David Yezzi kicks the simpering, prating, effeminate ass of contemporary poetry around the block.
Poetry has become so docile, so domesticated, itâ€™s like a spayed housecat lolling in a warm patch of sun. Most poets choose to play it safe, combining a few approved modes in a variety of unexceptional ways: lyrical, pastoral, whimsical, surrealist, lyrical-pastoral, pastoral-surrealist, interior-lyrical, whimsical-lyrical-interior-surrealist, and so on. These poems feel at home in coffee shops and on college campuses; they circulate breezily among crowds of like-minded poems and all of them work hard to be liked. (They are also beloved of prize committees and radio hosts.) Not since the Edwardians has a period style felt so pinched, though, ironically, todayâ€™s poetry is offered as â€œnewâ€â€”either ground-breakingly populist or transgressively avant-garde. As Joshua Mehigan puts it in a recent issue of Poetry:
In the end, poetry looks radical only to the outside world, which ignores it, while from inside it looks static. Poets got out of these situations before by doing something new, but novelty is superfluous now. There is no way to get into the game without upping the ante, and there is no way out without bluffing or folding or everyone agreeing on a new game.
How did the main effects of poetry ever boil down to these: the genial revelation, the sweetly poignant middle-aged lament, the winsome ode to the suburban soul? The problem is that such poems lie: no one in the suburbs is that bland; no reasonable person reaches middle age with so little outrage at lifeâ€™s absurdities. What an excruciating world contemporary poetry describes: one in which everyone is either ironic, on the one hand, or enlightened and kind on the otherâ€”not to mention selfless, wise, and caring. Even tragic or horrible events provoke only pre-approved feelings.
Poetry of this ilk has a sentimental, idealizing bent; itâ€™s high-minded and â€œevolved.â€ Like all utopias, the world it presents exists nowhere. Some might argue that poetry should elevate, showing people at their best, each of us aspiring to forgive foibles with patience and understanding. But that kind of poetry amounts to little more than a fairy tale, a condescending sop to our own vanity.