Rancor, Dismissal, and the Failure Rate of Poetry

An examination of the cultural dialogue of poetry.

Take 1
Over the weekend I met with Stephanie and she pointed out a section of a Billy Collins essay in which he agreed with a friend of his who had recently determined that "83% of contemporary American poetry" being written today was simply not worth reading. This is a bold statement to make, but one I'd hazard to guess that many poets writing today would make on their own behalf as well. Although we'd never agree on what constitutes that mystical 17% of "good" work, we can all agree that it does seem these days that only a small percentage of what's being written seems to really speak to this.

Please do not read this as me agreeing with the way Billy Collins has chosen to structure this argument. The statement in question is excertped from Collins's introduction to his Best American Poetry offering for 2006, an introduction conspicuously lacking a discussion of what Collins perceives as good—as all previous editors have done. Collins states simply the poems in the anthology are poems he "likes," and I would actually admit that this rationale is good enough for me: after all, why empiricize something inherently subjective? Who among us could sincerely enumerate the intangible listing of qualities we respond to in poems? So, Billy, I understand where your sentiment comes from. But I think you're making dangerous statements.

Take 2
I was directled by C. Dale's blog toward a discussion of Dan Chiasson's poetry reviews as reviewed by Bill Knot (go here to get caught up). Knott takes Chiasson's seemingly insubstantial review standards to task by interrogating Chiasson's need for and choice of an "accessible poet" who could be enjoyed by students of poetry as well as the "average reader."

What struck me here wasn't Knott's argument, but the rancor and dismissal with which both he—and, apparently, Chiasson—reject the work of other poets. Is dismissal the strongest, sharpest tool in the critic's toolbelt? It would seem so.

Take 3
I remember a while back there was a big buzz among bloggers regarding response to a Mary Oliver poem that concerned a dead, deformed kitten. The conversation that erupted on the topic gleefully tore the poem apart. Some poets offered thoughtful revisions of the poem from their own aesthetic; others mocked and ridiculed Oliver's unfortunate, Degrassi Junior High-like subject matter. Here, too, the conversation was less about the topic and more about the mode of communication: Oliver and her poem became as violated as an African zebra unzipped inside a circle of ravenous lions—they weren't just feeding, they were relishing the kill.

The Moral of the Story
I recognize that, at times, I'm just as capable of this kind of horrifying display of rhetoric. Any time I have to put on what a coworker recently alluded to as the "Crazy Gay Guy Hat" (but in her own case, the Crazy Feminist Girl Hat), I spout this kind of rancor. It's not fair, and I'm growing increasingly more and more concerned that instead of furthering a critical discussion, the medium becomes the message: the rhetoric bears more weight than the argument contained therein.

Stephanie and I talked at length about another essay, this one by Tony Hoagland, in which the rhetoric relied on qualifiers to move toward a conclusion or consensus. Instead of delineating poetry succinctly, Hoagland relies on statements like "I value ____ in poetry," which to me seems a much more honest and constructive response. The other conversations do not wear their values on their sleeve; in fact, few of the examples noted above clearly describe what their values even are.

When we write from the perspective of sincere criticism, of mutual understanding, the dialogue is more effective. To say 83% of American poetry isn't worth reading, Stephanie said, isn't as effective as discussing what makes the other 17% valuable. I thought it a brilliant remark: why do we, as poets, move first toward shutting out what we don't value rather than what we support?

All this delineation is slicing a small pie into smaller and smaller pieces. I'm not saying we need to like each other. I'm not saying, per se, that we even need to value each other. I'm saying that the base level of respect among artists must be: You have a right to do your work your way. We will all have our visceral responses, yes. We should. It signifies our investment level in an artform that is often undervalued or overlooked.

But what does this poetic rancor accomplish other than—essentially—making some people feel bad while others feeling better about themselves? If I constantly listed the poets I read whose work had little impact on me, I'd have little else to say. But it's important to me, in this blog, to support the poets whose work influences me, who are doing things that amaze and surprise me, and to me, that discussion has more overall value for us as artists. Why are we focusing so much on the things that don't work when the world is full of significant things, wonderful things that deserve our attention and focus?


  1. Charles, my cheers couldn't be more emphatic. I just got through watching a few paradigm shifting films, The Secret & I (Heart) Huckabees, both smartly recommended to me by friends. Things is, too often the statement is wrongly focused, when really, this is the way of things, the way that'll get things, good things, things worth returning to, worth sharing, worth praising, done: What works is affirmation. As Zagajewski writes, You must praise the mutilated world. More than that, further, you must further it. Think about that. The question is how to further what is already magnificent. Charles, thank you.

  2. Charlie,
    Add my cheers to Erin's. I've been mulling over your key points for months. (Driving my friends crazy.) Thank you, thank you. xo

  3. Charles:

    I think poets have been on the attack since The Moderns. I think we want to point out what we feel to be failings because we 'think' that is what is expected, and by doing so, we create the need, the beast which feeds on itself.

    This is strange, because whenever I read Pound's ABC of Reading, I get a sense of optimism, not negativity. Of course I am speaking of Pound the poet and teacher, not of his politics.

