"it's too much…" (pt 2): The Poetry Foundation

by on May.04, 2011

A few days ago I wrote a post about Steve Burt’s confession that poetry had become “too much,” that he could no longer keep up. By which he meant, I suppose, could no longer maintain a sense of Mastery over poetry, could no longer taxonomize poetry, could no longer, on a very fundamental level, read it all. It had become, as Joyelle called it in her talk “The “Future” of “Poetry””, a “spumey” “plague ground.”

It’s not lost on me that this confession was published on the Poetry Magazine web site Harriet; Poetry Magazine which has as its main goal to maintain a sense of “center,” to counteract the de-hierarchizing energies of the Internet. The Harriet web site is one obvious example of this: pay some poets of some different stripes to blog regularly in order to direct traffic through the Poetry Foundation, making it a kind of center of Internet poetry discussions.

Exhibit 2: A recent mailing I received from Poetry Magazine. In the letter and a reprint of a not-so-impartial article by reactionary poet-critic Adam Kirsch, the mailing keeps repeating its arguments over and over: we are the center, we’re the center.

And its second point: We are populist, going outside the corrupted/ing aesthetics of the classroom. These two come together in their overarching rhetoric: we are where it’s at because we are open to everyone; we are popular.

Nevermind that they’re the only poetry journal I’ve ever come across that could afford to 1. send out mailings and 2. maintain the whole Internet hub they do. Thanks of course to their super-million endowment they received when that rich lady died the other year.

Interesting paradox: investment in genre purity, “Poetry,” despite this supposed “open-ness.” We always know that we’re looking at poetry. Even when it’s “visual poetry” it’s “poetry.”

The antithesis of their populism is of course “academic” poetry, poetry of the classroom. Nevermind the huge irony (or hypocrisy) that their fundamental taste (and to some extent rhetoric) comes from New Criticism, and that a whole lot of their contributors are indeed professor and/or graduates of colleges, PhD and MFA programs. (For more thinking about the anti-kitsch rhetoric of people attacking “the MFA student,” see Joyelle’s post from a while back.)

I think it’s important to point that out: Like the anthology American Hybrid, Poetry Magazine is constantly pretending to be “open” to all kinds of styles and aesthetics; they even have a special translation issue (where they publish poetry that doesn’t challenge this aesthetic in a nice little quarantine issue). But fundamentally: their idea of poetry is 1. “Poetry” and 2. An aesthetic based on New Critical “close readings” and the aesthetic that comes with that. Accessibility for the college-educated, like I noted in my post about Billy Collins.

They include poems by Charles Bernstein because he’s now a canonical figure; and fame is being established is almost as important to Poetry Magazine as new critical aesthetics. Because it allows them to claim that “center” they so desperately want to claim for themselves. They include a special on “Conceptual Poetry” complete with little cliff-notes explications by Kenny Goldsmith. Ie “process” as the new wellwrought urn. They include representatives of the Official Experimental Verse Culture because they’re invested in a stable model of New Critical vs Experimental poetry. Again: Taste can be dual, as long as it provides a center.

Just as the New Critics’ had as one of their aims to remove the “excesses” of 1920s modernism/avant-gardism, so Poetry Magazine’s aim is to create a center, to create order out of the current “plague ground” of poetry (with its corrupted MFA students, gothic melodramatics, decadent dandies, overheated neo-beatnicks, “soft surrealists,” tasteless Romantics, etc etc.)

Here are some quotes from the letter I received [CLARIFICATION: this is from Christian Wiman’s letter, not the article by Adam Kirsch]:

