Anna Maria Hong, Subtext, Lisa Robertson, John Olson, Ron Silliman, Heather McHugh—this is not about you. Your poetry is impressive; your imaginations are real imaginations. We very well know that. We also know that, unlike poets of the past (from the Renaissance to the day Sylvia Plath put her head in an oven: February 11, 1963), you are doomed to work alone, like ronins—masterless samurai roaming the ruins of a kingdom that was once the thriving capital of language. But at least you know how bad things are; whereas the vast majority of poets are under the impression that theirs is the age of milk and honey, and the future is brighter than ever.
Something has to be done about this. Something final has to be said. We regret the contemporary poetry spewing out of this city, this region, this nation. It goes without saying, in all ages, there are too many poetasters—poetic disasters, people who believe that the whole substance of the form is a sort of confessional or a way to commemorate some moment of epiphany. However, no age can match this one in the amount of phony profundities that are strewn about us everywhere: in the broken stem of a flower, a cherished hurt, an act of forgiveness. Fathers, as we have noted before, come in for a lot of this.
We agree that some of the blame for the way things are today must be handed to the past. William Wordsworth, for example, did a tremendous disservice to poetry when he defined it as a strong emotion recollected. People have been taking him at his word ever since. However resonant to the poet, sentiment is not what poetry is; believe us, poetry as reconstituted emotion is more therapy than art. We know all about it: You were born a human being, you were traumatized by your mother's open lesbianism, you must get it out of your system—madam, you don't need a keyboard, you need a fresh pair of ears. Leave the audience alone and find just one person who will listen to you, someone who has delicate hands and will hug you, cry with you, and smile that sympathetic smile.
Poetry is the continued practice of poetry. This circular definition simply says that you can't start afresh. Slams don't kick-start poetry. Nor does rap. They do something else. Bad poetry serves as the model for further bad poetry. Good poetry is dependent on the health of a stream of good poetry, and in our age this has slowed to a trickle. The second half of the 20th century (1960 to 2000) has not left us with an inspiring legacy. In the postwar years, when American poetry sheltered for so long in the universities, poetry became completely domesticated. Donald Hall and Richard Wilbur are exemplary of this period in which poetry ("tenured poetry") became a view of the bird feeder from your kitchen window. There is the corresponding failure of the avant-garde: the failure of the Beats to ensure that poetry kept pace with modern jazz (specifically bebop; more specifically Charlie Parker); the failure of the Black Mountain poets to carry on the work of Ezra Pound's Cantos. Only a fey New York poetry, deeply imbued with camp and irony and best represented by Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery, barely survived the end of the century.
To survive, poetry needs two things: a space in which to operate made up of an audience and competing producer-artists, and a sufficient body of healthy texts to operate on and transform into new texts. When there is too little of either, the art suffers, the art chokes, the art falls on its back.
Poet, listen! And listen good. You are not important, your childhood experiences are worthless, your father was not all that bad, your womb is not the universe, your impotence is not the end of the world, language will never regret the absence of all you have to say about who you are, where you are from, why you are anxious, why you are tough, why you love, why you fuck. What you dream, what you smoke, what you believe are not the stuff of heaven or hell—it just comes out all wrong and goes on and on. As T. S. Eliot once asked, and what we must ask you now with great urgency, when will it end?