Dead Poetries

The echoes, implications, silences, odd turns, and discordant harmonies of the following items together seem worth at least a moment of attention, though I may just be tired:
After college, many English majors stop reading contemporary poetry. Why not? They become involved in journalism or scholarship, essay writing or editing, brokerage or social work; they backslide from the undergraduate Church of Poetry. Years later, glancing belatedly at the poetic scene, they tell us that poetry is dead. They left poetry; therefore they blame poetry for leaving them. Really, they lament their own aging. Don't we all? But some of us do not blame the current poets.

--Donald Hall, "Death to the Death of Poetry"

Since the embarrassing disaster of the attempts at quashing Pound & the Beats in the 1950s, the [School of Quietude] has largely employed benign neglect toward the new poetries that have emerged since then -- viz., Joris' Celan. Like all hegemons, a major part of its strategy has been to pretend that it's the unmarked case. Like white males pretending that identity politics doesn't include them. So that today we have "poetry" and we have "language poetry" (or maybe "post-language poetry"). The Pulitzer mostly is reserved for poetry, not that other stuff. The biggest single reason to use a phrase like School of Quietude (or Brahmins or university twits or whatever) is to make it visible.

--Ron Silliman

Supposing that one walks out into the air
On a fresh spring day and has the misfortune
To encounter an article on modern poetry
In New World Writing, or has the misfortune
To see some examples of some of the poetry
Written by the men with their eyes on the myth
And the Missus and the midterms, in the Hudson Review,
Or, if one is abroad, in Botteghe Oscure,
Or indeed in Encounter, what is one to do
With the rest of one's day that lies blasted in ruins
All bluely about one, what is one to do?
Oh surely one cannot complain to the President,
Nor even to the deans of Columbia College,
Nor to T.S. Eliot, nor to Ezra Pound,
And supposing one writes to the Princess Caetani,
"Your poets are awful!" what good would it do?
And supposing one goes to the Hudson Review
With a package of matches and sets fire to the building?
One ends up in prison with trial subscriptions
To the Partisan, Sewanee, and Kenyon Review!

--Kenneth Koch, "Fresh Air"
(available in On the Great Atlantic Rainway)


  1. "After college, many English majors stop reading contemporary poetry"

    I wasn't even aware that we *started* reading contemporary poetry.

  2. It is, indeed, a rare thing. I've got a B.A. in English and never had a class where any contemporary poetry was a part of the curriculum. But I do know of some classes at the local college here in central New Hampshire where contemporary poetry is, actually, read and enjoyed. In fact, Mark Doty was here just a few weeks ago and did a reading for a small auditorium filled with students, teachers, and various other people (a reading series curated by Donald Hall, I should note). Because the general perception of contemporary poetry is that it's somehow "academic", then people assume it's in academe, when the experience of many of us is that it's actually about as common as academically-sanctioned bungee jumping.


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