“W’ere the oldest, boldest, and most widely respected magazine devoted to poetry in the English-speaking world.” [Key point: in the rhyme old-bold we have the crux – linearity as both Timeless Inheritance and Cutting Edge]
“We find great work before anyone else.”
“Discovering new voices… remains our primary commitment today…” [As if it’s just a matter of discovering these new voices, surely an objective task]
“You’ll discover poems before they are “literature” and will have the chance to experience them outside of any classroom or anthology.” [Ah the corruption of the classroom.]
“The scope of work in Poetry has never been broader.”
“We are dedicated to presenting new work in translation with an annual Translation Issue and regular contributions from the foremost trnaslators in the English-speaking world.” [Even the translators have to be hierarchized.]
“No other literary magazine has a more devoted or discriminating audience.” [Taste]
“Our readers are highly intelligent but not specialized, passionately engaged but clear-headed and judicious.” [Who are these un-clear-headed poetry readers? If you’re going to create these straw(wo)men – at least have the guts to come out and say who you mean.]
“In our magazine you’ll find not only work by the most well-known poets and critics, but also by people outside the “poetry business.” [By which he means articles by “novelists…. journalists and musicians.” Ie not “specialized’ and over-“passionate” MFA students.]
“You too can express your views in our pages.”

Throughout the mailing, there’s this dual sense: Poetry magazine is both Taste and common-ness, both anti-kitsch and populist, refined and “adventurous”, “oldest and boldest,” both wide “open” and “central,” both new critical and populist, both democratic and champion of/by New-Criterion-Helen-Vendler-Harvard-educated supported Adam Kirsch.

Against this rhetoric of timeless-yet-bold, Tasteful-yet-experimental, I might propose corrupted, too “passionate” Carina Finn’s “plague-ground-embracing” comments to Joyelle’s post about genre:

“I’m beginning to wonder if the becoming-genre is not itself a tense, a continuous-present suspended inside of a restricted temporality which is a becoming. then all of these various tenses, non-identical mimics, accrue and begin to look dangerous. they pile up & rupture time/tense and emerge as a sort of congealed present stepping into the future, an always-already anachronism? perhaps so many people insist on defining genre in singular, palatable terms because the contagion of multiplicity poses a threat to what James notes above as “the constraining humanist need for ‘voice.” “The Voice,” attached to a body which has a lifespan, can be easily made safe via an act of canonization, like J says — classics are dead. I wonder, then if one can take a sort of fossilized genre and bring it back into a state of becoming through decay, radioactivity. what’s the difference between reanimation and straight-up becoming? is a “dead” text with a potential multitude of voices really dead, or just sleeping?”

17 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes

    Let me also add: I don’t think everything they do is inherently evil or bad. That’s not what this post is about.

  2. Lucas de Lima

    When I moved back to the US from a two-year sojourn abroad, I subscribed to Poetry Magazine because it’s a cheap, monthly publication (a single issue is much cheaper than your typical lit mag), and because I thought it would give me a good sense of contemporary poetry. I forced myself to like, and write like, the poets in the mag. I thought they were all I had to turn to in terms of American poetry. As you suggest in your comment, some of those poets are interesting and worth emulating, but overall the selection is way too homogeneous for the mag to stand in as the complete horizon of poetry (as if anything could do that). Yet its effects can be quite pernicious, especially for poets as young as I was during my subscription.

    I was actually just flipping thru an issue to see how many poems used animal imagery in the problematic way I describe in my post. The answer is, lots.

  3. Sandra Simonds

    I was published in Poetry last year. You’ve been pretty supportive of my poetry, so I’m wondering how you understand my inclusion in the magazine. Genuinely curious.



  4. Johannes

    Like I said, I don’t think Poetry magazine just does bad things. They also published an interview with Zurita and Borzutzky’s whose poems/translations we’ve obviously published at Action Books.


  5. Johannes

    NEG and Phil,

    It reads like a parody… Perhaps I’ll write something about this need for “standards” – what’s so scary about having to read a poem in a more interesting way than the evaluative standards, which is such a boring way to read a poem.


  6. Johannes


    That’s exactly why these types of central-claims need to be critiqued (or “Best Americna Poetry of xyz”).


  7. Kent Johnson

    It’s interesting, isn’t it. Not so long ago at all there were the journals of the poetic “avant” confronting the journals of the poetic “establishment.” There was, in terms of the field and its poetic politics, some graspable definition of difference. Now the erstwhile poetic Outside is on the In. Earnestly pleading, of course, that it’s still on the Out, still fighting OVC, or whatever they used to call it…

    And what a strange thing, that those who so plainly betray a disposition to being In (Conceptual poetry, Flarf, most lately–Langpo went In quite some time ago) are those who most vociferously proclaim their rebelliousness, their intractability. Anyway, the Poetry Magazine phenomenon repeats itself (even if less programmatically) in most of the leading literary journals of the day. It’s the new atmosphere. Yes, it’s really nice and pleasant weather; everyone is quite polite: “Good Day, Sir. Excuse me, but is that a real urinal, or did you just make that up?”

