonality, but does still offer us new ways of listening; just as various modes of representational abstraction, again despite totalizing claims for its primacy, will never displace human interest in figuration, but do offer us new ways of seeing; just as post-modernist claims about the death of the novel remain as exaggerated as ever, but do suggest new ways of storytelling; so also claims about the exhaustion, irrelevance, or chaos of contemporary poetry are, again, too easy, even if they do strike a nerve. Further, we now have so many vibrant ways of writing poems that it literally takes years of study simply to cover them all.
So – the contemporary poetry scene is rather chaotic in some ways, but inspiring in others. If anything, the audience for and interest in poetry of all kinds seems only to sprout in more and more places, from hip-hop to MFA programs to independent presses and journals made ever more ubiquitous by the advent of highly affordable on-line and print-on-demand publishing. And I haven’t noticed any dropping off of the desire to turn to poetry when people face the most concentrated moments of their lives, from weddings and funerals to presidential inaugurations. Poetry survived Hitler, Stalin, Mao and a thousand other dictators — it can certainly survive our moment of post-industrial confusion. If anything, it seems to be thriving, even in the absence of some overarching cultural consensus about its role in our lives and how it works that might be more reassuring. All of which suggests that what we might need most at this moment is a rejuvenated critical idiom to match the verbosity of our muses.
In any event, my days and the days of many I know are filled with reading poetry, writing it, responding to it, teaching it, discussing it, and learning about and from it, and I sense plenty of interest in all this out there as I travel the spaceways from planet to planet. In the end, while we may not be living in a golden age, our foul rag and bone shop is astonishingly well tricked out — we are indeed free to explore everything from sonnet crowns to anaphoric versicles to whatever suits the nonce, and while that freedom may be daunting, it presents its own opportunities. This world is always waiting for a lover. Poetry is perhaps a bit dizzy, but healthy enough and up to the task.