Used to be God whose decomposing corpse made the big stink. Was it Nietszche, Freud, Time magazine, or the masses (who preferred, in the end, other opiates) that did Him in? I'm not sure, but I take solace in knowing that there are, besides myself, other holdouts refusing to suspend their belief. Meanwhile, the subject has receded to the terrorism and fundamentalism pages of your newspaper, and the focus has long since shifted to literature.
The death of the novel has worried all-star panelists for years. Now with Updike dead and Roth retired, a new consensus is starting to form around the notion that the TV serial as exemplified by The Sopranos, Mad Men, House of Cards, Breaking Bad, and Homeland has displaced and supplanted the novel as a mass entertainment form -- one that can aspire to be both wildly popular and notably artistic, as the novel was at its best. The past tense in that last clause makes me sad, though I have the seen the future and it is even more enthralling than Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga with Damian Lewis as Soames.
The death-of debate of the moment centers on poetry and takes the form of essays, sometimes jeremiads, in wide circulation monthlies. Last summer’s entry in the poetry-is-dead sweepstakes was “Poetry Slam: Or, The decline of American Verse” by Mark Edmundson (Harper’s, July 2013, pp. 61-68). If you wonder at magazine editors who run variants of the same article, rehashing the same tired arguments, as if it had not been done many times before, don’t. Think of how many issues of finance magazines are identical in their contents year after year. How you too can retire at 65. What to do about bonds in 2014? Insider tips from the pros. Why it makes dollars and sense to "ditch cable." Picking the Right Money Manager. 20 Great Stocks. Or consider the general audience magazine, editors of which will not soon tire of running articles that contend that a woman either can or cannot “have it all.”
The piece by an older academic bewailing the state of something he calls “mainstream American poetry” and praising the poetry he loved as a youth is embarrassing for what it reveals about the author, who is out of touch with the poetry in circulation. Leave aside that “mainstream American poetry” is poor turf to stand on -- would you offer a course with that label? Would anyone want to fit into such a category? Professor Edmundson’s chief complaint appears to be that ”there’s no end of poetry being written and published out there,” and though it is hard to generalize, he will do just that and say that today’s poets lack ambition -- “ the poets who now get the balance of public attention and esteem arte casting unambitious spells.”
You almost feel sorry for the wrong-headed author when, boxed in by his own argument, he finds himself giving lukewarm praise to a paranoid and meretricious piece of work: “A recent consequential and energetic political poem, ‘Somebody Blew Up America’ written and performed by Amiri Barka, ends up in rant, some of it rather bizarre. (At a certain point Baraka appears to hold Israel directly responsible for the destruction of the towers.) But the poem is at least a strong attempt, an attempt to say not how it is for Baraka exclusively but how it is for all.” To frame an argument that obliges you to defend a demagogic tissue of calumnies ("consequential and energetic") is a textbook lesson in how to paint yourself into a corner. The writer engaged in a search for a “large-minded poetic response” to “the events that began on September 11, 2001” – and this is what he came up with!
RIP Amiri Baraka. I do not believe that Baraka served himself well in his last decades. He chose to use poetry as an instrument of propaganda – his poems became not only questionable in their truth content but ineffective on the base level of reader response. His work was, of all things, boring. True, you can say he stuck to the guns that announced the mugger’s cry of triumph in the 1960s: “Up against the wall, motherfucker.” This phrase of his became the political slogan of a period. It is no mean feat to have coined it. And I would not overlook the plays he wrote when he was still LeRoi Jones or the image of “Roi” that you get in Frank O’Hara’s poems. It was for him that O’Hara wrote his mock-manifesto “Personism.”
If this were a prose poem I would end it here, on a digression, having voyaged as far as possible from my original subject and tone. But this is a post, not a poem, and I think I should close by saying that in the natural course of events the letters that the magazine prints a few issues after the death-of-poetry prognosis are sometimes of greater interest or value than the initial article. The Edmundson article provoked three letters that the magazine saw fit to print in its September 2013 issue. One letter-writer was vexed that Edmundson had focused “almost exclusively” on white male writers; one thought it a shame that the author had overlooked the work of Hip-Hop lyricists (such as “Kendrick Lamar and Nas”). The third correspondent was Harvard Professor Stephen Burt, an assiduous critic and reader, who pointed out that there is “something bullying” in Edmundson’s call for “public” poetry. “A public poem, in Edmundson’s view, might be an interest-group poem whose collective has a flag,” Burt wrote. What’s more attacks on contemporary American poetry such as Edmundson’s “have been made for centuries” and are best seen as “screeds [that] create an opportunity for those of us who read a lot to poetry to recommend individual poets as we come to poetry-in-general’s defense.” -- DL