    I’m not sure we’ve (whatever “we’ve” means) yet grasped the change and its meanings. Of the New Officialdom, I mean. And of how quickly and generally the eager surrender has come. I suspect it’s going to take a while to theorize it all, sociologically speaking. Well, who knows?

  8. Steve

    Thanks for the attention! I don’t believe in “standards” as I think you mean the term. I do believe in (1) personal taste (2) trying to expand my own tastes (3) trying to figure out why I like what I like (4) trying to read work by people I haven’t met, nor heard about from friends, whose tastes I don’t share, in order to figure out whether they’ve invented something cool, done something I like, brought some new slice of experience into language, etc. The web appears to make (4) harder, because there’s suddenly so much more available, but actually it makes (4) easier, because there’s suddenly so much more available, or at least available more easily. Which was the point of my original mock-cry of mock-despair, which (alas) seems to have sparked more discussion on the Interwebs than anything I’ve written about a not- or not-yet-famous individual poet lately (Melissa Range, say, or Allan Peterson, or Mary Dalton). Isn’t part of the point of being a critic that you try to go outside your comfort zone, and then to make some sense of (which means, sometimes, judging, and sometimes admiring, and sometimes rejecting) what you find? As for “Poetry,” the concept, every time I see somebody try to do without it and still talk about, well, poetry, it gets replaced by more restrictive concepts, usually concepts of genre not called by that name. I’ll stick with “poetry” (lowercase preferred). Which is healthier when it’s attacked, from “without” and “within.”

  9. Johannes

    Steve (and Mark),
    I’ll post a quick reply here but I am writing something that I think will explain more of what I’m talking about. What I mean by “standards” and “taxonomies” and “mastery” is the way you tend to set up models of american poetry. For example on the panel where Joyelle gave her “future” of “poetry” talk, you divided poetry into so many groups etc, in one issue of Believer, you gave a brief introduction to contemporary poetry, a guide that – neccessarily – left out a lot of poetry (including most poetry I’m interested in), or the way when you wrote (apparently in response to Joyelle’s grotesque motherhood imagery from future panel) about Rachel Zucker as a kind of limit to how grotesque one can be and still be good poetry, setting her up as a kind of limit (or that in the ensuing discussion you compared me and Joyelle to bomb-throwing terrorists and calling us “too punk rock,” as if we desire marginality). In this I don’t object to you writing about American poetry (in fact I have often praised you for doing that, something nobody else seems willing to do), but the way you inevitably tend to set up a closed system with yourself as a guide, a kind of sensible guide for people who like Elizabeth Bishop (that’s how you characterized your venture in one piece); and the way you don’t engage with the folks you don’t agree with, but rather you ignore them and attack them without mentioning names (ie there are all these “abject” writers that don’t know how to write, just going for gross, but you don’t actually name them, don’t actually let people read them or even find out their names, as if to do this would be to offer too much of a possibility that people might read them). In other words you use objective definition as a way to forward your “personal taste.” As for taste: It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot. It seems to tied up with a notion of agency and individuality, as well as “shopper’s” mentality; “personal taste” it seems to posit us as too independent of context. Your Taste is of course influential on the way others “taste.” It’s never strictly personal. I’m not sure, maybe I’ll post about that; I’m searching for a way out of the idea of “taste” but it’s hard. But on the whole, I liked your post, “mockery” or not. I thought it was refreshing and funny.

  10. Mark Tursi

    Hey Johannes,

    I’m generally in agreement with your characterization of Poetry Magazine, but I would quibble a bit with your earlier post about Steve Burt’s blog. It seems, in part, a mischaracterization. I don’t know Burt’s work at all, so you’re obviously making other connections that I’m missing. But, in this particular post, I don’t see any overt impulse toward “mastery” or even an inability to taxonomize. I agree that this is implied, but I’d let him off the hook a bit more easily perhaps.

