current poetry scene: civil war

The fragmentation of the poetry world has been accelerated by literary critics who have shifted their stance to accommodate the coterie aspirations of poets.

The argument is either 1a. we think the critics unbalanced in concentrating on (and vehemently championing) their narrow views to the exclusion of the larger picture. Or 1b. we think the critics have double standards in adjusting the criteria according to whatever poet or movement is under consideration. Or, if neither is the case, then 2. we are obliged to accept that there are no common standards, only a civil war between autistic poetry communities unable to understand each other.


First some uncomfortable facts. British poetry declined in importance from the eighteenth century, and had ceased to be the most important literary genre by the mid nineteenth. From the end of that century to the 1930s, only some 15 poetry books of any significance were published each year in England. Seventy percent of borrowings from public libraries were prose fiction, and not much of the remaining thirty percent was poetry. The 10,000 copies subscribed before publication of a new volume by Stephen Phillips were a publishing phenomenon, but still only a tenth of those achieved by Lorna Doone in 1897. General periodicals like The Cornhill, The Nineteenth Century, Longmans and Murray's Magazines published a little poetry, and new literary magazines like The Yellow Book generally had limited circulations and short lives. Poets could support themselves on their poetry even less than they do today, there being no poets in residence, public readings or interviews on the radio and TV. {1}

What did spring up were coteries of poets and writers, more in England than the USA, and particularly in London. There were the usual disagreements but the Moderns were not personally at odds with the Georgians: they mixed with them socially and found much to admire in their work. Pound was asked to contribute to Georgian Poetry, and Eliot's poetry was liked by Munro and others. {2} We should not paint too rosy a picture, but exchanges like this were not published:

"Why is that?

-- Because most mainstream poetry today is simply unreadable, and people quite sensibly ignore it. For example, intelligent readers skip past the poems in The New Yorker in order to peruse the much more inviting articles and advertisements.

It seems that you dislike the poetry in The New Yorker.

--They haven't published an interesting poet since Dorothy Parker and Ogden Nash." {3}


"When he was a young man, Ezra Pound scribbled a sonnet every morning before breakfast. He had the good sense to throw the whole lot in the fire. A poet doesn’t have to believe the Muse keeps appointments to see the virtues of regimen; and yet there’s something pillowy and fin de siècle in Robert Bly’s self-imposed discipline, to write a poem every morning before rising. Morning Poems has a dozy complacency (you feel some of it was written before waking). The book is composed in simple, declarative sentences, full of “wisdom” and “sentiment,” as if these were ingredients found in any supermarket; and like a Disney cartoon they’re full of talking mice, talking cars, talking cats, talking trees. The poems peter out at sonnet length, the appetite for poetry exhausted where the appetite for breakfast begins.

One day a mouse called to me from his curly nest:
“How do you sleep? I love curliness.”
“Well, I like to be stretched out. I like my bones to be
All lined up. I like to see my toes way off over there.”
“I suppose that’s one way,” the mouse said, “but I don’t like it.
The planets don’t act that way, nor the Milky Way.”
What could I say? You know you’re near the end
Of the century when a sleepy mouse brings in the Milky Way.

This could hardly be more winsome or sickeningly ingenuous. After a few such trifles, just Aesop without his dentures (I’m especially fond of the talking wheat), a reader might feel he had wandered into a children’s book by mistake." {4}

Or this:

"Let me be specific as to what I mean by "official verse culture"--I am referring to the poetry publishing and reviewing practices of The New York Times, The Nation, The American Poetry Review, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, Poetry (Chicago), Antaeus, Parnassus, Atheneum Press, all the major trade publishers, the poetry series of almost all of the major university presses (the University of California Press being a significant exception at present). Add to this the ideologically motivated selection of the vast majority of poets teaching in university, writing and literature programs and of poets taught in such programs as well as the interlocking accreditation of these selections through prizes and awards judged by these same individuals. Finally, there are the self-appointed keepers of the gate, who actively put forward biased, narrowly focused and frequently shrill and contentious accounts of American poetry, while claiming, like all disinformation propaganda, to be giving historical or nonpartisan views. In this category, the American Academy of Poetry and such books as The Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing stand out." {5}

Underneath there were many reservations, but it took the ascendancy of Modernism to get Robert Graves in his 1965 Oxford Addresses on Poetry, to talk openly about 'the foul tidal basin of modernism.' {6}

