As some readers know, I occasionally write poetry. Some poets like to say they write for themselves, others for their beloved, but we all know that the real destinataire of any writing is “the public,” the amorphous but in principle universal community of readers–“universal” in whatever terms provide in a given context the deepest sense of human universality, which may mean implicitly excluding certain classes of readers as insufficiently refined, or for less worthy reasons.

Of all the arts today, poetry strikes me as the most “broken.” The public has no established criteria by which to distinguish good from bad poetry, and no reliable set of representatives capable of separating the two, presumably leading eventually to the general recognition of the best poetry of the time. Quantity seems the only guarantee of poetic status; our “professional” poets churn out each year more poetry than I have written in a lifetime.

Over a decade ago, Stacey and I decided to submit some of my work to poetry journals. The accepted procedure was/is to send two or three pages of poems with a SASE and a cover letter. We dutifully extracted thirteen chunks from my oeuvre, printed out thirteen cover letters and envelopes, put together thirteen SASEs with thirteen first-class stamps, and mailed them off to thirteen different poetry magazines. A month or so later, we had a collection of thirteen rejection slips, identical except for color. One or two included a note suggesting I send something else, presumably not because it would be better than the first offering, but because it would confirm my status as a “poet,” whose defining quality is the production of a never-ending stream of poetry.

I’m fairly confident of my literary judgment, but no one can serve as judge in his own case. What I find disturbing is that there is no one else whose independent judgment I or anyone else can rely on. There is no doubt a poetry establishment, but my impression is that its members belong less to a profession than a cult, not to say a clique, and the fact that they have produced and praised so much mediocrity makes it hard to trust their judgment. Yet asking persons outside this clique is even less satisfactory. Personal acquaintances, whether they love or hate my poetry, would not presume to judge it “objectively.” People who can tell you what they think of a movie or a song or a novel find relief in admitting that they have no way of judging the quality of a poem.

On this subject, Trevor Merrill recommended to me an article by former NEA director Dana Gioia, “Can Poetry Matter?” This piece appeared in 1991 in the Atlantic Monthly and gave its title the following year to a volume of Gioia’s essays. Written from within the poetry establishment with which I have had only the most tenuous of relations, it was most enlightening. Before reading it, influenced perhaps unduly by PBS interviews that have proliferated since Ruth Lilly’s 2002 gift of $200m to the Poetry Foundation, my idea of a poet was a sixtyish person with unkempt hair and blue jeans located in the middle of a field or wood whose vegetation is expected to supply seasonally appropriate figures of death and renewal. I learned from Gioia that the typical poet, jeans or not, is an associate professor of creative writing in a university English department, whose literary production is driven less by spontaneous creative urges than by the very same academic forces that incite the rest of the English faculty to churn out articles of literary analysis. Save that the latter, whatever their worth, are unambiguously addressed to other specialists and proto-specialists, whereas all this poetry, ostensibly written for “the public,” is perused almost exclusively by fellow members of the poetry profession.

Gioia’s article appeared nearly 20 years ago, but I imagine things haven’t changed very much, save no doubt for the worse, with the gradual disappearance of the aging survivors of the pre-academic poetry world, whom Gioia already described with nostalgia.

The artificial inflation of poetic demand by:

  • the necessities of academic promotion, where as Gioia points out, measuring quality is very difficult but measuring quantity takes only a scale and an adding machine
  • endless “creative writing” classes to justify the “poet-in-residence’s” employment
  • the publications created to support all this production, which subsequently acquire “needs” of their own
  • the Lilly gift, which would better have gone to the lady’s cat

is not designed to improve the overall quality of poetry.

One way of understanding the difficulty of judging poetry, perhaps the primary cause of the “death of poetry” whose first expression Gioia traces back to a piece by Edmond Wilson in 1934, is that poetry lacks a mode of transmission satisfactorily adapted to today’s media world. I am no fan of contemporary painting and sculpture, but at least the museum/art exhibit is a reasonable way to present viewers with artworks they wish to examine, whether the small engraving you lean over to see up close or the 100+-foot monstrosity exhibited in a pseudo-Italian church at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale. You glance at all the works and choose some to examine in depth, which can in most cases be compared with related works hanging nearby, and all for a reasonable price of admission.

