I AM VERY GRATEFUL to Matvei Yankelevich, a poet-critic I admire very much and an editor at the Ugly Duckling Presse, whose verbally and visually innovative books I collect assiduously, for responding to my essay, “Poetry on the Brink.” His commentary gives me a welcome opportunity to clear up what have evidently been some widespread misconceptions.
First, some background. The essay in question was originally commissioned by the Virginia Quarterly Review, which was running a feature on “The State of Poetry Today.” I accepted the invitation gladly because I thought it would give me a chance to have my say on what I took (and take) to be the rather sad state of poetry being published by the mainstream press in the U.S. in the 2010s. But, in the end, although the editors were very pleased with my piece and it was already in proof, I withdrew it — for reasons too complicated to go into here — and sent it to the Boston Review instead. The shift in context created a problem I didn’t originally anticipate: rather than being part of a discussion I would otherwise have had with such critics as William Logan, Willard Spiegelman, and Robert Archambeau — critics whose stances on poetry are very different from my own — my essay appeared all by itself, thus taking on an air of isolated polemic.
Still, I was not prepared for the vehement response the essay provoked, especially after the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Arts and Letters Daily website linked to it, which has a huge readership. I didn’t think my essay was all that controversial, but I suppose it struck a nerve for the simple reason that, in today’s poetry press, there is almost no real debate or argument. Few poetry books get reviewed at all and when they do, they are almost always given unqualified praise.
Matvei Yankelevich understands this situation very well but, I think, mistakes my essay’s intended audience, as well as some of its terminology. From his own perspective, as publisher on the downtown New York poetry scene, where a congeries of young experimental poets are producing a great variety of texts — visual poetry, performance texts, serial poems, documentary — that can’t be pigeonholed, he objects to what he takes to be the binary opposition between Conservatism and Conceptualism in my essay. Both conservatives and conceptualists, he argues, fail to take the material text seriously enough; the Conceptualists do not respect “the word as such,” as I claim they do, and hence the appeal of their work is limited. Indeed, says Yankelevich, the irony is that at both poles — the Conservative and the Conceptual — writing is treated as merely transparent. It has none of the complexity and “difficulty” of the good poetry written in the “gray area” between the two poles.
But this binary is Yankelevich’s, not mine. The term “Conservatism” does not really fit the younger poets featured, say, in Rita Dove’s anthology, many of whom are certainly on the Left politically and have fought hard for minority rights. I prefer merely to speak of the Establishment: the big-name poets who win the prizes, the Guggenheims and MacArthur fellowships. Indeed, Natasha Trethewey, whose little poem was my Exhibit...read more