The New Criticism

Even before that battle was joined, literary appreciation had begun its drift into academia, possibly with Scrutiny, where F.R. Leavis applied the approaches of T.S. Eliot, I.A. Richards and William Empson in a more sustained manner. "For Leavis and his followers, analysis was not merely a technique for precise description of literature, but a process whereby the reader could 'cultivate awareness', and grow towards the unified sensibility. Analysis was necessary because a poem resulted from a complex of associated feelings and thoughts. A great poem was not a simple, forceful statement of some well-known experience, 'What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd', but a profoundly original creation only fully comprehended after close textual analysis. Because of these attitudes, the practical critic spent his time discovering complexities, ambiguities and multiplications of meaning. He was attracted to irony and wit, because a poem with these qualities offers different layers of effect for interpretation. Long, discursive poems, such as Paradise Lost, which depend for much of their organisation on rational analysis, were undervalued, and the critics tended to treat all poems, and even plays and novels, as akin to lyric poetry in their structure of imagery. " {7} Many critics disliked the approach. "Helen Gardner and C. S. Lewis have pointed out that a student can be taught a technique of analysis, and do well in examinations, without any real appreciation of poetry whatsoever. " {8} "Kermode's book is particularly famous for its attack on Eliot's dissociation theory. . . the whole theory has no historical justification. The theory was produced by Eliot as an attempt to define what he himself was trying to achieve in verse; it should never have been used as an historical truth determining the way in which poems are analyzed." {9}

But poets kept up the running. "Literary critics are rarely under fire and never tested by the high seas of artistic creation. Instead, as John Updike puts it when titling his own collected essays and reviews, they "hug the shoreline" of accepted practices and ideals. Their potshots are taken from behind the cover of their age's standards, and the long progress of the history of ideas." {10}

Academic Champions

Academic careers could now be carved out of contemporary poetry, provided a substantial body of new critical theory could be generated, and poets found to exemplify its revitalizing insights. W.B. Yeats was clearly one of the greatest of twentieth century English poets, and a spate of books and articles sought to bring him into the fold. {11} {12} {13} But if Yeats knew Pound well, but he didn't fully sympathize with his work, or always understand it. {14} Yeat's writing grew terser as he emerged from the Celtic twilight, and his interests widened to include the problems of contemporary Ireland, but still his preoccupations remained very un-Modernist: Symbolist images of swans, water, moon and towers, a brooding on the imaginative, inner life, a mannered style with uncontemporary diction.

Perhaps Thomas Hardy, whose style had hardly changed from the 1870s, could be repositioned? {15} David Perkins, whose survey of a hundred years of poetry on both sides of the Atlantic is truly admirable — well-researched, generous and perceptive — did his best, but found himself in difficulties. Writing of The Dynasts, he says: "Later he speaks of the "smart ship" and "smart" may be pejorative, but he also calls it a "creature of cleaving," responding positively to this adventurous swiftness. Throughout the poem his attitude is never settled, but wavers and hovers, balancing one phrase against the next. Many phrases are of the kind readers find 'trite" and "awkward", but they are not less effective for that reason. Triteness and awkwardness are here felt as reassuring human ordinariness, a plain honesty of utterance as Hardy records an almost mute depth of feeling and groping uncertainty what to think." {16}

But surely triteness is triteness: why not admit that Hardy was an imperfect craftsman, both in prose {17} and verse? The comment of the Saturday Review on the first appearance of Wessex Poems — "As we read this curious and wearisome volume, these many slovenly, slipshod, uncouth verses, stilted in sentiment, poorly conceived and worse wrought, our respect lessens to vanishing point" {18} — is harsh, but perhaps not far from the truth.

Because that would mean accepting other standards, older standards, and Modernism was a jealous god. Argument shifted. Hardy refused to lose himself in conventional sentiment or well-turned phrases. Hardy was deeply hurt and perplexed by life, and such honest doubts and comfortless broodings represented the age. Hardy's poems were simple and direct, written without Classical trappings or Romantic attitudinizing. We understand Hardy more through biography than his poetry or novels, and no doubt all poets would be closer to us if textbooks included their less admirable aspects: Hardy's misogyny, {19} Yeats's calculated affectations, {20} Eliot's ambition that encouraged his wife's association with Russell but had her committed when his career was threatened, {21} Pound's philandering and anti-semitism, {22} and so forth.

From Diversity to Disunity

So what happened to the broad church of Modernism? Perhaps it never was a movement as such, only poets reacting in their own ways to individual circumstances. Perhaps poets remained unconvinced by the theory created to help them, finding it abstruse and over-ingenious: many are the stories of Eliot bemused and chuckling over Ph.D. theses on his work. And perhaps the subterfuges that critics adopted to fight a worthy cause came back to haunt them. Which of these passages do we prefer?

