Donald Dunbar on the State of Poetry

by on Jul.11, 2013

Ron Klassnik has posted a good essay by Donald Dunbar on the state of poetry over on HTML Giant.

Among other good points:

A bunch of people have taken issue with Edmundson’s scolding of poets for a lack of aesthetic ambition–”blah blah private hermetic blah timid etc.,” says Edmundson, truly. Most of the people who have taken most issue with this have Ph.D.’s. Ph.D.’s are wonderful things and I wish I had one, but a Ph.D.-ed poet who doesn’t think that their degree might give them special access to plenty of poetry today does not have much faith in their degree, and, given that, a Ph.D. who doesn’t acknowledge that some dedicated, smart people sometimes feel left out of the greater conversation of poetry–for lack of half-a-decade of time and specialized training, as well as a host of other things–seems kinda hegemonic. I also don’t understand, though I’ve heard the argument before, that four-ish years of intense study in a very specific environment (i.e. small-town mid-west) doing a very specific job (teaching comp to freshmen) does not seriously affect one’s poetry in a very specific way. It’s unfair to say that living that life and ceaselessly engaging in those dialogues makes one’s poetry hermetic, but does it make poetry more likely to be considered hermetic by those outside that lifestyle? I say maybe.

7 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes

    I disagree with the emphasis on accessibility (which I wrote about allure the other day and I’ve written about fascination) – but I think this is right. In order to “master the field” of contemporary writing you basically have to subscribe to a certain post-lang-po Taste that allows you to disregard a vast majority of poetry that is actually written out there in the world. But I think the key is that the plague ground” have to have its own discussions not dictated by the PhD world. / Johannes

  2. Johannes

    Not that there is a sharp distinction between Plague ground and PhD world.

  3. Donald Dunbar

    Thanks, Johannes! I would like to clarify that I’m not arguing in favor of accessibility in aesthetics necessarily–I see aesthetics as something that should be prescription-free–but I do think it’s worth considering the effect that such a homogeneous culture has on the writing and the discussing of poetry. Certainly very few people without college degrees are currently involved in the discussion; in fact, few people without at least plans for advanced degrees are. I mean to point out to the educated majority of poets that if we hope to extend our culture out of an academic ghetto–perhaps even make it a force in the world–the ways poetry is being talked about and distributed right now are not going to accomplish that.

  4. drew

    it wouldn’t be the plague ground if it didn’t also encompass the PhD world

  5. Michael S. Begnal

    “It’s unfair to say that living that life and ceaselessly engaging in those dialogues makes one’s poetry hermetic, but does it make poetry more likely to be considered hermetic by those outside that lifestyle? I say maybe.” Weird argument here. He admits it’s unfair, but then says that the perception is somehow justified (or at least “maybe”). If it’s only a perception, an unfair one at that, then isn’t the problem with those who have the unfair perception?

  6. Johannes

    I think it points to a dilemma in arguments such as these – one that donald maybe doesnt want to solve, just wants to raise. I think accessibility/hermeticism is a less interesting way of approaching this dilemma than my post about allure… Johannes

  7. Donald Dunbar

    Michael, thanks for the comment.

    I think the aesthetic argument for/against “hermeticism” relates to my argument only in that Edmundson’s argument spawned the conversation–it’s not a dichotomy I find valuable in engaging with poetry. What caused my response was that much of the conversation from poets was, “But I like all this stuff! And you just don’t get it!”–which, though I enjoyed reading the responses, is not a sentiment I find valuable in engaging with poetry.

    The perception of hermeticism is interesting to me mostly because the majority of people arguing that poetry is just great as it is are firmly ensconsed in academia. My argument is not that certain aesthetics are better than others, but that homogeneity within poetry culture makes it difficult for us, as poets and scholars, to notice the homogeneity (e.g. explaining to an all-male, all-white class of students white/male privilege is). Again, and maybe I’m missing something here, but I’m not making an aesthetic argument; I’m making a cultural argument:

    If we want a true diversity of voices within poetry, we must recognize those that aren’t currently included, and understand their reasons for feeling excluded. Some people feel excluded because so much of the value systems built around poetry are built within academic contexts. Therefor, if we–as people with expensive degrees–want a larger variety of people included in the discussion, we must recognize the limitations and prereqs of the discussion we’re having, and find ways to bridge the gap. The solution to this is NOT deifying “accessibility” (whatever that is), but by approaching people outside of an academic context. Like music, people will find poetry that suits them personally. Like music, if they’ve never heard a kind of poetry, they have no chance of liking it. Unlike music, the only times people are given the chance to engage with poetry is on a university campus. My argument is to change this.