    Steve Meuske said in his interview:

    "Reviews are generally more about positioning yourself as a critic."

    I think there is a desire for poets to establish their chops, become Hart Crane, or their version of him. I think poets want to be taken seriously, and going negative is the easiest way. It all feeds that desire to validate one's own work, to believe we possess some unique insight others are ignorant of---and what better way to show this than to tear apart those aspects of others' work we don't agree with on an aesthetic level.

    Or am I just stating the obvious and making an ass of myself?

  4. "I'm saying that the base level of respect among artists must be: You have a right to do your work your way."

    Right on. Very thoughtful post, Charles.

    One way I see it is as the difference between fundamentalism (my religion is the one true religion and all others must be destroyed) and liberalism (let's be open and accepting of all). In many ways, it's the issue of our time. And I hope liberalism survives.

  5. Yes, this is why I am always teling poets they have to stand up for the poems and poets they believe in. If you don't no one else today will. Poets are more likely to be torn apart than relished, so relish the ones you love. Tell people about them. Pass them on like a secret recipe. You already do this, so I am preaching to the choir. Beautiful post. You remind me almost every month how beautiful your mind is...

  6. My problem with the Billy Collins essay (introduction to the BAP 2006), has less to do with what he includes than what he has to say about who he doesn't include.

    I found myself a bit annoyed by his introduction, reprinted in the September Writer’s Chronicle. The tone is classic.

    He goes on a bit, as you say, about how 83 percent of poetry sucks (“I should add quickly that I count myself among those whose lives would be sorely impoverished without the dependable availability of the remaining 17 percent,” he adds.), and how “literary judges typically complain about the difficulty of making up their minds when faced with such an abundance of good work, but I found it fairly easy to man the pearly gates of this annual collection.”

    And then, the added wit of, “It is just possible that there are some not-so-mute but still inglorious Miltons out there whose work never found its way to me, but my wide reading indicated rather a preponderance of poems written by non-Miltons who might want to consider muteness as an alternative to poetry writing.”

    Ouch. So, from Billy Collins to everyone who wasn’t included in this year’s BAP, he dreams of an NEA program where poets might get grants to not write poetry, “like the ones farmers get for not growing crops.”

    Reductive, blanket statements do no one any good.

  7. What's most disturbing is the personal attacks on poets themselves. The tiny niche of poets in this country are forever trying to position themselves atop the heap. The dismissive tone of people like Chiasson (let's not forget his borderline racist attack on June Jordan's work) and Bill "Nobody Loves Me" Knott is further proof of this jockying for position. I follow the method that the great poet Cherryl Floyd-Miller uses: Hold the poem in question, not the poet.

    Poetry will forever be subjective. If Chiasson, Knott, Collins and Kooser don't like someone's poetry, what does it really matter? Not a hell of a lot. My advice is to find the poet's work that moves you and don't be swayed by a bunch of academics and snobs who think they know good poetry. There should be less critique and more writing.

  8. Dear Charles,

    I just want to say first that I just came across your blog and was happy to see that you are engaging such important issue. A friend of mine has your chapbook and I found the poems similarly provocative and fun.

    But I do want to add to this discussion, because I feel that something are being oversimplified.

    1.) It seems that everyone is reading Bill Knott in such an unuseful way. I always read his poems and recent interview as comic polemics. This is not to say that there is not an underlying bitterness (or bite) to his statements, but his sharp words are strategic, and as he often states in biographical notes, that he's writing from a particular family history, one grounded in class.

    Which leads me to 2.) Is rancor really the right word? If we read Knott as polemical (and I don't see how we can't, especially in the light of past interviews, can't we instead see his energized rants as perhaps an attack against the middle-class rhetoric that pervades much of the dull, overly affirmative reviews that haunts the back pages of literary magazines. While I have a lot of problems with Poetry magazine, you can't say that the reviews aren't taking aesthetic (even if limited) stances.

    3.) I have a lot of problems with Billy Colllins, but he's in his own way as political of a poet of Adrienne Rich. We often though only associate politics and creative writing with writers who have progressive values. There's a conservative bent to a lot of Collins' writing (as his complete dismissal of literary theory) that often goes unnoticed, unremarked on. Perhaps out of fear (he is the editor of Best American) or a willingness to see him simply as an entertainer.

    Just some thoughts. Again I have a lot of respect for your critical engagements, and the last thing I want to do is seem angry. At the same time, only through conflict do I think our own arguments become sharpened.

    I'll be looking forward to seeing new posts, current projects.

  9. I'll second what Steve said-- Knott's meticulously positioned himself as an outsider, the poet-most-likely-to-be-dismissed. There should be a grain of salt about anything he writes, but it sure does make him fun. He's serving a similar role to Jim Behrle, but instead of pretending to be an outsider looking in, he's pretending to be an insider, being pushed out, looking in.

    I'm with everyone who noted above that good work ought to be praised and shared. Particularly among our friends and loved ones who don't have a deep, abiding interest in poetry. At least, not yet.