The Definitive List of Problems with American Poetry

1. There are too many poets. I can't even tell you how many poetry books are published each year. A lot of them. Nobody in America reads poetry except poets and fiction writers desperate to find a way out of their bland novel life. The problem with poetry in America is that there are just too. many. good. books. to. read. I can't keep up, much less provide myself with opportunities to read all the great poetry in America's past. What should I do? Instead of publishing so many books, I suggest we begin publishing digest versions of great books. Poetry's already so short, we should be able to pack at least What Narcissism Means to Me, Sleeping With the Dictionary, Little Ice Age, and Lie Awake Lake in one convenient, brief package. I mean, we sell hamburger buns in sets of ten.

2. There are too many different kinds of poetry. American poetry will never develop a cohesive audience because, unlike television, poetry hasn't developed "a sitcom," "a newsmagazine"—something easily consumable and endlessly replacable. For example, imagine every book was written by Ted Kooser or a Ted Kooser surrogate, or a writer mentored by Ted Kooser or what have you. People might develop a taste for that.

3. Most poets are overpaid and become fat and lazy. Yes. We've seen this time and time again. I call this the "Hollywoodization" of poetry—and now our literary world is full of waddling Harvey Weinsteins in their black suits and colored ties. We have female Harvey Weinstein impersonators. It's getting serious, people. Think of the children. When a poet becomes an overpaid poet *poof!* Their next book wins a [insert prestigious award], newspapers insist we've been reading him/her all along, and then the rest of their life is crap.

4. We do not enjoy bad poetry in the same way we enjoy bad movies. I have a coworker who is obsessed with the film Pootietang. It's an awful film, yet she loves it. There is no poetry counterpart to Pootietang. Bad poetry does not become camp. People do not quote bad poetry to each other at parties and then make friends for life. This is unfortunate.

5. Poetry has been swallowed by academia and now bears no resemblance to the actual world. We should supply each American with a new publication, The Idiot's Guide to Language, and a collectable decoder ring distributed through eBay and Amazon.com. Only Americans who purchase both items will be able to read the poetry being created within academia. Poetry created outside of the academy will fit into one of two new genres of writing: greeting cards or word noise.

6. There are too many lists decrying the problems with American poetry and not enough lists enumerating what's right. If I'm part of the problem, does that mean I'm solved by the solution? Or does the solution now suddenly bear no resemblance to the problem?


  1. Bad poetry does not become camp. People do not quote bad poetry to each other at parties and then make friends for life.

    Not true. A woman who used to be in my workshop brought a poem with the line Orphans are lonely. My friend Suzie Creamcheese and I bonded over this very line and we quote it to each other often and then fall down laughing. We are, now, friends for life.

    p.s. One of the poems that came across the board in a big-but-not-to-be-named-local-poetry-competition-having -to-do-with-public-art carried the memorable line from a mustard seed the mighty oak grows. This line was so stunningly bad that I made friends with the other judges for live and we often call each other up just to say it.

    p.s. Do you have a food processor?

  2. Charlie, I love you. This is a great post.

  3. Dear lord. This is genius.

  4. Rebecca, I stand happily corrected.

  5. I second Rebecca. In the first set of poems in my first poetry workshop in college, one of the other kids brought a nakedly autobiographical poem about how his family had to give up their beloved cat because they moved to an apartment that didn't allow pets. As if this was not bad enough, he wrote the poem unclearly enough that it could be interpreted as saying that the entire TOWN where they moved didn't allow cats. As if this was not bad enough, he started crying while he read it.

    A copy of the poem was a minor sensation in the circles I was in in college. To this day, I have at least three friends to whom I can say "The Town Without Cats" and have them know exactly what I'm talking about.

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  7. Charles this is so wickedly funny. I want Poetry Sitcoms, Poetry Gameboys, Poetry Fear Factor!

  8. Poetry Fear Factor—that's hot.

  9. Heh, I'm a big dope and really should be getting more sleep.

  10. I love bad poetry. I teach it in my poetry classes, and yeah, my students all bond over "Elegy on a Dissected Puppy."

    But this post is hilarious.


  11. This is great, Charlie. Orphans are lonely; good god. And I must say I totally cracked up when I saw Ange Mlinko had a post the other day titled "I thought hard for us all..."

    You're right, though--knowing the same bad lines in poems is more rare than knowing them in movies. But for the record, There is sand in the anus of dancing. This certainly seems true, and I'm not sure it's bad, but it still cracks me up. Name that poet.

  12. ...yes, i think it's true that poetry never gets to become camp because it's always expected to have something to do with truth over humor. what a heavy load to shoulder...truth. sheesh...

  13. Would CF be the initials, Emily???

    My own personal workshop favorite--

    "The towel is the father
    Of the smaller washcloth.
    Which is used to wet
    instead of to dry."

    All I have to say to my friend Sally is WHITE SALE, and we're in hysterics.

  14. LOL, Pamela. Yes. CF it is.

  15. Brilliant. Of course, some poetry does all sound the same. Have you ever met an MFA casualty? :)

    Good to see Denise and Maureen in your "recently read" column. I count Maureen as a pal of mine and I adore her poetry. "Oyl" (which she wrote with Denise) is one of my favorite collections ever.

  16. Hi Charlie

    Enjoying your blog! Nice post.

    This and the comments above remind me of a piece of performance poetry I once saw with some friends. It was called "My Vulva", and that is precisely what it was about. Any notions of controversy (of which there was none) aside, it was truly, embarrassingly, awful.

    Even worse, it was sung, and there was a large projected photograph behind the awful scene, of a vulva close-up. I hope this was the poet's. To this day, I can shriek "my vuuuulva!" to my friend and he will crack up laughing. It was dreadful.

  17. It's not true that only poets et al read poetry. The ones who don't write it are just too intimidated to comment on it.

    I urge you to check out Marjorie Agosin's "Absence of Shadows" if you haven't.