Poetry in Motion


Ypsilanti, Mich.

Alice Fulton's June 14 "A Poetry of Inconvenient Knowledge" has much in common with Mary Kinzie's 1984 Salmagundi essay "The Rhapsodic Fallacy." Kinzie claimed "apotheosis, and ecstatic and unmediated self-consumption in the moment of perception and feeling" had reduced American poetry to "a steppe [that] is arid and covered with monotonous vegetation." Her solution was a return to "forms associated with the eighteenth century, formal satire, familiar epistle, georgic, and pastoral." To make her argument for an arid steppe, Kinzie had to pretend that the potent imaginations of Robert Duncan, Adrienne Rich and Amiri Baraka, to name just a few, did not exist. She invented a scenario to justify her own retreat into dated and irrelevant verse.

For Fulton, the enemy of the past decade is the New Formalism, which she claims has destroyed significant content in contemporary American poetry. As a result of this destruction, poetry has become "relentlessly concerned with the self," to the exclusion of "conscience, responsibility, power, cruelty or form." She bases this questionable proposal on the books she has read as a judge for various poetry prizes, characterizing American poetry as solipsistic, diaristic, void of content, apolitical and narcissistic. Her solutions to this mess are to encourage poets to discuss content, include ideas in their work, infuse contemporary thought from other fields, excavate the cellar of art history and write a poetry that "enacts the reader's sublime."

Her initial claim of a Formalist menace seems preposterous. What is Fulton really saying? Since Fulton gives no examples, let alone books or quotations, she never becomes responsible for what she is advancing. But claims are believable and arguable only when they are documented and targeted with evidence. To generalize about poetry at large based on books submitted for prize consideration is not only suspect but reeks of self- aggrandizement. Everyone knows that much of the strongest poetry is not submitted to the Akron Poetry Prize or the Loft Awards of Distinction. However, I also believe that Fulton reads more widely than her judgeships require and that she is aware that what she is challenging poets to do has already been done.

I think the poetry Fulton is mainly complaining about is the university writing workshop poetry of the past two decades, some of which is Formalist, but most of which is old-fashioned "free verse," with confessional and imagist tints and, depending on the young poet's assigned reading, gestures toward Surrealism, politics and, most recently, Language Poetry. Such writing is going to be around for some time, certainly in a society that gives the young the impression that they can get university- level jobs via creative writing degrees. Anyone who has ever taken a writing workshop knows it's a snap compared with a seminar on Paradise Lost. Prizes, contests, summer festivals, etc., have proliferated to service the poet as a middle-class employee.

Fulton writes: "Poets express a weariness with 'political' issues, as if verse had devoted itself to nothing else for decades." What does she mean by this? Such a statement would sound like gibberish to Baraka, Jayne Cortez, Jerome Rothenberg, Judy Grahn, Ed Sanders, Barbara Mor or Will Alexander, all formidable poets who have demonstrated an unwearying engagement with the political. Fulton: "Poetics certainly could benefit by an infusion of contemporary thought from other fields." Has she not read No Nature? Heard of ethnopoetics? Read Kenward Elmslie's librettos and multigenre ragtime? Read Clark Coolidge's improvisational work based on jazz and bop prosody? Such interjections could be posed against any of her challenges. As someone who has spent the past twenty-five years on a poetic investigation of Upper Paleolithic imagination, I am astonished and saddened by Fulton's "Things might become interesting if poets chose to excavate the cellar of art history, in search of 'the mermaids in the basement. …

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