The People's Poetry
May 27, 2004 8:55 AM   Subscribe

What is the current state of American poetry? Hank Lazer: Perhaps, contrary to the laments, we are now living through a particularly rich time in American poetry—an era of radically democratized poetry...In its anarchic democratic disorganized decentralization, poetry culture has developed in a manner parallel to the computer: the decentralized PC has beaten the main-frame. No one can pretend to know what is out there, or what is next. Who are some of the most notable American poets active in the beginning of the 21st century?
posted by rushmc (33 comments total)
Charles Simic. Sharon Olds.
posted by matteo at 9:14 AM on May 27, 2004

Mark Strand.
posted by grateful at 9:19 AM on May 27, 2004

Rap music, my friend, represents the most popular and significant poetic movement in the history of world literature, going back beyond "Beowulf." The rise of this proletarian art form from the gutters of poverty to the worlds of wealth and fashion is one of the most remarkable and unlikely tales in all literature. Whatever you may think of the quality of the verse, its stupendous popularity, the longevity of the form, and its rapid international spread make it the undisputed king of the verbal arts. Thirty years ago, recited verse was a laughable, effeminate thing, the province of Percy Dovetonsils (a mincing poet character created by Ernie Kovacs), and of only rarified interest. Today, recited verse, in the form of rap music, is associated with hyper-masculinity and aggressive sexuality. Compared with the popularity of rap and hip-hop, "academically sponsored readings and presses, urban and community arts centers and reading series, small presses all over the country, therapy-based groups, and identity-based readings and publications (including those based on ethnicity, sexuality, region, age, psychological history, and other group identities that are linked to poetic expression)" do not even register on the cultural seismograph. And that goes for all the state and city "poet laureates" who have popped up over the past several years. The recent bequest of $100 million to the American Poetry Center a few years ago is nothing compared to the millions that are honestly earned by rap singers -- who are getting paid to read poetry, nothing more, nothing less. It will take a generation or so for people to realize what an incredible tale the who rap thing is. Right now, a dislike of African-American thugs, hatred of poor people, distaste for vulgar wealth, snobbishness, and the fact that by the traditional standards of poetry, rap stinks to high heaven, are keeping intellectuals from giving rap its due. But someday, this may be thought of as the age of 50 Cent, as pre-Hellenic Greece was known as the Age of Homer.
posted by Faze at 9:36 AM on May 27, 2004

I'd like to think the academics will look beyond 50 Cent and find some competent rappers, though I agree with everything else you think.
posted by inksyndicate at 9:44 AM on May 27, 2004

Insomuch as there exists an "official verse culture" (as exemplified by our tepid, safe line of Poet Laureates and national award winners), so does academia continue to exert its decrepifying grip upon the avant garde (or in Ron Silliman's term, the "post avant"). As Lazer noted, MFA programs have collectively proven less-than-hospitable toward experimental writers. However, he didn't mention that experimentalists have sought out refuge in academia proper (as opposed to MFA programs, which are academic adjuncts compared to programs devoted to scholarship). Thus we have pioneers such as Lyn Hejinian mostly teaching poetic theory, rather than craft, at institutions like U.C. Berkeley, which has a prestigious PhD program in English but no formalized writing programs.

She told me that she actually preferred this arrangement. I can understand why, given the McPoetry being churned out by most MFA programs (though she's far too decent a person herself to use such disparaging terms, of course).

Anyone have an anti-establishment poetry MFA program they'd like to recommend, contradictions notwithstanding, for someone disillusioned by the PhD rat race?
posted by DaShiv at 9:45 AM on May 27, 2004

if snoopy dog dog is a poet then jerry springer is the next Freud
posted by H. Roark at 9:46 AM on May 27, 2004

I do think a lot of the crappy rappers on the charts are giving a bad name to rap, when there are many more poetic things going on beneath the bling-bling surface of the movement.
posted by inksyndicate at 9:54 AM on May 27, 2004

But to say that rap is a major success story isn't to say that it is the same thing as poetry. And saying it isn't the same thing as poetry isn't to insult it. The two are distinct forms, with their own conventions. For one thing, the regularity of the rhythm ties rap together, and with few exceptions it has to, since it has a more songlike than recitative quality... it is meant to be performed accompanied by music, or at least with an underlying rhythm. That is something that poetry in the western tradition began with as well, but pretty much gave up, such that trying to accompany Auden, or, say, William Carlos Williams on a lute is pretty fucking tough, because the inflection (by my reading anyway) is not always evenly spaced.

