Poetry: What's Next

Adam Kirsch

We're here today to talk about “what’s next” in poetry; but before I try to answer that question, I’d like to spend a moment thinking about the idea of poetry that it presupposes. The idea that poetry proceeds by stages, that it is always evolving into some new form or school or method or theory, was of course one of the inventions of the modernists, who came up with it because they wanted so intensely to break with the outworn techniques of the Victorians. It was Ezra Pound who gave us the slogan “Make it new,” with the implication that poetry, to be valid at all, had to be different from what came before it. But the classic justification for this idea can be found in T.S. Eliot’s essay “The Metaphysical Poets,” where he writes:

We can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.

Poetry, in this metaphor, is a reflection of society as it exists at any given moment; and since the distinctive fact of modern life is the accelerating pace of change, poetry too must put its foot on the gas pedal and accelerate. And in the twentieth century, that is exactly what it did: the history of poetry in the last hundred years is usually written as a succession of schools, each claiming to be more up-to-date, inventive, and authentic than the one before: modernism gives way to postmodernism, ambiguous impersonality to confessional honesty to “deep image” to Pop chattiness to Language Poetry. As Tennyson might have put it, poetry must always be rising on stepping stones of its dead self to higher things.

Of course, the idea of novelty and innovation in poetry is not itself new. It goes back at least to Wordsworth, who in the preface to Lyrical Ballads attacked the polished cliches of eighteenth-century verse and called for a return to common speech, the language of “a man speaking to men.” But listen to the way Wordsworth justifies his method:

Accordingly, such a language, arising out of repeated experience and regular feelings, is a more permanent, and a far more philosophical language, than that which is frequently substituted for it by Poets, who think that they are conferring honour upon themselves and their art, in proportion as they separate themselves from the sympathies of men, and indulge in arbitrary and capricious habits of expression, in order to furnish food for fickle tastes, and fickle appetites, of their own creation.

Wordsworth’s revolution, in other words, was actually a restoration. He did not want to “make it new,” but to shake off the “arbitrary and capricious” demands of fashion and return to the “permanent” language of humanity, which was the permanent basis of art. Accordingly, he looked to the past for the sources of renovation—above all, to Milton, just as Keats looked to Shakespeare and Spenser. Even T.S. Eliot’s call to create a poetry adequate to the twentieth century was cast as a return to the complexities of 17th-century poetry, the intellectual conceits of Donne; in his Clark Lectures, Eliot added Dante and Baudelaire to his pantheon of “modern” poets. Being modern, for Eliot—as, incidentally, for Matthew Arnold, from whom Eliot took so much, even while abusing him—was not a chronological status but a quality shared by different civilizations at different times.

The evolutionary model of poetry, the idea that poetry must always be profoundly remaking itself to keep pace with the times, is plausible in large part because we are familiar with it from other parts of life. Science, which is the pursuit of objective truth about the world, is necessarily always superseding itself, as it comes ever closer to a correct description of reality: Newton’s picture of the world is made obsolete by Einstein’s, Euclid’s is made obsolete by Gauss and Riemann. The humanities, which in exchange for academic respectability agreed to model itself on the sciences, has committed itself to the same model of continual supersession: New Criticism gives way to myth criticism, which gives way to deconstruction, which turns into New Historicism, and then queer theory, and then ecocriticism. The suggestion that this constitutes progress towards a goal is implicit in the constant renovation of the humanities’ methods and ideals.

More important, perhaps, is the way that consumer capitalism has accustomed us to the notion of planned obsolescence. Our cars and our clothes and our music are constantly going out of style, not because there is anything inherently wrong with them, but because industry needs us to constantly be buying its latest products. To be out of date is to be ridiculous, cheesy or corny--words that Theodor Adorno analyzed, in the musical context, in an interesting way. He argued that old popular music becomes corny, in a way that old classical music doesn’t, because it is the way the audience expresses the resentment against an old style that it was not permitted to voice when it was new and in demand. Our contempt for the out-of-date is really contempt for ourselves, for being passively manipulated into buying each new product as it rolls of the assembly line of the culture industry.

To the extent that poetry is an academic field, it is susceptible to this kind of present-mindedness, this pressure to always be up to date. To the extent that it is an art, however, poetry is inherently conservative: not politically, of course, but in the sense that it is constantly drawing strength from its past, engaged with its own traditions. That’s why I’d say it’s almost impossible to be a good poet if you haven’t read any poetry earlier than modernism—as many poets would proudly admit they don’t. For despite Eliot, it’s clear that human nature does not change so much from era to era, or else the poetry of the past would cease to speak to us, the way the science of the past does. If we see ourselves in Catullus or Chaucer or Dickinson, it can only be because human nature does not in fact renovate itself every twenty years or so. What’s next is always only a different way of saying what’s been said before—of describing how it feels and what it means to live.

It is true, of course, that every genuine poet describes this experience differently. We are bored by poetry that slavishly imitates a preexisting style, because in that case the poet is not providing us with a distinctive aesthetic experience. And the truth, as anyone who reads a great deal of contemporary poetry knows, is that by this standard most poetry is not genuine at all, because so much of it sounds the same. The standard-model poem of our moment is a minor-key anecdote, either mildly epiphanic or mildly melancholy, written in arbitrarily lineated prose, and usually employing a small number of conventionally poetic words or metaphors. This way of writing is so familiar and so well established that it’s easy to sympathize with anyone who wants to shatter it by being defiantly, garishly, unmistakably “new”—by not making sense, or by mixing in “low” pop culture references, to name two popular strategies.

But these ways of being new have an odd tendency to become just as conventional as what they are trying to disrupt. Gertrude Stein mangled grammar just as thoroughly as Anne Carson, but she did it a hundred years earlier; Michael Robbins may name-check “Alien vs. Predator,” but Eliot name-checked “Under the Bamboo Tree,” then just as “low” a reference, in “Sweeney Agonistes.” The avant-garde, by now, is its own tradition.

To me, the most surprising new poems are not the ones that wear their up-to-dateness on their sleeve, but the ones that find a creative way of engaging with an older tradition. Poems that are new, not because they employ a new theory or technique, but because their author is a new artist and has something to say that has never been said before--and may even be helped in saying it by employing traditional techniques like meter and rhyme, which have never been constraints to a true artist, but tools. In the year 2014, there is no doubt that this kind of writing is rarer, harder, and less calculated to win praise than virtually any kind of ostentatious novelty or provocation. Such creativity comes not out a school or trend, but “out of nowhere,” in the way that true art always comes out of nowhere, because every genuine artist is his or her own new beginning.

ADAM KIRSCH is the author, most recently, of Emblems of the Passing World: Poems after Photographs by August Sander (Other Press) and Rocket and Lightship: Essays on Literature and Ideas (W.W. Norton).