No art has suffered more from the trends of anti-conceptualism, subjectivism, and naturalism than poetry has. After a half century during which poets threw away the tools of their craft and published work that deliberately avoided meter, metaphor, and meaning, one can hardly blame readers who now take it for granted that poetry is a subjective, “anything goes” act of self-expression, simultaneously over their heads and beneath their notice. Americans once named schools and streets, even cities (such as Whittier, California), after poets. Today, most would be hard-pressed to name a single living poet, let alone a great one.
Those readers and writers still enthusiastic about poetry are largely divided into an elite class of the serious, consisting mostly of academics who speak almost exclusively to each other; and the unserious, which includes some poets of extraordinary popularity who are relegated to a niche or ignored altogether by the artistic community. The rest stick to the classics that, great as they are, typically are at least a century old. Dana Gioia, a poet and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, puts it plainly in his celebrated book Can Poetry Matter? Poetry is still “supported by a loyal coterie,” but it “has lost the confidence that it speaks to and for the general culture.”1
This collapse is due to the same influences that have wreaked so much havoc in other art forms over the past century. What Dianne Durante has written of painting and sculpture is also true of good poetry: skilled artists select materials, in this case words, and find ways to “suggest what you should pay attention to, and where you should focus amid the chaos of impressions that assaults your senses every minute of every day.”2 An effective poem allows the audience to experience, however briefly, the sort of world they would want to live in (or not).
Poets of the past strove particularly to achieve integration: synthesizing images, sounds, and memorable phrasing to encapsulate perfectly what they sought to express. Poets often thought of integration—of profound coherence—as the prime value of their craft. As Alexander Pope put it, “true art is nature to advantage dress’d / What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.”3 Anyone reading a masterpiece such as W. B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” or E. E. Cummings’s “may my heart always be open to little,” can see how they used language in a disciplined way to create specific moods, express unique insights, or capture ideas in unforgettable phrases. The success or failure of their efforts may be hard to measure, but until the middle of the past century, poets generally understood their goals and were trained in a long and honorable tradition of methods. Even radical innovators such as Cummings were engaged in an essentially creative and communicative enterprise and used existing tools or fashioned new ones to achieve fascinating effects.
But just as musicians in the 20th century turned away from melody, and painters and sculptors from representation, so poets were taught to reject conceptual meaning and to regard their traditional techniques, such as meter and imagery, as somehow artificial. The “confessional” school, championed by Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath in the 1950s and 1960s, focused on subjectivity—producing work that was often comprehensible only to the poet himself and was sometimes little more than melodramatic shrieking. Plath was capable of outstanding work, but in league with the confessional movement she published unreadably tedious poems, including what is perhaps the most infamous “confessional” poem, “Daddy,”4 in which she likens her father to a Nazi soldier—(“I have always been scared of you, / With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo”)—and herself to a victim of the Holocaust.
In the years that followed, the “language poets”—heirs to Gertrude Stein and John Ashberry—eschewed meaning and sought to “deconstruct” the artistic form. Rejecting poetry’s essential devices and creating an art of dis-integration, they substituted mere sensation for meaning and concept. They consciously avoided intelligibility and communication, purporting to unmask poetry as “constructed by relations of power, and not as either transcendent, universal, or natural,” and demonstrating their radical negation of “the politics of cultural production.”5 In their eyes, meaninglessness became a positive virtue—a way for poets to prove themselves free of the “chains” of reason.
It might seem ironic that a leftist culture that claimed to seek the liberation of the working class would produce work that no member of the working class would ever choose to read, but these writers were motivated by something deeper than politics: a fundamental rejection of logic and coherence. This was framed as a reaction against poetic formalism. But in fact it was, like the work of Jackson Pollock in painting, John Cage in music, and Louise Bourgeois in sculpture, an attack on the process of artistic integration.6
Along with such outright anti-intellectualism came the plain collapse of standards. Even if not committed to avant-garde movements, today’s poetry critics often struggle to avoid criticizing poets, out of an “Emperor’s New Clothes”-type reticence to assert a definitive verdict—or out of what poet Matthew Buckley calls the “allure of incomprehension.”7 The outbursts of today’s poetry elite are applauded even when incomprehensible, trite, or just plain sloppy, because today’s artistic elite regard communication and conceptual thinking as hindrances, standards as judgmental and exclusionary. The result, Buckley writes, is that “nonsense has become a defining virtue of contemporary American poetry.” And many of those still committed in some way to poetry’s traditional methods of meter, narrative, and metaphor—particularly the cowboy poets and rappers—are largely content to wink and amuse or disgust and terrify, rather than to convey themes worth conveying.
Still, as with painting, sculpture, and music, brilliant practitioners continue to labor, often without recognition, to create outstanding new art. In the 1990s, a movement known as New Formalism began reasserting the importance of selection and communication in poetry.8 Today the New Formalists no longer seem so radical because their demands made such impressive progress that they largely have been accepted within the poetry community. Even authors who did not align themselves explicitly with that movement persisted in writing metrical, integrated poetry that adhered to the high standards of poetic craft. Although still in the minority, many contemporary poets—including Dana Gioia, Mark Jarman, X. J. Kennedy, Ted Kooser, William Baer, and others—and journals such as Think, Able Muse, and Measure are keeping alive an honorable artistic tradition focused on selectivity and integration. Three poets in particular—Richard Wilbur, A. E. Stallings, and Stephen Kampa—prove that greatness lives on in poetry today.
Wilbur, who turned ninety-five this year, is probably America’s foremost representative of formal poetry. . . .