So Little Poetry in Poetry

I recently picked up several copies of Poetry magazine, the grand old dame of American poesie. I used to read the magazine whenever I could, with great interest and delight, always with the hope of finding some inspiration and, perhaps, even some glimmering aspiration. And why not? The list of contributors over its 90-plus-year history serves as a pantheon of modern lit.

It had been too long, several years, in fact, since I last read an issue all the way through — though I am guilty of sins of omission, not commission– so I was eager to see what’s been going on with the bellwether of American belles lettres. Especially so since, over the last few years, the venerable monthly has received a $100 million endowment, picked up a new editor (only the 11th), experienced a modest redesign, launched a podcast, etc. Things should be looking up, right?

Wrong. What a letdown. The biggest disappointment was that I found so little “poetry” in Poetry, so little lyricism, that’s for sure. Very little of it was readable, enjoyable. For one thing, many of the poems were burdened with unnecessarily complex, high-falutin’ diction — two of the 26 poems in this issue used the word “inflorescence”! I had to look it up (it means “a flowering or blossoming,” and either word would have been the better choice) — as well as obscure references to literature and literary figures; abstract, illogical metaphors and comparisons (“postage-stamp bright” and “chasms of flatness”); tin-ear rhymes (“state/copulate” and “drowses/blouses”) and hamstrung syntax (“surfeit of distance and the wracked mind waiting”). Who talks like this? No one, and that’s the problem. No wonder none of my friends say, “Oh the new book of poems by So-and-So,” when I ask them what they are reading at the beach this week.

Another thing, only a handful of the contributors listed no affiliation to the university system (what Ezra Pound called the “unifarcity”). That would perhaps explain the peacockery and in-crowd jocularity so evident. (Can’t you hear them sniggering?) I suppose that, if you have to get published to get tenure, then what (or who) makes for a better subject to write about than academics. The bottom line here for me is that virtually no one in Poetry is writing for readers, is writing to be read by anyone other than their friends, colleagues and classmates. Too bad.

Now, granted, I only read 2 issues out of 1 year’s worth of publishing. So it’s not fair for me to base my opinion on so small a sampling. Maybe the pickings for publishable poetry are slim these days (I seriously doubt it). Maybe my tastes have changed over the intervening years (I doubt that, too). But I prefer a quieter, subtler, easier-to-relate-to, honest-to-goodness poetry, written by poets who live their lives and chronicle it. The purpose of poetry, as Louis Zukofsky says, is to “record and elate.” It’s that simple.

There are plenty of poets writing today, famous and not-so, who understand and abide by this dictum. Off the top of my head I can think of Hayden Carruth, Wendell Berry, David Budbill, Louis Simpson, Jim HarrisonCornelius Eady, Mary Oliver, Charles Simic — poets who write clear-minded, plainspoken, impassioned, musical poems about personal matters (without slipping into solipsism) that speak directly to universal themes. Their poems resonate with a wide range of readers and can be easily understood and memorably appreciated by anyone.

But one writer that I have come across several times lately (but not in Poetry, which has only published 2 of his poems), and whose words catch my attention and make me want to read and reread, is Li-Young Lee. An award-winning poet whose work does not seem to have trouble being heard above the din of the publish-or-perish crowd, Lee is nonetheless not well-known among general readers.

Lee, who once wrote, “Sad is the man who is asked for a story/and can’t come up with one” (a commentary on the state of poetry today?), has a new book, “Behind My Eyes” (Norton), that may bolster his status. A great example of the kinds of poems found in the collection, his fourth, is “To Hold.” Consider these few lines: “One day we’ll lie down and not get up./One day, all we guard will be surrendered./Until then, we’ll go on learning to recognize/what we love, and what it takes/to tend what isn’t for our having.” Such a poem reflects his influences (the simplicity of the classic Chinese poets, his faith, a devotion to family), uses straightforward yet melodic language, and provides a sensitive observation of the beauty of the everyday world — you know, the one that exists outside the walls of the academy, the one world we all live in and try to make sense of. Lee “records and elates” and he deserves to be heard.