Somebody else could also make distinctions that I'm not prepared to make. For instance, you might find that the tradition of "poetry" comes from Greece, and the tradition of "rap" comes from Africa (by way of jazz< --blues--slave spirituals). it's not as simple as that, and i don't know enough about it, so that's not a claim i can make. in a sense it's useless to even argue this, though, because you can say that almost anything is poetry. hell, poetry might i>include rap, or rap might include poetry, and at the same time both might include song lyrics, certain monologues, the randomly generated text of junk mail, et cetera. The fact that you can't clearly define the boundaries of an art form, and set its characteristics in stone, means that if you push hard enough you can make it include anything. But, making distinctions between things is pretty handy, so I think rap is "a" and poetry is "b", and though they may be similar, it is, for the time being anyway, useful to think of them as different things.
posted by Hildago at 10:05 AM on May 27, 2004

Wow, metafilter ate my paragraph break and capitalization. I'm pretty sure it's because I tried to put arrows between jazz, blues, and slave spirituals, and it thought they were improperly formatted html. I think you can still read it through and pretend it looks nice, though.
posted by Hildago at 10:07 AM on May 27, 2004

I think poetry all went downhill when they stopped rhyming. Though I did enjoy the American Classic "Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese..."
posted by srboisvert at 10:15 AM on May 27, 2004

Although I do agree that rap serves the roll that poetry used to serve -- popular, slightly dangerous, inherently oppositional (or viewed as inherently oppositional) to the power structure. It's just that I think traditional poetry as a form is pretty much dead, and something else (including rap) has replaced it.
posted by Hildago at 10:15 AM on May 27, 2004

God damn it, role. This is my last post in this thread, since I can't string a damned sentence together at the crack of 10am.
posted by Hildago at 10:16 AM on May 27, 2004

No-one was saying rap is like modern poetry, but it's certainly a lot like classical poetry, both Greek and Anglo-Saxon, in its verbal quality, rhythm, improvisational style, etc. I think it represents going full circle back to the beginnings of poetry after literary poetry pretty much exhausted all its possibilities.
posted by dagnyscott at 10:34 AM on May 27, 2004

Who are some of the most notable American poets active in the beginning of the 21st century?

Among the others listed (Strand, Olds, Simic, Steven Dunn) I think Stephen Dobyns is wonderful. David Kirby (a former professor/idol of mine), too.
posted by dhoyt at 10:59 AM on May 27, 2004

I just finished my MFA in poetry, and there are a few things I wish I'd known before I started. Apologies for length, etc.

First, MFA programs do not teach you how to write.

Let me say that again: MFA programs do not teach you how to write. You'll write a lot, and you'll get better, but they're not really going to teach you craft. Taking prosody was optional, and though our professors expected us to be able to write the classical forms, we were seldom forced to do so.

Second, the real thing an MFA gets you is time. My program was two years long, and my university gave me enough money that I didn't have to take a second job. I did have to teach, but one class is hardly a huge time sink. And there's nothing better for your own expository prose than teaching a few dozen freshmen the ropes.

What this meant practically was that I could write and I didn't need a day job. Read as: you can easily exit your program with the manuscript for your first book. (I took a day job programming for the extra mental stimulation, and because focusing on poetry every waking minute plays havoc with my writing process. Your writing process is likely different from mine, so do whatever works for you. Still, not having a day job is a wonderful option for most authors.)