But think about poetry. Poems are meant to be read individually, not collectively, but there is no “natural” way to communicate an individual poem to a reader. The opacity of the transmission link is such that the writer of poetry is forced to choose between writing for himself and perhaps a few friends and becoming a “poetry professional” obliged to publish a collection every year or two. As a result, most poetry is published, and judged, in books. For most of us, reading an entire book of verse (not even an anthology of the writer’s best work) by any but a world-class poet is a time-consuming and at best fitfully entertaining activity. I’d have trouble respecting the judgment of anyone who finds the average poetry volume worth reading.

As an alternative, there are lots of little poetry magazines, one of which (not among the thirteen) published a couple of my poems some years ago. But most of the stuff in these magazines is atrocious, and as Gioia puts it, the poems are jammed together like immigrants in the hold of a ship. Gioia’s preferred venue, the mixed-form “literary magazine,” such as the Saturday Review whose double-crostics I used to do long ago, has largely disappeared from general circulation. I imagine that just about all the literary magazines that appear today, whether or not exclusively limited to poetry, are published by English or Creative Writing departments. As for the few poems that appear in prestigious glossy magazines like the New Yorker, I am not sure their readers attend to them as more than ironic filler among the “serious” material in prose.

When Camille Claudel, the sculptress who was Paul Claudel’s sister and Auguste Rodin’s pupil and mistress, who went mad, who looked a bit like Isabelle Adjani who played her on the screen, and who, a trip to the Musée Rodin will demonstrate, was quite as good at sculpture as her mentor, was asked the name of her favorite artist, she had the chutzpah to answer, moi-même. Let’s just say that my own stuff is the modern American poetry I most enjoy reading. Yet its fidelity to the lyric tradition from Sappho to Petrarch risks appearing, in the context of contemporary poetry, horribly old-fashioned.

The poet must present his work as the creation of a master of language. In previous centuries, when European culture, at least among the educated classes, was relatively uniform, this meant demonstrating familiarity with classical and sometimes biblical sources. The poet created new metaphors and sound patterns without introducing material fundamentally unfamiliar to his readers. A poet like Victor Hugo exploited exotic elements of this cultural heritage that many might find unfamiliar, but their overall context always was, and the language and images were always understandable.

I have never felt the need to change my old thesis that the romantics created paradises of the signified (originary ideas and images) and the symbolists, paradises of the signifier (originary words and sounds). The political fiasco of 1848-51 destroyed the illusion of romantic communion with the reader. Baudelaire’s images are fragmented; he rarely paints a coherent picture, and when he does, as in “La charogne” or “Une martyre,” the effect is most often savagely ironic. Yet Baudelaire is never obscure. His moral meaning flows from verse to verse and at its most difficult, we strain to find the moral pattern, not to grasp the meaning. Obscurity belongs rather to the poetry of the arch-bourgeois Third Republic. The poet can demonstrate authentic mastery only by remaining opaque to the “bourgeois,” whose education is similar but whose attachment to things of this world denies him the time and inclination to participate in the poet’s quest to reconstruct an originary language–donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu [give a purer meaning to the words of the tribe], in the words of Stéphane Mallarmé, that most bourgeois and anti-bourgeois of poets.

Modernism is different. The last French poet I really enjoy reading, Guillaume Apollinaire, whose most famous poem begins with the arch-modernist line “A la fin tu es las de ce monde ancien” [Finally you’re tired of/fed up with this old/ancient world], demonstrates that Mallarméan obscurity is unnecessary when the poet is able to access his own modernity, a presentness that detaches him from the mediations of bourgeois life. A similar, if more aggressive, motivation lies behind the surrealists’ obsession with accessing their “unconscious” through “automatic writing” that supposedly bypasses the constraints of bourgeois society–constraints they hoped at one point would be abolished in a forthcoming Marxist utopia. In a very different vein, Marcel Proust, today perhaps the most prestigious modernist of all, transcended the superficial motivations of daily life through subtlety rather than obscurity, acting on the faith that one does indeed have access to the originary sources of the Self, provided one has the forbearance to maintain them in a state of deferral and not prematurely precipitate them out in “goal-directed activity.”

