Can “Poets” Stop Writing Like “Poets”?

Below are some interesting thoughts on the state of contemporary American poetry by Joshua Mehigan.

I’ve been following a recent trend (most recently in Modernism is Dead: Long Live Modernism) of critics longing for a new poetics without quite coming up with how to do that (myself included; but listen, what hope do I have compared to Michael Lista and David Biespiel?)

I do think Mehigan comes close to beginning to articulate a solution: stop writing like a “Poet” (which means someone attuned to all the current tricks of the trade) and start writing like a “Human” (which means a beginner, a person, a non-professional Modernist).

I know this is easy to say, but I think it’s a step in the right direction. If I had to paraphrase, I’d say don’t try to write the poetry you’ve been taught to write. Write the poetry that hasn’t been written yet and that you want to see written. This probably means you’ll be lucky if you find even one major journal to get what you are doing and give you a chance. But it’s better than writing the same crap over and over again.

Most of us will fail. But a few, I think, will truly blow us away. There are, right now, quite a few poets “pushing it,” and I praise them for that (see my list here). But more of us need to stop playing it safe and start pushing it, meaning renouncing all the easy tricks of Modernism:

Commemorating Pound may be what brought him to my mind. But it’s no accident that he stuck there like a radio jingle. After all, what are these offputting tendencies if not the reductio ad absurdum of Modernism? Each is marked by cargo-cult exaggerations of qualities cultivated by Pound, such as novelty, imaginative priority, fragmentation, and difficulty. All of these are desirable sometimes, one or two most of the time. But the special formulae popularized by the Modernists and their followers provide what must be the most brutally contrived models younger poets have ever had to start from.

You can’t hold the Modernists solely responsible. They may’ve wanted to install themselves as oracles of some final indestructible -ism, but they invented no new poetic first principles. Few young poets 
name Pound as a main influence, and many now get their Williams and Stevens from later poets, in the way half the country gets its water 
from soda pop or beer. However we come to it, Modernism is always there, and apparently we haven’t yet begun the process that leads to our having detested it long enough.

In the end, poetry looks radical only to the outside world, which ignores it, while from inside it looks static. Poets got out of these situations before by doing something new, but novelty is superfluous now. There is no way to get into the game without upping the ante, and there is no way out without bluffing or folding or everyone agreeing on a new game. If you’ve been a poet for a while you might not see how bizarre it all seems, and how monotonous, but if you shake your head and look again as a human being, you might [emphasis mine].

Prose From Poetry Magazine, by Joshua Mehigan (Poetry)


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