Third, MFA programs give you networking opportunities. Mine brought visiting writers, agents, and publishers on a weekly basis. Attending these shop talks was always optional, so you got out what you put in.

Now this is important. Landing a university creative writing job is largely a matter of publishing books. Your first two books are the most challenging -- the first one because you need to get your foot in the door, and the second one because you need to learn to write all over again once your first book is out.

While the MFA degree itself is next to worthless, an MFA program gives you time to develop a solid first manuscript and opportunities to meet industry people face to face. In other words, if you use your program right you'll get the two things you need most. It's entirely possible to coast through your MFA, fulfilling your (meager) academic requirements. This is a bad idea, since all you'll be left with after two years is a piece of paper that will have less practical effect on your life than your driver's license.

If I were looking for an MFA program now, I'd focus on funding rather than the prestige of the school. Everyone knows about the Iowa Writers Workshop, and everyone knows that the faculty there will do everything they can to help you succeed (hence the "Jorie Graham Rule"). This leads to a tense and competitive environment. Some writers thrive on that, but most are more relaxed and do better in a program that gives them opportunities but stays out of their hair. The University of Michigan program, which I ended up picking, is great in that regard.

DaShiv is spot on -- the best writers often won't be on the MFA faculty. The author I admired most at my university is a brilliant poet who refuses to teach poetry (though you could take translation workshops with her, or comparative literature courses). If you're an "experimental" writer, you'll likely find the faculty either hostile or, more likely, indifferent to your work. This is ok. You're not there to learn to write from these people. You're there to learn to be a writer, which is a very different thing.
posted by amery at 11:01 AM on May 27, 2004

dagnyscott -- You are absolutely right. In fact, I've read speculation, based on internal evidence (which I couldn't understand not knowing ancient Greek) that Homer's Iliad and Odyssey were written to be recited to rhythmic accompaniment -- like rap. Rap and Homer are also similar in the violent, whacked-out subject matter. Just because Homer is associated with establishment literature today, it could be that in his own day, his stuff was considered louche, outre, and damned tasteless, with crass characterizations of the gods, ugly violence, and that damned pounding rhythm. They probably hated it when their chariot got stuck at a light next to some guy reciting Homer... Boom, Boom, Boom.
Now I'm all for preserving distinctions between literary forms -- but rap music actually fulfills the frequently stated desire of poets to got back to their primitive beginnings (the chant, the pastoral, Wordsworth and Coleridge's "Lyrical Ballads") not to mention the socialist dream that the working class should find its own poetic voice (which turns out to be not Woody Guthrie or Bruce Springsteen, but Eminem and Jay-Z). Think of all the African-American movie and TV stars that rap has been able to elevate into household words: Fresh Prince, Queen Latifah -- and that most interesting character, Snoop Doggy Dogg -- a man who is poetry itself, as well as its maker. If you think of Mr. Dogg as a poet in the dark, dark (and I don't mean complexioned) line of Byron, you have to stand in awe that our culture has thrown up such a figure, and made him as popular and well known as any man on earth. You will tell your grandchildren, that you lived at a time when such legends walked the streets, and appeared on mainstream talk shows -- men who not only write poetry, but who are poetry. Fascinating.
posted by Faze at 11:06 AM on May 27, 2004

grateful, dhoyt, let me add my praise for Mark Strand to yours. My favorite living poet, and a fine live reader, too.
posted by onlyconnect at 11:34 AM on May 27, 2004

Pleas of the Dial Maker.

I brought into being
knowledge that came
from far-away lands.

Thank you citizen
(polis-monger, you chattel)
bring in the witness
(coerced by fire)

I brought into our realm
a trader from a land
which now escapes me
but surly
the log book proves....

Thank you friend
(coveter of foreigners)
the verdict is to
be read after our
comfortable summation.
when we return,
(like gods you shuttering yak)
our work will be done.

I dug out this rather bad poem as an example to what the article addresses. Intent, style content. What was my aim. To show how poetry and it's institutions are rabid with procedure but cloistered in it's own opinion? I'm not sure all I know is that is is to slick, too historically referential without specifics and no didactics to at least give perspective.

