Of Schools, Movements and Manifestos: Where Are the Poetry Wars of Yesteryear?

June 10, 2021

Pure Poetry, Ultraism, Dada, Surrealism, Impure Poetry, Futurism, Modernism, Objectivism, the Black Mountain School, the New York School, the Beats, Formalism, Confessionalism, Southern Agrarianism, the Deep Image, Language Poetry, the New Formalism — these are some of the schools and movements that come to mind when I think of the arguments I’ve heard about poetry over the half-century since I started publishing. Blowhards like André Breton and Ezra Pound and Charles Olson and Robert Bly had something to teach despite their impossible personalities.  Even the easygoing Lawrence Ferlinghetti weighed in in the late 1970s with his “Populist Manifesto.” Poetry, their vehemence suggested, was important enough to fight over. 


For a young poet it was challenging and exciting, aggravating and exasperating, confusing and inspiring to be caught in the crossfires of some of these raging debates, and stimulating to dispute these poetic prescriptions and descriptions with my contemporaries. They didn’t feel like theories, or even strategies, so much as ethical principles. It felt as if who was most attuned to the creative spirit of the moment, whose esthetic standards were best suited to express what mattered, whose accomplishments proved the truth of what kind of poetics they were advocating — these were all vital, urgent, essential questions for anyone trying to write.


Does the ethos of the current creative writing industry, the culture of the masters of fine arts, still encourage this kind of contention? Apart from the cultivation and celebration of one’s ethnic and/or sexual identity, the processing of one’s personal trauma, and the pursuit of the well-wrought poem, do people still argue about what kind of poem is worth writing? Are teachers of workshops trying to move their students toward any particular formal or ideological or philosophical sense of a poem’s purpose (as if there were any right way to write) or is the consensus of the group as to what is good, the implicit desire or pressure to please one’s peers — or worse, get published — what drives young poets in programs, who may not yet have arrived at a personal style, to “craft” poems they hope will prove, by one or another measure, successful?


In nonacademic settings, in private writing groups and local communities of poets, is the idea of mutual support and encouragement what brings these writers together, or some larger sense of the historic value of poetry? When I was coming of age in the early 1970s in Santa Cruz, I gravitated toward young contemporaries by spontaneous association, an informal network of friendships and rivalries that egged us on. We seldom critiqued one another’s work in any organized way; our way of responding to others’ poems was to write our own and air them at readings in cafés or publish them in little magazines or share them through the mail. Natural affinities and affections and repulsions were formed, including a few manifestos and poetical power struggles — and then the Language poets came along with their theory-heavy polemics, and whose radical rebellion soon enough became academic orthodoxy. The sense of mutual discovery, of imaginative more than professional ambition, made for a fertile if disorderly atmosphere in which to pursue our experiments and try to be true to our muses.


As someone who doesn’t teach for a living and who is not a member of AWP and doesn’t attend its conferences if I can help it — the few I’ve been to have struck me as sales conventions and schmoozefests whose primary purpose is to advance careers, and maybe get laid, more than to encourage creative excellence — I wonder whether, in these anything-goes postmodern times, anyone bothers to fight anymore over what’s worth writing. People seem so busy trying to network and publish and blog and tweet and build their brand and find a teaching position to get on a tenure track and establish job security that the romantic notion of poetry as vocation and soul-making spiritual practice appears to be too retro to be taken seriously.


In the contemporary poetry landscape I know I’m out of the loops and over the hills, an old-school existentialist for whom poetry was always a matter of life and death, not a career option. There was, when I was starting out, no Garrison Keilloroid notion of poetry as a wholesome pursuit with entertaining applications in polite society. Poetry was not respectable, was often dangerous to one’s health and welfare, and was unlikely to win the approval of anyone beyond a few equally alienated freaks. Our role models and critics were not our peers, nor even magazine editors, let alone contest judges, so much as they were writers, alive or dead, whom we aspired to emulate. By hanging out with Keats and Hopkins, Rilke and Vallejo, Millay and Dickinson, Rimbaud and Pavese, Basho and Li Po, Williams and Whitman, we hoped to learn something and eventually be worthy of their company.


I’m still trying to measure up to those standards, however long a shot it may be that I’ll ever achieve them. But the effort to stretch my own limits, to be true to my own experience and to some mixture of traditions, to make some kind of authentic statement — not to prove how clever I am but to manifest a persuasive imaginative reality — feels even more urgent now than it did in my twenties. This is no doubt because now, in my seventies, I can feel time running out and I’ve come to understand how little my poems matter to anyone else. But their integrity matters to me, and they will be all that’s left of me when I’m gone, and if anyone reads them then I don’t want to be embarrassed in the afterlife. 


While I’ve never completely belonged to a school or movement, the idea has endured from my early reading of diverse contenders for poetic supremacy that what one writes, and how, must be made to matter.


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Stephen Kessler’s most recent book is Garage Elegies (Black Widow Press). His translations of Luis Cernuda have received a Lambda Literary Award, the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award and the PEN Center USA Translation Award. His version of Save Twilight: Selected Poems by Julio Cortázar won a Northern California book award. A new book of poems, Last Call, is expected later this year from Black Widow Press. www.stephenkessler.com