  1. I wonder whether the poets’ references to university have to do with the increase in creative writing classes?

    Li-Young Lee is one of my absolute favorites. Another great poet still working today is Gregory Orr. He has sharp, beautiful images in his work and writes about the most personal events.

    Here’s part of a Li-Young Lee poem called “Become Becoming” (for you enjoyment): “Then you’ll recall that story beginning/With a child who strays in the woods./The search for him goes on in the growing/Shadow of the clock./And the face behind the clock’s face/Is not his father’s face./And the hands behind the clock’s hands/Are not his mother’s hands.”

  2. Isn’t citing Pound and Zukofsky in support of Simpson et al a bit hypocritical? Or are we not supposed to know such things, given we haven’t been to university?

  3. I don’t think I’m being hypocritical; I’d be willing to bet that all the poets I list and more would name-check Pound and Zukofsky as role models. They are the ones who started all this. Besides, going or not going to university isn’t the issue. It’s going and never leaving that is the problem.

  4. Hi there. Came in via Silliman’s link. I have to say, I’m not sure plain speech, or language that mirrors it, is really the best yardstick for an artform whose medium is words… I mean… is the house so small?

    I’ve been reading and HUGELY enjoying some more elliptical poets this year: DA Powell, whom I discovered on the Poetry Foundation website; Philip Nikolayev, whose book made me laugh out loud on a commuter train; Frederick Seidel, creepily and sinuously gorgeous. All these three juxtapose words hyposyntactically and to great effect.

    Am I getting the terms wrong? I know completely what you mean re the universities. And the in-crowd thing. And the examples you quote are indeed not pleasant. And I have had a rejection from them (again) only this month! But surely an art form that only tries to do one kind of thing, that only tries to reach “ordinary people” who “hate” that artform, is firstly very limited. Secondly, an academy of its own sort. And thirdly, er, sort of dead.

  5. I agree, Poetry, which couldn’t be more annoyingly titled, is a huge waste of time. I used to go straight for the reviews and letters in the back, but even those have lost all their spontaneity and fun and bite. I’d go further and say that there isn’t a journal or magazine that publishes truly accomplished work, that isn’t corrupted by sectarianism and ideology.

    My taste must be different than yours tough, as Berry, Oliver, Simic & Co. seem to me precisely the sort that Kenyon, Ploughshares, Poetry & Co. so love to tout. I doubt future generation will have any reason to remember them, as their “record” contains precious few facts about the world at large, and their “elation” is of the totally manufactured kind, not the elation of true abandonment.

    Don’t get me wrong; I have no sympathy for the ultra- and post-modernists and their willfully obscure (that is obscure because of ambition and insufficient understanding) poetry. But poetry is the individual expression of a comprehensive understanding (another way to say the specific application of general powers), and as such must be complex and difficult in necessary ways (it is the job of poets to make their poems as clear as possible).

    The divide between difficult and accessible poetry that the establishments always love to harp on seems to me akin to the divide in our politics between liberalism and conservatism – it is a structural and virtual divide that purposely or not keeps out viable alternative voices. We must ceaselessly combat academicism of all kinds.

    Sorry for the long post!

  6. I’m glad I’m not the only one who appreciates Li-Young Lee’s style. I’ve heard several critics attack him for using “simple language” and not conforming to an impossible literary standard. I find that Li-Young Lee is able to convey alot more with his poems than others who attempt to embelish their works with grandiloquent language (not trying to be hypocritical). Alot of poets turn me away because of the obscurity of their poems, yet Lee is able to be ambiguous without being confusing. (Sorry for the random post 1 year later, but I needed to for a school blog project).

  7. No need to apologize, Brian, I appreciate the feedback. And, of course, I completely agree with you. Obscurantism is the MO for so much that is written today and it’s a shame, because, as you have experienced, it turns readers off. Don’t be discouraged, though, as there are plenty of poets out there who share Lee’s sensibility. I mention some in the blog post and you should definitely check them out. You can also find others simply by seeing who has written blurbs on Lee’s books and reading their stuff. Or shoot me an e-mail (which you can find under “About”) and I’d be happy to recommend more. Good luck.

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