state of poetry today

Picture a country of revolution and civil war, assailed by corruption and ever-increasing emergency measures, where all sorts of nostrums are promoted as indubitable truths today and ruthlessly hunted down as heresies a decade later, where an intelligentsia without experience of life or any skill beyond writing a dense prose bristling with non sequiturs controls the media, where new developments are referred back to the writings of the founding fathers whose inspiring struggles for liberty make the foundations of its citizen's training programme, where the government proclaims an age of universal plenty invisible to its inhabitants or to those in surrounding countries, and where all offers of outside aid are rejected as attempts to suborn the inviolable integrity of the state. Not a third-world Marxist state, nor even one of abject poverty. {1} {2} {3} {4} {5} What is described here, very crudely, with many simplifications, is the state of poetry today, the serious poetry reviewed in specialist magazines and newspapers.

The thesis is not a shaping theme of the site, but before clicking impatiently on, you may wish to see how uncomfortably close to home some of these parallels can come.

'Make it new', said Ezra Pound, and twentieth-century poetry successively discarded a need to speak to the common man (Symbolism), to represent truth (High Modernism/New Criticism) or bear witness (Imagism), to make sense (Surrealism, Dada) or use the law courts of language (Postmodernism). Each purge produced a poetry thinner and more fractious than before, which sharpened the need for even more extreme measures. Purity of abstruse doctrine became the aim of poetry, which insensibly merged with literary criticism and then theory.

Once academic careers could be carved out of contemporary poetry, critics proselytized for their movements, seeking to place candidates in the apostolic succession from the founding fathers, who were de facto great poets. Some ingenuity was needed to make Hardy and Yeats into Modernists, and even more to shield Frost from the sort of criticism that damaged the enemy, but academics dug deeper into the fissile nature of language. They explained and found an audience for the poet or poets under study. They researched the bases of criticism, and developed a literary theory based on continental philosophy. Unless we think the critical studies unbalanced, or that they adjusted the criteria according to the poet or movement under consideration, we have to accept that there are now no common values, only a civil war between communities who choose not to understand each other.

Poetry has written new rules for itself, rejecting past concepts of literary quality to free itself to experiment, and make the disappointing results a reason for experimenting still further. Though poetry is an art form, in which progress comes from writing from within a body of practice rather than starting afresh on incomplete principles, critics and theorists continue to argue the merits of various schools of poetry, allowing their writings to look more a witch-hunt for reactionary elements than a sustained attempt to grasp the essential nature of the art form.


Corruption takes many forms, but is generally seen as favours or services procured illegally, not according to need or merit, but by private understandings that bypass the regulations. With poetry today promoted and sold as any other commodity — i.e. by appeal to our wish to belong in society, and to enjoy some intellectual or cultural status — much reviewing is technically corrupt. Poets form coteries, the coteries lobby for representation in the literary world, and that world lobbies the funding institutions of government. Poetry is not much liked by the public at large, or even understood, and journalists must therefore deal with peripheral matters in their reviews — biography, citations, literary affiliations — ensuring that the public do not have to use their critical faculties. The only productions enjoyed in real quantity are the amateur efforts in slams and ezines, which are disesteemed by serious poets.

Emergency Measures

As former institutions grow suspect, and of doubtful help to the revolution, so more is taken under state control with short-lived but ever-increasing emergency measures. Poetry's remit is language, and that language has been called in and reissued in ever more local denominations. Some reasons are understandable: attempts to squeeze more significance from words, and to use them in a more primary and vivid sense, bypassing associations that have been 'infected' with commerce or government or outmoded literary practice. Some are more questionable, however: to beat the drum for various poetry movements, and to exploit repressions and lacunae that deconstructionists claim to find in language.

Modern poetry and literary criticism feed off each other, and to invalidate doubts about quality has grown an elaborate defence that serves to outlaw dumb questions, to make poetry valuable to the extent it exemplifies theory, and to issue patents of use. The originating concept is now the defining point of excellence, something that cannot be reproduced without charges of plagiarism. Poetry is drawing closer to conceptual art, where ideas precede technique, and the critic's task is to create new areas of debate.

Poetry is a social phenomenon, and the picture promoted by the literary press is of talent organized into a scale extending from Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners, through names displayed by prestigious magazines, to members of small-town writing circles and the submissions which crowd the pages of Unfortunately, looked at closely, that scale includes some very dubious work, and seems more to do with the need for movements to have leaders than talent as such.

Personality Cults

Though more apparent in the visual arts — where large investments are added to the standing of auction houses, public galleries and critical reputations — is the personality cult of modern poetry. There is much good and much bad in the work of its founding fathers, obviously, but underlying English Literature studies is the belief that these figures cannot really be questioned.

Much of contemporary poetry is not very satisfying, but shelters behind theories that have become an embarrassment to their respective disciplines: Freudian psychiatry, structuralism, deconstruction. Though philosophy, mathematics and science have long ago given up expecting simple answers to complex issues, poetry, the art above all of fullness, is still pursuing the path of reductionism, furthering as a disease the very remedy it seeks. Better theory and working practices have always been available, but poetry chose the contorted road of Romanticism, and even today understands very little of metaphor theory, hermeneutics, brain functioning and complex systems.

References and Resources

1. Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History. NNA. An illustration of the quantitative approach:deals with 18th-19th century novels.

The 'failed state' analogy serves only to introduce some aspects of the poetry scene, and shouldn't be pressed too far. But for those who wish read further on political theory, here are some introductions:

1. The Reluctant Imperialist: Terrorism, Failed States, and the Case for American Empire by Sebastian Mailbag. 2002.
the-reluctant-imperialist-terrorism-failed-states-and-the-case-for-american-empire.html. Article in Foreign Affairs, March/April 2002, describing some features of failed states (and arguing for a return to imperialism). NNA
2. Poverty Around The World by Anup Shah. July 2004. Analysis of underlying causes, with very different remedies urged.
3. Resources and theory. 2004. Linked articles suggesting that resource availability determines governmental systems.
4. Defense of Globalization. Jan. 2005. A free trade view. NNA
5. Understanding Poverty and Development. Sections on developing world in general.
6. Failed States. 2006. Extended series of articles on the issues of state and sovereignty.


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.