To me, this is what this author seems to hit upon. How diversity and rap and the large scale "peopleization" of poetry is a mere gimmick in some respects. A showcase to prop a failing art. But what theses folks seldom see is that poetry can enter into our lives and become what we do without the need to write it down or show someone. It is about choice. I came to a similar conclusion in 1996. At a stoplight I was reading the latest APR and thought "?&^$^&%$$$$$$ this stuff" I then through the paper in the back seat then, i looked over in a parking lot and saw a mother crouched, holding open her arms to her toddler. the child tottered towards her, smiles all around and knew then and there I knew nothing.
posted by clavdivs at 11:37 AM on May 27, 2004

Campbell McGrath deserves a mention for "The Bob Hope Poem"
posted by junkbox at 12:15 PM on May 27, 2004

Wow, I hate to be the lone voice of dissent, but . . . rap is not poetry. And it is not "classical" poetry either. The Aeneid may all be in dactyllic hexameter, and hip hop may all be 4/4, but that does not make rap classical poetry. Rap has a lot going for it that simply has nothing to do with poetry, such as cool production, guys with great abs, cool clothes, and catchy hooks. But it is emphatically _not_ 'modern' classical poetry. For example:

Classical poetry is (largely) epic. The Aeneid is twelve books long. Rap is not epic. A hip hop record's lyrics can be printed on its liner notes.

Classical poetry is full of rhetorical figures: chiasmus, metonymy, synechdoche, even something called "homoeoteleuthon." It has patterns not only within the line, but within the work; if you've done classical literature in school, you may have learned about 'outlining' texts so that you can see the vast, huge patterns that underlie each line, each passage, each book, and the whole poem. Hip hop has rhyme and rhythm, but it doesn't have the incredibly complex semantic figures that classical poetry does. To a large extent, it can't -- those figures are possible because Latin and Greek aren't as dependent on word order as English is. It's also true, however, that rap needs to be easily understandable and conversational in tone. This is why most hip hop reocrds, with some exceptions, like "Circle," sound like someone speaking, not like T. S. Eliot. Semantic complexity is not an aesthetic goal in rap music.

Classical poetry is seriously intellectual -- it's literature. It engages with philosophy, theology, science, and other literature. J-Zone's song "The Trojan War" is AWESOME, but it's about how condoms suck and it has guest vocals from DJ Thug Penis. It is not 'Homeric.'

I *love* hip hop, but it's not poetry. And there is plenty of great poetry out there: Louise Gluck, Frank Bidart, Lyn Hejinian, Charles Simic, Yusef Kumenyaka, James Richardson, Paul Muldoon. These are great poets. I'm sure no one here wants to read a huge essay on 'what poetry is,' but a good start is John Hollander's "Rhyme and Reason," or any criticism by Helen Vendler. There is such a thing as _poetics_ and it isn't there in rap music. What's there in rap music is _music_. It seems frankly a little reductivist to say 'rap is poetry,' as though the music didn't matter. Rap is words and music together, and the music matters. Jay-Z is *definitely* not 'the new Homer.'
posted by josh at 12:20 PM on May 27, 2004

josh -- Think about it. "Guest vocals from DJ Thug Penis." Those words alone speak volumes. The complexity of rap will be appreciated when we learn how to read and hear it dispassionately.
posted by Faze at 12:32 PM on May 27, 2004

Lyrics to J-Zone's "The Trojan Wars" feat. Huggy Bear AKA DJ Thug Penis. Sweet. Consider this post completely derailed, huh?
posted by josh at 12:53 PM on May 27, 2004

i write for the drawer. i majored in creative writing as an undergraduate and while I did very well and people seemed to really connect to my work when I would read it, I never felt that my writing had anything that needed to be shared. It is a personal thing for me. My writing is an extension of my thinking and of my body. It is my oracle as well, with the themes of older works coming up again and again in my life.