But in the US, the most influential strand of modernism even today has been that of the “high modernism” of Woolf, Joyce, Stevens, Pound, and the supreme Anglo-American, T. S. Eliot. The latter’s iconic The Waste Land exemplifies a modernist poetics without significant parallel in France, one that since its publication in 1922 no English-language poet can ignore. The poem cries out for interpretation and gloss, with the author’s own quasi-erudite notes as our guide. But what interests me is rather the need to meta-interpret the new, indeed, revolutionary conception of mastery that Eliot’s poem exemplifies and that he challenges all future poets to emulate. I suspect that this is the main source of the poem’s historical importance.

In the extreme case, modern art may be overtly premised on the idea, both magical and cynical, that it suffices to have access to the institutional mechanisms of presentation-as-art to transfigure anything at all into an artwork. In honor of the philosopher of the Wille zur Macht, I shall call the affirmation, “This is art because I present it as such” the “Nietzschean” or “N” principle. Duchamp’s readymades are no doubt the most obvious examples. But the naked demonstration of the N-principle by placing a urinal in an art exhibit is of great meta-esthetic but little esthetic interest. Once the thrill subsides, the spectator is left with little desire to examine the newly christened work of art and elucidate its “meaning.” The really profound revelation embodied in the N-principle is that henceforth our experience of even the most consequential art, whether literary, plastic, or musical, will always be contaminated by our awareness that we can no longer know what part of the work’s “esthetic value” is owed to the artist’s sheer willfulness. To access an artwork, we have always submitted to the will of the artist, but this submission, the complement of the N-principle, had never before been foregrounded within the artwork itself. Artists, whether poets or sculptors, were craftsmen, and it was assumed without question that whatever their specific background, they adhered to the rules of their craft. Duchamp was himself a serious artist who had demonstrated his craft status well before exhibiting his first readymade in 1913. Today, artists and poets still generally act under the cover of guild membership, but the guilds no longer impose rules of craft, which in the case of poetry can no longer even be credibly formulated.

Eliot’s poem illustrates the N-principle on many levels. The unique mixture of refinement and vulgarity, citation and originality, poetic power and heavy-handed cultural-anthropological reference defines the modern world of art and the mastery it both requires and assumes, one in which the highest levels of pretentiousness and literary skill are irrevocably bonded. If there is one domain where I wish the world could obey Bruno Latour’s utopian admonition to stop pretending to be modern, it is in rejecting the insufferable snobbery that is inseparable from the often exquisite art of English-language high modernism.

Eliot is surely a great poet, and in The Waste Land there is much to admire, but if the references to Buddhism or Jessie Weston or Shakespeare or Ovid are all the more impressive because they are irritating, I find them ultimately more irritating than impressive. We don’t really need Weston and Fraser to tell us about the deepest layers of human culture, nor does what Eliot had recently baptised the “objective correlative” of the Buddha’s fire sermon quite justify the appeal to its religious authority. Such criticisms inevitably provoke the counter-accusation that one is a Philistine who can’t appreciate any poetry after Tennyson. Once the N-principle enters the fray, there is no right answer; on what basis can we criticize poetry whose very point is to impose the artist’s will beyond good and evil, to make it new? In contrast with faux-naïf Apollinaire who begins the world all over again with himself, the High Modernist uses footnotes and allusions to construct not a simple Self but a Master creating newness from the infinity of the tout est dit.

Contemporary poetry continues to follow the N-principle, “democratized” in a unique American way to accept the claim of “anyone” to be a poet, so long as he writes something he calls a “poem.”

Can we put the N-genie back in the bottle? Surely not all at once; but perhaps we can maneuver him gradually inside by cultivating, for a public of educated non-specialists, a poetics of educated simplicity. For to accept that “poetry is dead” is ultimately to believe that culture is dead, with the human race shortly to follow. Only a handful of bombs would be needed for the demonstration. If we hope to rid ourselves of our passivity in the face of Western decadence, we would do better not to abandon our faith in poetry.