It is the time of tender, opening things.
Above my head the fields murmur and wave,
And breezes are just moving the clear heat.
O the mid-noon is trembling on the corn,
On cattle calm, and trees in perfect sleep.


A bluebird comes tenderly up to alight
And turns to the wind to unruffle a plume,
His song so pitched as not to excite
A single flower as yet to bloom.
It is snowing a flake; and he half knew
Winter was only playing possum.
Except in color he isn't blue,
But he wouldn't advise a thing to blossom.

I have some doubts about both, but the first seems better in its observation and rhythmic control. But of this piece David Perkins says: "The poems of both Phillips and Field have been completely forgotten; to recall them may seem unkind, almost gloating. Nevertheless, since they were once esteemed, they show what, at a level of taste and intelligence below Watson's, the middle class assumed "poetry" to be. One can find in Phillips the plaintive "simple," mealymouthed style that has been fondly read for at least the last two hundred years." {23}

The second comes from Robert Frost's Two Tramps In Mud Time, which appeared in his 1936 collection A Further Range. {24} Stronger writing, but from what seems to me a bad poem: gallumphing metre, unabashed clichés (cloven rock, poised aloft, hulking tramps), contrived rhyming, and a moralizing tag to boot. But in discussing Frost generally, Perkins says "When in the twenties and thirties the Modernist tide came in, Frost remained prominent. The excellence of his performance ensured that. But most of the contemporaries with whom he had been and should be associated were lost from view. As a result, when we look back on twentieth-century poetry, Frost seems a relatively isolated and inexplicable figure." {25} Possibly so, but aided by some selective reading.

Is Perkins arguing something like the following: Modernism was a healthy reaction to the badness of late nineteenth-century poetry. As Stephen Phillips was popular at the time, his poetry must be bad. I will show that to be the case by selecting some particularly egregious example.

I do not know, of course, but the approach is common and unhelpful. Could we gain a proper idea of Yeat's 1933 collection The Winding Stair and Other Poems from this snippet? {26}

Greater glory in the sun,
An evening chill upon the air,
Bid imagination run
Much on the Great Questioner;
What He can question, what if question I
Can with a fitting confidence reply.

At Algecirus — A Meditation Upon Death is a fragmentary piece where Yeats's legendary playing of sense against the metre ends up with an over-pat phrase. A failure, but no reason to deny the stunning accomplishment of the collection as a whole.

Poets need to be judged on their best work, when most will declare for Frost. But unless we think the Phillips piece that Perkins chooses to single out for attack is self-evidently bad — and it doesn't so seem to me — we must wonder why the standards that apply to one poet do not apply to another. If we don't stigmatize a leading academic as incompetent or dishonest, what is left us? That the literary scholar's task is perhaps not to review, which is a matter for the small presses and their endless squabbles, but to:

1. explain and find an audience for the poet or poets under study.

2. research into the bases of criticism, and so look into literary theory and contemporary philosophy.

3. dethrone the elitist and monolithic criticism of the past with its lofty and supposedly universal standards.

Contemporary Battles

In a widely-read study of contemporary poetry, Vernon Shetley quotes a passage from Gjertrud Schnackenberg's "Supernatural Love," a poem that appeared in her apparently "highly praised" volume The Lamplit Answer: {27}

I twist my threads like stems into a knot
And smooth "Beloved," but my needle caught
Within the threads, Thy blood so dearly bought,

The needle strikes my finger to the bone.
I lift my hand, it is myself I've sewn,
The flesh laid bare, the threads of blood my own,

I lift my hand in startled agony
And call upon his name, "Daddy daddy"--
My father's hand touches the injury

As lightly as he touched the page before,
Where incarnation bloomed from roots that bore
The flowers I called Christ's when I was four.

criticizing it for rhythmic monotony and triviality, adding: "Good metrical writing involves a great deal more than filling out a pattern of accented and unaccented syllables with occasional variation." And: "New Formalist partisans often accuse free versers of being obscure or inaccessible, but readers also turn away from triviality, and one may be trivial (as indeed one may be obscure or inaccessible) in measured as well as free verse."

True enough, but why is such a large argument is being built on one poem? Not all New Formalist work is so over-written. Vernon Shetley goes on to say ". . . the connection between using conventional verse forms and these various populist impulses seems even more elusive. Poetry is not likely to regain its lost popularity, much less its lost cultural authority, by attempting to compete directly with popular culture, or by attempting to match the accessibility of popular cultural goods. And in a world where younger professors of literature, not to mention younger poets, often appear to be only hazily informed about the principles of versification, it's difficult to see how metrical composition will, by itself, engage the interest of a broad, nonspecialist public." {28} True again, very probably, but poetry by those whom Vernon Shetley discusses — Elizabeth Bishop, John Ashbery and James Merrill — has been no more popular.

