Creating Value in Our Time

T. S. Eliot famously set the standard for the responsible and ambitious modern poet's apparatus in 1919, when, in "Tradition and the Individual Talent", he called for the serious poet to know his literary tradition thoroughly, in order to be able to practise and explore his work with authority, with some semblance of confidence in being able to judge his work's value in relation to the whole of literature. This is the standard; it is imposing; and it has set many on an autodidactic program of immense and exhaustive reading, perceived as a requisite preparatory course for being able to work with authority and genuine independence as an individual voice.

With time, and a certain amount of deterioration in the contemporary poet's willingness to undertake such a regimented and demanding course of study, in many cases bolstered by a prevalent feeling that the individual carries within himself or herself an inalienable individuality, which is authoritative or significant on its own grounds, and by what it supposes to be its own rules, this grand and ideal prescription for the poet's education has tended largely to fall by the wayside, leaving us with poets who are uninformed, narcissistic and personal (or even private) in their concerns, unoriginal, lacking in skill and technique, and over-reliant upon current (often watered down, and uninspired) fashions and trends. They write a poetry for their friends, and for the immediate moment only, hardly worthy of our more passionate and demanding hopes for the art. Too many poets write like the same person, whether the self-satisfied star of the insulated clique of some prestigious creating writing program, or one of the many itinerant or Brooklyn hipsters whose audience is chiefly comprised of themselves and their like-minded friends. There is little of real substance to sink our teeth and minds into. We everywhere around us find only novelty and an unconscious and infantile egoism in the bulk of contemporary poetry.

Perhaps it is for this reason that poetry readers and afficianados have grown to dismiss living poets as holding not so great or authoritative an interest as the hallowed names of the dead poets of stature who made so indelible a mark in the twentieth century. Whatever the case may be, and perhaps it is neither truer nor less true in our time than in "theirs" that people do tend to feel a sort of animosity or dismissive distrust towards the living in the light of the great reputations of the past, an unwillingness to afford them a status anything like what we feel towards the iconic standing of the dead. Yet this is to mix up our literary history entirely, and to close our eyes to the realities of the same plight that the now mythic moderns found themselves in when there was no precedent or apparatus in place for the assessment or judgement of their work in their own time.

What was true then is true now: the large commercial presses, and the institutionalized awards, are very little given to publishing, rewarding, or recognizing achievements of great value in contemporary poetry, achievements which will appeal only to the very few who have made of themselves exhaustively knowledgeable, and hence authoritatively sensitive, purveyors of new and richly independent work. Never mind the havoc wreaked by such extreme red herrings as political correctness having tended to become substituted for the proper reading of a poem. The case was no different in Eliot's time, though the public atmosphere was perhaps a little more primed for enthusiasm for, and interest in, the modern and the new, the living fruits of an exciting, watershed period. To give an example: both Eliot and Pound experienced a great deal of difficulty in finding a general public reception for their work, and struggled for a long time publishing their books with very small presses, whose existences were often quite fleeting, and in placing individual poems in any but the most coterie-oriented and likewise-fleeting little magazines, before they were able to secure contracts with more stable and powerful commercial presses such as Faber and Faber or Knopf. What was different was that there was a genuine contemporary interest, which tended to lend a legendary status even to such smaller presses and little magazines.

I submit that, contrary to appearances, and contrary to what the big publishers and magazines might have you believe, there are in fact genuinely great and first-rate poets writing in our time, and that their talent and importance is fairly widely noted in a sort of underground way, by those who read and seek out poetry, those who practise it seriously, and by those who are actively their brethren, working for the same cause in the little press, against the woeful influence and grotesque disappointment by and large offered as poetry by the large commercial presses, who essentially have not changed their offerings in 40 years (we understand the economy for bookselling is awful). What is important about these poets is that they are both widely knowledgeable and inspired by deep impulses within themselves to say the thing that has not been said; that they possess a spark of genius, something which is wholly not like any other poet's, and yet is a synthesis and alteration of the whole of literary tradition, which they honour by subverting it to their own ends. There is no underestimating the fact that these poets are exceptionally inspired, both by a natural wit, and in synthesis with the esoteric inner workings of poetic tradition and the whole flooding ocean and thunderstorm of language and knowing. I mention but two poets, holding these powers in an exceptional degree: Philip Nikolayev and Stephen Sturgeon. Both are characterized by intense sensitivity to sound and meter, diction, rhyme, the value of words, a subverting and potent wit, great erudition, intense critical minds, wild personal need and fantasy, subtlety of observance, intensity of emotion, an ability to play a ballet of masks and tonal structures, and an empathic, selfless humility in facing the objects of the problems of their art, a sense of eternities. They are something like masters, and they are worthy of the respect accorded to many a great one of the past. Then, one has what is a real phenomenon in our time: the emergence of younger writers of striking individuality and accomplishment, poets who are all but unknown, but who nevertheless are writing as well as anyone. Among poets, in this group I would place Allison Vanouse, Peter Behrman de Sinéty, and Rob Chalfen, all of whom have only begun to emerge in the past year or two. There are others, in prose: Diana Stewart, Cassandra Nelson. It is interesting that so many of these writers are women in their twenties. Then there is MadHat Press, a small press which has in this one year brought out books of poems by Joe Green, Stephen Sturgeon, Robert Archambeau, U. S. Dhuga, and myself, and which will shortly bring out a selection of Russian verse translated by Philip Nikolayev. Philip Nikolayev's annual Fulcrum, soon to be revived, is the best sourcebook for contemporary poetry of quality today.

If we are to learn the lesson of modernism, and if we are to give the same meaning to history, that history gives to us, perhaps we need to respect our living poets more, and the assessment of what is valuable in poetry, again.

Ben Mazer
October 30, 2015
Cambridge, Mass.

Note: This issue, which is predominantly a French number, was put together with great assistance from Peter Behrman de Sinéty, our contributing editor in Paris. The next issue, Spring 2016, will be a Spanish number, co-edited by Flaminia Ocampo and Mario Murgia, our contributing editors in Buenos Aires and Mexico City respectively. This will be followed by a special regular issue in the Fall of 2016.