Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Thursday, June 20, 2013

"Why is modern poetry so bad?"

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #47
    "Why is modern poetry so bad?" by Ron Charles of the Washington Post is the latest in a spate of articles criticizing modern poetry in toto.  These are not idle criticisms;  newpapers and magazines are backing up their position with action, publishing fewer poems and poetry reviews or articles.  Blog and Facebook responses from the vested interests--PoBiz poets and publishers whose ox is being gored--do not defend the state of their art with cogent counterarguments.  Rather, they whine about the generalization itself.  Some generous contributors take time from their busy schedules to wax at length about how little they care about the discussion they are entering.  Less charitable ones just sneer.  None of them seem aware that they are conceding the point by not addressing it.

     Actually, if someone wanted to play devil's advocate and argue against the obvious, it wouldn't be hard to attack the article.  On the one hand Edmundson complains about obscurity (e.g. he has "barely a clue as to what Muldoon is going on about", Carson is "so obscure", while others are "oblique" or "too hermetic", etc.).  On the other hand he says modern poems "...don’t slake a reader’s thirst for meanings."  What happened to the notion that poetry isn't about what you say but how you say it?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #44
     We understand that this is said in jest:  "'One can’t generalize about it all,' Edmundson warns, before generalizing about it all in a nuclear assault that leaves no poet standing."

     The contradiction about generalizing is not the [only] problem there.  Apparently, Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Charles Simic, Frank Bidart, Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky are the only poets writing today.  Any of us could name at least three poets on par with or better than some of those six.  There is also this clumsiness, which should raise eyebrows north of the 49th, at least:  "Anne Carson may be Canadian, but that’s no defense."  WTF?  Who would suggest that it should be?

     I challenge anyone to read this article without asking "What f#*^$@g poets is this guy reading?!?"

     Speaking of challenges, can anyone present a coherent, logical case in favor of modern poetry¹?

     Of course, all of this is mere sophistry.  If you want to make the case that modern poetry is lousy stop reiterating your premise, stop trying to buttress your general opinion with your specific opinions, and start talking about the consensus.  Here are your talking points:

  • "If modern poetry is good why, aside from the author, don't many read it and why don't any perform or quote it?"

  • "Why do discussions about poetry invariably devolve into conversations about poets?"

  • "Why are so few able to recite a single line of poetry written in the last fifty years?"

  • "Why do so few poets show much knowledge of or interest in its elements²?"

  • "Why has poetry all but disappeared from newspapers and other mainstream publications?"

  • "Why concentrate on poetry written in order to 'get the fellowship, the first book, the teaching job' rather than poetry written to please audiences, including those outside academia?"

  • "What has poetry done to regain some of its market share from what replaced it in the 1920s (i.e. music on the radio)?"

    Of course, for those not in denial about poetry's current circumstances the only question is:

    "What do you plan to do about it?"


¹ - Not to be confused with High Modern poetry.

² - ...something that is evident in every sentence and line they write.


  1. I actually came across your blog because I am near finishing a poetry class myself. The whole debate on the value of contemporary poetry really engaged me, especially since early in the class we focused on more traditional styles and later (the second two thirds of the class) focused on modern American poetry.

    Never having been much exposed to poetry before, I was astounded by the power and beauty of "Dover Beach" and "Sailing to Byzantium", but once we started moving on to poets like Ashberry, Stevens, Lerner, etc. I found my attention wavering quickly. I did not enjoy their lack of form or rhyming and often found myself unengaged in their message (if they even bothered to construct one).

    This leaves me in the peculiar position where I just realized I like poetry, but have no great knowledge of it and all the (limited) discussion about the subject is focused on modern styles that I most certainly do not care about. I think your blog has helped me appreciate why a bit more.

    I mostly wrote this to thank you for the blog, but also to look for advice in finding poetry you think I may like. Do you have any recommendations for a new poetry reader such as myself?

  2. Tanuvein:

    "Do you have any recommendations for a new poetry reader such as myself?"

    Perhaps, yes. There is some consensus among experts that these are the six great poems of this century:


    Among onliners, there is nodding agreement that this is the best source of contemporary poetry around:


    However, even on the latter you're bound to find far more clunkers than gems. The problem isn't at the very top, where each year since Shakespeare's retirement has produced zero, one, or two canonical poems. We can produce an Eliot or an Auden, as you'll see in the first link above. What is missing is the second tier; the very good have become victims of the excellent. We don't have enough Sara Teasdales or Edna St. Vincent Millays to serve all of the literary outlets, Top 10 Book Lists or the daily curiosity of YouTubers, let alone the newspapers and non-literary magazines that used to publish verse. Poetry's bread and butter has always been humor, yet we have no Robert Services or Dorothy Parkers.

    Speaking of YouTubers, we believe the future of poetry lies in presentation. Unfortunately, as clumsy as contemporary textual verse is, performances and production values have so far been, if anything, worse. This will take a few years.

    The dilemma's core is in education, where fewer than 10% of teachers know whether "The Red Wheelbarrow" is free verse or metrical. The question is: "Why learn to write poetry when the only thing that sells is prose, including much that is presented as poetry?"

    Thanks for commenting, Tanuvein. I hope you will enjoy some of our other posts. Please let us know if you have any other questions. Don't be a stranger!

    Best regards,

    Earl Gray, Esquirrel

  3. This is a fantastic and hilarious blog.
    I have stumbled upon a veritable fount of commonsensical wisdom.
    Perhaps there IS lyrical sanity in our universe.

    1. We're glad you enjoy it here, Anonymous, and thank you for saying so!


Your comments and questions are welcome.