Tuesday, March 13, 2007


John Barr's article is retarded.

It's the sort of thing you can set your clocks or calendars to. With a kind of seasonal regularity, some moldy white guy pops up to say how bad poetry is, how blinkered, how narrow, how dead, how etc. Without fail, a close reading will usually reveal arguments based on broad generalizations and even, unsurprisingly, outright ignorance. You'd think, by now, that this genre would be so well known, so readily transparent, that whoever sat down with their burp of discontent would recognize it for indigestion, that they'd realize they were the latest in a long line of boys crying wolf. If it did not cost the deaths of trees and if it would not be so deathlessly monotonous, an anthology of these types of proclamations might be, well, not interesting but could serve as a kind of remedy, passed out as a service.

He trots out the same dead old arguments, which by now are so truly dead they are barely bones at all, bemoaning the lack of readership, that poems once commonly appeared in newspapers. He does this without seeming to realize there's this thing called the internet and that sites like Verse Daily and Poetry Daily bring poems every day to thousands upon thousands of, yes, interested readers and that, this is amazing, don't end up in the landfill the next day. This is to say nothing of every good online journal, also reaching thousands of readers.

The great sin of these types of essays is that they make claims that are easily proven inaccurate, at best, and, at worst, grossly untrue. And this is usually due to a kind of willful ignorance. If you have not read a certain kind of poetry, that does not mean it doesn't exist. A joyous poetry? Try Ilya Kaminsky. Poetry of the moment? Try Brian Turner's Here, Bullet. No major American poet has come from academia? I suppose I should toss my Levis, Berryman, Hugo, Graham, Roethke. I'll stop because that's just picking on him.

And, really, when you can write a section header called "Live Broadly, Write Boldly," are we supposed to move to Lima or call in the next fifteen minute minutes because supplies are running out? It's the worst sort of facile understanding of the poetic impulse. As a sidenote, when you're writing an essay about the need for a new American poetry, I'd suggest you not reference Ernest Hemingway as some kind of life model. I mean, I love my pith helmet, don't get me wrong.

Poetry is much more varied and interesting today than these calcified critics ever seem to realize and they do a disservice to their readers by suggesting there is precious little out there.

Rant over.


Scoplaw said...


I wanted to respond to this myself - the issue is only time.

I think he's got a couple of good points hidden away in there, but the whole basic approach of the article is skewed.

bp said...

You're right: poetry IS far more varied than ever before, as there is a wider variety of writing styles than ever. One of the liberties of "post-postmodernism," or whatever you want to call this "poetic age," is that you can do whatever you want. It's interesting that poetic manifestos don't appear with nearly the same frequency as they did in the 20th century (esp. the early 20th century), probably because no one really listens anymore to someone who says "Poems should do THIS."

And of course there is wider access to poetry and poetry comment than ever before. I remember that at UTC the books I bought were basically by people who came to Meacham, or what I occasionally picked up when I went to another town. BECAUSE THOSE WERE THE ONLY ONES AVAILABLE!!! Sure, maybe it would have been a different story if I'd lived in NYC or SF, but like most Americans, I didn't. There definitely wasn't the ability to start cross-referencing or getting feedback on a wide variety of books, or even just buying any old title, like you can on Amazon. And you can read the work of pretty much any far-flung poet if you just Google them; it used to be that if you wanted to read a literary magazine, you had to hope that a nearby university library carried one of the few hundred copies in print; now anyone in Timbuktu can read all or part of any number of serious literary mags online. Yeah, physical paper is preferable to the glare of a screen, but the glare of a screen is preferable to nothing at all.

Anyway, you might want to check out this article in the New Yorker that responds to Barr's essay; it's pretty good.


jeannine said...

I'm with you. I think I choked on my drink when I came across with reference to "big game hunting" or something like that in the essay. (Turns out Barr did a lot of big game hunting on safari with his extra $$$.) WTF? Yes, killing endangered animals - that's the way to good poetry. lol. Just look what it's done for Barr's work!

Diane K. Martin said...

Haven't read the piece, but I loved your rant. I especially loved your phrase, "burp of discontent."

John Gallaher said...

Yep. And his "performance" at AWP, where he was supposed to deliver another version of this essay and instead read a list of the Poetry Foundation's projects, showed him to be, well, without much.

I have a bunch of links on my blog from a couple days ago to various essays on this.

Grr, indeed.

Oliver de la Paz said...

Second what bp said about the New Yorker article. It's a pretty interesting take on Mr. Barr and his bully pulpit.