Arts & Culture

Poet/critics and the state of the art

5 min read

A triumvirate of prominent poet-critics – each with strong Harvard ties – took on the meaning of contemporary poetry last week. And despite a lively discussion, none of them provided a comprehensive definition.

To kick off poetry month, the Woodberry Poetry Room and the Poetry Society of America hosted the roundtable event on April 1, a conversation that examined the landscape of contemporary poetry as well as the role of those charged with its navigation. The postmodern poetic terrain defies easy categorization, the participants agreed, noting that myriad influences are at play in the work of current poets.

Moderator and programs director for the society Robert N. Casper asked the participants, by way of introduction, to each read a current poem of their choosing.

Poet and critic Adam Kirsch, who is senior editor at The New Republic, read “The Spectacle,” by Robert Mehigan. Kirsch, a 1997 Harvard graduate, liked how Mehigan uses a “dark, tragic, potentially melodramatic subject and treats it in a very cold-eyed way,” noting the formal work’s bleak imagery of a family’s death by fire, and comparing the poem with Robert Frost’s narrative poem “Out, Out.”

Stephen Burt, associate professor of English at Harvard, selected work by Allan Peterson, an “idiosyncratic” poet who has yet to establish himself among critics but is “worth remembering.” Peterson’s poem “Private Lives” has a “Wordsworthian structure,” said Burt, with “the mind moving around among impressions” and its use of an evocative childhood memory. “But the strangeness of its language and its insistence on finding something small and valuable in its memories,” Burt added, “seems to me to happen in a purely contemporary way.”

Poet, contributing editor at the Boston Review, and a fellow at the Harvard University Society of Fellows Maureen McLane read two works, one by Devin Johnston, “Mockingbird,” and “The Lyric ‘I’ Drives to Pick Up Her Children from School: A Poem in the Postconfesssional Mode,” by Olena Kalytiak Davis. Johnston’s work, McLean said, is alive to form, a classical inheritance and a mystic and esoteric tradition, while Davis’ work addresses questions of “voicings, sources, and how poetry is mobilizing its ‘now’ and its inheritances.”

Casper, curious that all of the selected poems had some connection or direct reference to the literary past, asked whether that historic link was a necessary component of poetry today.

While Burt’s chosen poet, Peterson, may not be consciously crafting his work in relation to its literary forbears, an awareness of the history of thought and of the South —and a type of visual history — are definitely at play, said Burt, in the poet’s productions. All lasting poetry, Burt added, is influenced in some way by the literature that has gone before it.

“I think that you can’t learn to write poetry without reading some. … Any poet who we are going to keep reading is going to show traces of what she has learned or he has learned from the slices of literary history most important to him or to her.”

Later Casper asked the group if postmodern poetry is “in some way trying to evoke or remake the old and doesn’t quite believe in the notion of the avant-garde as whole or pure.”

Originality is a challenge for contemporary poets, admitted Kirsch, who questioned the nature of the postmodern title for poetry.

“Postmodern in architecture,” he said, “can mean reworking elements of the past in an eclectic way, but poetry I think is essentially existential. It’s about our experience, and that can’t be belated in a certain way because all of our experiences are always new for ourselves.” A contemporary poet looking back to literary productions of the past, Kirsch suggested, might be troubled by their volume and variety. “There isn’t one thing [e.g., Shakespeare or the metaphysical poets or the romantics] to go back to. Everything is sort of spread out on coordinate levels so that everything is equally valid.”

Ultimately, a balance between the old and the new is what Casper, publisher of the literary magazine “Jubilat,” finds compelling in contemporary poetry.

“The most interesting poets to me are the ones who, with an eye both to the future and to the past, look out to a variety of influences.”

As for their role as critics tasked with charting a course through contemporary poetry, all three participants rejected the notion of themselves as gatekeepers. Instead, they said, their role is largely to bring poets who are interesting and engaging to light, or — in the case of poets neither interesting nor engaging — to explain why.

A useful disposition to possess when fulfilling these tasks, said McLane, is one where the critic is “willing not to know what you are looking at and willing to share that with readers.”

Burt likened a critic’s job to a cat, which prowls the yard and brings its owner a dead bird or mouse as a gift — something special it has uncovered.

“I don’t want to kill the poetry like a cat would,” said Burt, “but I do feel like a critic is making an offering. … A critic brings something to the reader and says,

‘Look what I found; here’s why I like it; here’s how I think it works.’”

Kirsch preferred a canine comparison.

“You also have to be like the pit bull who will kill the intruder who doesn’t belong,” he said, adding that the critic’s engagement with a text involves the negative as well as the positive.

“What makes criticism worth reading,” he added, “isn’t whether it accurately predicts what people think in the future, but whether it provides a literary experience in and of itself.”