Sensible Reviewing

The death of poetry, or its decline into an institutionalized subculture {29} has been lamented for half a century, and in other sections of the site I try to show that there is much to enjoy in the newer strains of literary production, just as there is also much to doubt. Poets do expect readers to understand what they are attempting, however, and this is something reviewers will more generally concede. Joyelle McSweeney, writing in the Constant Critic Review, {30} may not identify with the working class views of the collection she is reviewing, but she places the poetry accurately, comments on its strengths, and draws attention to its effective use of fragmentation and cross-cutting techniques. Balanced, readable and enlightening. Similarly, Jordan Davis, {31} commenting on the reissue of poetry by Lorenzo Thomas, places Thomas with the Umbra poets, and the New York School/Poetry Project scene: information we need if we are to read him properly.

References and Resources

1. David Perkins, A History of Modern Poetry: From the 1890s to Pound, Eliot & Yeats (Belknap Press, 1976), 12-14.
2. John Press, A Map of Modern Verse (O.U.P. 1969), 103-122.
3. Discussion between the webmaster of this site (, William Carlson, and Joseph S. Salemi. NNA. Dec. 2004.
4. Hardscrabble country. William Logan. 1997. NNA. The New Criterion Vol. 15, No. 10, June 1997 .
5. Charles Bernstein 1983. Quoted in Hank Lazer's Charles Bernstein's Dark City: Polis, Policy, and the Policing of Poetry American Poetry Review, Vol. 24, No. 5, September-October, 1995, pp. 35-44.
6. Press 1969, op. cit, 4.
7. C. B. Cox, A. E. Dyson, Modern Poetry: Studies in Practical Criticism. 1971. Scholarly Press. Q
8. Cox and Dyson 1971, op. cit, 15. Q
9. Cox and Dyson 1971, op. cit, 19. Q
10. Jerome Klinkowitz, Literary Subversions: New American Fiction and the Practice of Criticism (Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1985), xiii. Q
11. Michael Tratner, Modernism and Mass Politics: Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, Yeats. (Stanford Univ. Press, 1995). Q
12. John C. Van Dyke, Language at the End of Modernism: Robert Penn Warren's A Plea in Mitigation. The Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 53, 2000. Q
13. Jewel Brooker Spears, Mastery and Escape: T.S. Eliot and the Dialectic of Modernism (Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1994) Q
14. Ezra Pound and the Occult. Brian Ballentine. Describes Pound's wooing of Yeats, and his quest for priest-like status. Note also the Dowson rhythms of the introductory verse quotation.
15. Rosemarie Morgan, Thomas Hardy; Victorian Poetry, Vol. 39, 2001. Q
16. Perkins 1987, 151.
17. Robert Graves, The Reader Over Your Shoulder: a Handbook for Writers of English Prose (Random House, 1979).
18. Timothy O'Sullivan, Thomas Hardy: An Illustrated Biography (Macmillan, 1975), 153.
19. Paul Turner, The Life of Thomas Hardy (Blackwell Critical Biographies, 2001).
20. R. F. Foster, The Apprentice Mage, 1865-1914: W.B. Yeats: A Life, Vol. 1 (O.U.P., 1997)
21. Carole Seymour-Jones, Painted Shadow : The Life of Vivienne Eliot, First Wife of T. S. Eliot (Anchor, 2003). But also see: A Craving for Reality: T. S. Eliot Today. Roger Kimball. Oct. 1999. NNA.
22. Humphrey Carpenter, A Serious Character: The Life of Ezra Pound (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1988).
23. Perkins 1987, 18.
24. Robert Frost, Two Tramps In Mud Time.
25. Perkins 1987, 232.
26. W.B. Yeats, The Winding Stair and Other Poems (Macmillan, 1933).
27. Vernon Shetley, After the Death of Poetry: Poet and Audience in Contemporary America (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 156. Q
28. Shetley 1993, op. cit. 159. Q
Shetley 1993, 165-70. Q
30. Joyelle McSweeney. Dec. 2004. NNA. Review of Shut Up Shut Down by Mark Nowak (Coffee House Press, 2004).
31. Jordan Davis. Jan. 2004. NNA. Review of Chances Are Few by Lorenzo Thomas (Blue Wind, 1979/2003).


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.