i write poetry like a dedicated runner runs: for me. Maybe someday I'll hit upon a stride that is better, something major and bigger than me and I'll try to get it out there, but for now I don't want or need that. The last thing I need is for an editor or a review to f*ck up another bit of my insides.

i think that this kind of writing really makes up part of what 'poetry' is today as well.
posted by n9 at 1:24 PM on May 27, 2004

And just to refute one of my own points: don't forget Catullus's Poem 16, "Pedacabo ego uos et irrumabo." Jay-Z: the new Catullus, maybe.
posted by josh at 1:25 PM on May 27, 2004

devendra banhart
posted by Satapher at 1:27 PM on May 27, 2004

Funny to see this today. I was just reading Donald Hall's book of essays about poetry Breakfast Served Any Time All Day. He has an essay that describes attempts to describe poetry as 'dead'. He points out that poetry is always 'dead' today and thriving 30 years ago. Most people want to believe that the greats of the past were giants and there's nothing like that now. He connects this desire with a lament for youth. I.E. you get out of college, you stop reading poetry and going to readings, you read a couple bad ones, and suddenly poetry is dead.

Anyway, poetry is alive and well, thank you. Move along.

P.S. If you're at all interested in creativity, I recommend this book. It's currently blowing my mind hard.
posted by lumpenprole at 2:09 PM on May 27, 2004

Right now, a dislike of African-American thugs, hatred of poor people, distaste for vulgar wealth, snobbishness, and the fact that by the traditional standards of poetry, rap stinks to high heaven, are keeping intellectuals from giving rap its due.

All of which, with the exception of "hatred of poor people," which I think is a false claim anyway, are valid reasons to deprecate it.
posted by rushmc at 3:10 PM on May 27, 2004

Death to the Death of Poetry
posted by clavdivs at 3:50 PM on May 27, 2004

Poetry is Dead. Poetry is Alive and Kicking. Poetry is the same as Rap. Rap is not the same as poetry. These are the modern poetry world arguments, and it appears that you can't move ten feet without tripping over them.

My tuppence. Modern poetry culture (in the U.K, and in the U.S) is a subculture. It interest nobody but a select few, and it interests these people a lot. From 1991.

Is Rap Music the modern poetry? It's so easy to argue either side of this argument that I've given up trying to form an opinion. Discounting the music that comes with Rap, I think people get the same enjoyment from writing and listening to Rap lyrics as they do from writing/Reading poetry. However, stories like this really embarrass me.

Notable Modern UK poets. (From my U.K. bias). Julia Copus, Selima Hill, Simon Armitage (obviously). These are personal choices, so I wouldn't read too much into it.
posted by seanyboy at 4:40 PM on May 27, 2004

I happen to really dig Albert Goldbarth.
posted by sciurus at 12:18 PM on May 28, 2004

art doesnt die. people do.
art doesnt decay. thoughts do.
posted by Satapher at 5:40 PM on May 28, 2004

Right now, a dislike of African-American thugs, hatred of poor people, distaste for vulgar wealth, snobbishness, and the fact that by the traditional standards of poetry, rap stinks to high heaven, are keeping intellectuals from giving rap its due.

That, or the juvenile focus on money, guns, drugs, and big asses.

There's some good stuff to be sure, but it's not anything special about rap and hip-hop. It follows the lineage of cowboy poets, Woody Guthrie, the Clash, and others who set their world to rhyme and music.
posted by Ayn Marx at 10:16 PM on May 28, 2004

Josh and Amery - terrific posts.
Bars open until 4 a.m. didn't kill my poetry studies, but Lit Theory surely did.
While some call his works pedestrian and too concerned with the mundane, Billy Collins has written some fine poems. I feel some of the criticism aimed at him is more jealousy than anything else... I mean, no one pays to see a real poet, do they?
I'd appreciate some recommendations for contemporary Latin American and African poets from the enlightened out there.
posted by TomSophieIvy at 11:07 PM on May 28, 2004

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