Alan Feldman: State of Poetry

This is the eighth in our series of essays on the state of poetry. For others, check our list.

A Citizen of the State of Poetry

Alan Feldman

Alan Feldman

If I’m introduced to people as a poet they may respond, apologetically, that they don’t read much contemporary poetry.  Some may even ask what I’d recommend reading.

Which is a hard question to answer, since so much depends on one’s temperament, taste, preoccupations, love of (or suspicion of) clever language etc. . . .

Often I suggest that they should browse in anthologies, in book stores, or online on sites like poems.com or poetryfoundation.org.  If they find a poem they like, search out more poems by that poet, read a book of his or her work.  “It’s sort of like shopping at a thrift store,” I often say.  “You’re hoping to find that one priceless item among so many others.”

But if they question me more closely––what do I really think of contemporary poetry?––I might  be tempted to complain that I find much of it uninteresting.  Though maybe it’s the same as trying to meet interesting people––I just need to get out more?  (A young poet like Tara Skurtu, with a talent as easily detectable as radium, is on a program with me.  She’s passing up medical school to be one of our country’s poets.)

I do read everything my friends write:  Carl Dennis, Jeffrey Harrison, Bill Zavatsky, Linda Bamber, Tony Hoagland, and Jessica Greenbaum––I read their poems to find out what they’re up to,  what they’ve been thinking and doing and creating.  But I find so much of contemporary American poetry too impersonal.  I don’t feel I’m touching a person when I read most poems.  (Personal-seeming poems, where the language is too oblique or formulaic, don’t help me either)  Sometimes I venture to guess that there’s a code imposed by MFA writing programs (I’ve never taught in one, and never attended one, so I really don’t know) that restricts personal references.  Or sometimes I think that so many poets are going to graduate school to write before anything much has happened to them.  Or sometimes I want to blame a baleful fashion, caused by, say, the influence of John Ashbery or Jorie Graham.

Or sometimes I think it’s simply the age-old norm of the conventional.  Read anthologies from, say, the 1920s, and see how much seems really alive to you.  Or search the whole of the 19th century, so many poets and poetasters in our new country, and find anyone to match Whitman, Dickinson, Melville, Emerson, Whittier (in “Snowbound”) and Longfellow (in “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport”).  That’s it, I think.  Out of all those hundreds, nay, thousands of poets . . . including Abraham Lincoln (whose oratory was his poetry, admittedly).

If foreign poets seem more thoughtful and inventive, that’s probably because poems that translate well are rich in thought and metaphor:  Neruda, Tranströmer, Amichai, and Szymborska for example.

While there are not many poets I keep up with (other than my friends)––of these I’ll mention Louise Glück, Sharon Olds, Stephen Dobyns, Robert Hass, Wendy Barker (especially her wonderful poems about teaching), Jennifer Grotz, though there are more––I do often find poems I love by poets I don’t know.  Maybe one or two in a magazine that might have more than a hundred poems by 50 or more poets, almost none of whom I’ve heard of.  Maybe I’m excited by one reading out of five or ten I go to, like the one by Henri Cole and James R. Whitley at AWP, or those by Sharon Olds and Terrance Hayes, or Ross Gay and Aimee Nezhukumatahil at this year’s Mass Poetry Festival.

Been to AWP lately?  Swarms of poets out there.  Enough to make one feel the way lawyers feel these days:  a field that seemed fresh and promising that suddenly seems to have too many practitioners.  Recently I was invited to read ekphrastic poetry in a celebration of an anthology of poems about paintings in New England museums.  So many poets were invited they had to divide us into two groups, and we didn’t get to hear half the poets we were to read with!

The worst (or best) effect of this overcrowding was to make me swear never to write another ekphrastic poem for the rest of my life, though I love art and am in museums constantly.  But after awhile all the poems seemed so much the same, including mine!  (Describe what’s in the painting but tell it slant, with arch implications.)  Few of the poems (including mine) made the connection between the painting and the personal experience it evoked.  The notable exception all night long was Stephen Dobyns’ poem (ostensively about a Balthus painting) that recounts the stunning effect of falling in love with a poem for the first time in one’s life.  As Kenneth Koch said more than a half century ago in “Fresh Air”:

Once you have heard this poem you will not love any other,

Once you have dreamed this dream you will be inconsolable,

Once you have loved this dream you will be as one dead,

Once you have visited the passages of this time’s great art!

(And how interesting to compare the dullness of his generation’s poetry scene with the somewhat different––but also academic?––dullness of our scene now!)

And then, since nothing I’ve said here is particularly encouraging, I must mention my friend Martha.  She’s a prodigious walker, novelist, best selling author of a memoir, professional fund raiser, member of a bank board, and selectman for her town.  Walking the mountains of Mt. Desert Island (each of which she must climb each year) Martha memorizes poems, mostly contemporary ones.  Martha is a citizen of the elusive State of Poetry, someone who finds something she loves so much she likes to carry it with her on her walks.  Last time she gave me her list she was approaching thirty poems (about one a month since she started) and she’s still walking, still reciting in the crisp mountain air.

Alan Feldman is the author of two prize-winning books:  The Happy Genius (SUN, 1978), which won the 1979 Elliston Book Award for the best collection of poems published by a small, independent press in the United States; and A Sail to Great Island (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004) which won the Pollak Prize for Poetry.  His work is represented in a number of anthologies, including Best American Poetry (2001; 2011), Best American Erotic Poems 1800-Present, and To Woo and To Wed:  Poets on Love and Marriage.  He was a professor of English and department chair at Framingham State University, and for 22 years taught the advanced creative writing class at the Radcliffe Seminars.  Feldman lives in Framingham and, in the summer, in Wellfleet, and currently offers free, drop-in poetry workshops at the public libraries in those towns.  (Check the library websites for dates and times.)