    He seems to be lamenting the fact that day-to-day life restricts his ability—and desire—to become more involved in the poetry world; he’s overwhelmed with the absolute effusion of poetry, criticism, poetics – a position I can sympathize with. As you note, it is one legitimate response to an overabundance. Though I don’t think it is an either/or situation anyway . . . There are numerous ways to immerse or disengage in the poetry universe.

    Perhaps the more interesting point is that I think there is a kind of false nostalgia here; i.e. a nostalgia for a poetic epoch that was somehow easier, less diffuse. I’m not sure that ever really existed; i.e. some era prior to Barth’s literature of exhaustion/literature of replenishment characterization that was more “encompassable.” Sure, there’s absolutely a lot more of poetry, poetics, poebiz now than ever and it’s everywhere and easily accessible, but still, was there ever an era that a reader could have complete mastery over?
    And, another quick note – right on with your contrast between Bolaño and Carver. . . really interesting take on “difficult literature” as somehow being an ‘easier’ read….

  11. Johannes

    A couple of more things: I agree with a lot of what you say and I like your idea of what you’re doing when you’re challenging your own “taste.” When I talk about “poetry” as a concept meant to be kept stable. What I meant very fundamentally is that the poetry is kept in its own bin, Poetry Magazine doesn’t seem to want to show connections between poetry and other arts, don’t seem to want to publish works that blur the distinction between poetry and other arts/genres (ie “vispo” had to be “po” and, again, had to be quarantined in its own little section). Do you see what I mean?

  12. James Pate

    To Kent’s point: The Poetry Foundation seems like a great example of the elasticity of “late capitalism,” its ability to make the “outside” work for it in a sense, and of course in that very act incorporating the outside. By brining in debates with Flarf, Conceptualism, etc., drama is heightened, readership is added…much like a lot of politics today.

    Not that I’m making a plea for some sort of purity test, an aesthetics outside capital (which is probably impossible at this point anyway). That’s been one of the problems with many avant-garde movements all along, their desire for purity (which is also always a desire for Truth). Maybe the better approach is, as I mentioned in an earlier post, to constantly question and scramble the categories…to have blogs such as this and others to make sure such institutions like the Foundation don’t control the discourse (and therefore make it the unquestioned real) in any absolutist sense…

    To Johannes and Steve’s discussion: one of my favorite film critics, Jonathan Rosenbaum, frequently writes about his experimental and processual approach to film, trying to keep away from sweeping claims and categories and assumptions about “the viewer” and attempting instead to see the individual movie in light of a more entangled context (whether that context be institutional or relating to questions of initial reception, or to questions of genre, etc).

    He also admits he frequently changes his mind about films over time, that to give certain films a thumbs up or down suggests that his own reaction to the film will be the same a few years, or even a few months, later…

    He very much de-objectifies (and therefore de-mystifies) the practice of film criticism, highlighting its temporal elements…

  13. Johannes

    James (and Kent),
    I would say that in order to claim to be “open”, the Poetry Magazine has to be invested in the creation of an Experimental Poetry that is its opposite which it can then include. I think the way an organization like this – one that wants to be “central” – is that it sees a whole lot more stability in the creation of a binary system – mainstream vs experimental – than in one simple Main Taste. There is of course a whole lot of poetry (most) that doesn’t fit into either category. It’s also interesting to me how much the supposed Mainstream agrees with a lot of experimental rhetoric, for example Kenny Goldsmith’s “against expressionism” – it could be the coda statement of Poetry Magazine too. /Johannes

  14. Kent Johnson

    Excuse the awkward, winded sentence, but I so love it when Harvard prof/critics who forcefully and prolifically argue their “tastes” and selections in major periodicals that reach millions (and who in very self-aware ways construct contemporary hierarchies and even longer-range canons through inclusion or exclusion) go about claiming their “taste” is innocent and merely personal, just one other teeny-weeny taste in the great universe of manifold and similarly innocent and personal tastes.

  15. Kent Johnson

    >(and who in very self-aware ways construct contemporary hierarchies and even longer-range canons through inclusion or exclusion)

    Well, not that you could do it any other way, of course, but you know…