The following essay was written by Donald Hall, the 14th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, as part of the Poetry and Literature Center’s online “Poetry of American History” series that ran from 2012-2014. The series included essays and interviews by leaders in the literary field, including former Poets Laureate Consultants in Poetry, that illustrated how poems by Americans helped define or expand the country. The aim was to complement conventional historical texts and showcase poetry’s place as an essential tool for recording our nation’s past. Though the series is no longer active, From the Catbird Seat is reprinting essays from “Poetry of American History” to bring them new light.
The Poetry Crowd
Forty years ago I wrote a poem in which I sat on a 707 next to a businessman who finished shuffling through papers in a briefcase (now he would have poked at a machine) and turned to me. “What are you in?” I told him I was in poetry, and he stared frantically out the window. With embarrassment he said, “My wife, she likes that sort of thing.” A sharper fellow might have asked me, “Have you published anything?” Today on a Dreamliner the response would be different. “So’s my wife. So’s her sister. So’s my mother-in-law’s brother.” Forty or fifty years ago, there weren’t that many of us working at poems. Iowa had its Writers’ Workshop, and there were no MFAs. Only Yale had a prize for a first book. At some colleges, the English Department offered a course in creative writing, I suppose the start of poetic promiscuity.
Way back we didn’t call ourselves poets, because it would have been pretentious. Poets were rare, and poets were great or they were nothing. When poetry began to spread through the population, I gave a talk that began, “I see no reason to spend your life writing poems unless your goal is to write great poems.” My talk went on to invent the McPoem, promoted by Hamburger University, and provided countless other bits of snottiness. I spoke out of the assumption of my generation. One poet friend—born the year I was, a winner of prizes, a Poet Laureate—wrote me a letter some years ago. It included a notion he had expressed to other friends. He said that he had failed at being a poet because he was not to become as good as John Keats. He would not equal Wyatt, Shakespeare, Milton, Herbert, Herrick, Traherne, Carew, Sydney, Marvell…
How many young poets, now, have spent much time with the 17th century, reading the best poets of our language? Do graduates of MFA programs read as far back as John Ashbery? Once I read a contemporary poet remarking that when he went to college one professor was a Pound man. Can you imagine, he asked his readers, that a professor could be a Pound man? Journalists still write pieces about the decline of poetry, the disappearing art. There have been such essays at least since Edmund Wilson’s in the 1930s. Maybe in the 19th century all middle-class families kept a volume of Longfellow—but they didn’t read Whitman or Donne. In 1922 The Waste Land sold two hundred-odd copies; Stevens’s Harmonium was remaindered. Now a well-known poet may be published in a printing of 10,000 copies.
There are infinitely more self-identified poets than there were in the 1920s or the 1820s, or the 1620s. Poetry is global. Thousands more poems are published in hundreds more magazines. There are hundreds more books, thirty first book prizes. Add poetry readings, add open mics. Most poets are terrible, as most poets always are. Some are good, but globalization always begets Balkanization. The general reader has disappeared, who moved among history, fiction, biography, and poetry. Now we have the sci-fi crowd, the noir crowd, the romance crowd, the how-to crowd, the thriller crowd, the self-help crowd, the poetry crowd, and the literary fiction crowd. In the old days no one ever spoke about “literary fiction.” Stories were good, stories were bad; a “literary novel” was redundant, like burning fire or white snow.
The poetry crowd is enormous. Many mothers-in-law have a brother who writes lines now and then, without revising or publication, and without reading other people’s poems. Although I am too high-hat to call them poets, I think that they should be counted in the crowd, because of the new necessity of the poetic endeavor. How or why did it happen? In the 1950s Dylan Thomas drew poetry listeners. Once after a prep school poetry reading a boy asked me if I liked Dylan. His familiarity surprised me but I answered that I liked his work as poetry more than as poems, and… “Bob Dylan,” he explained. It was the first time I heard the name. Song lyrics began to include emotions and ideas. More people heard poetry’s possibility for the first time by listening to Bob Dylan’s guitar. Sung words let language loose, yet poetry enlarged for other reasons. When English departments disappeared into theory, only creative writing classes included literature. Now the same colleges grant MFAs, a postgraduate degree in writing that teaches by workshop. There are quite a few. A vulgar writers’ magazine listed in order the best one hundred MFA programs, and followed it with a list of the second-best one hundred MFA programs. MFAs have become a college cash cow, and a cash cow for the graduated MFAs who run the workshops in further MFA programs. For many students these programs are a literary summer camp. For two years or more they listen to readings, go to workshops, and make friends with people like themselves, who have cherished a dream of poetic splendor.
Why have so many people, in the last forty years, cherished this dream? Years ago I used a sentence that sounded fine and that I never understood: “Information is the enemy of art.” Now maybe I know what I meant. The air around us is laden with electric facts, words not for reading but for providing wedges of detail, reducing language to numbers and touch screens. The poetry crowd’s rush toward creation is reaction to the technology that usurps the public air. A poet dedicates herself or himself to a universe of feeling not facts, to the pursuit of beauty not information. Whether the poets write well or not, they define themselves as seekers of the sensuous and emotional. Technology is metal, art is flesh. Technology is black and white, art is the palette of Matisse. Technology is speed. Art lingers, art is indolent, art takes naps.