The following is a number of excerpts from a critical essay by Mark Edmundson published in the July issue of Harper's Magazine. I was impressed with the piece initially due to its aggressive critique of contemporary writing ( I thought opinion was only used by music writers and talking heads anymore) and then realized that Edmundson's argument closely parallels my own thoughts on the current state of painting. I feel like the happy crappy days of politically correct education and polite all-inclusiveness has left our critical edges dull. As evidenced by the online comments and essays in response, it seems that no one is brave enough to agree. Please read the abridged essay below and feel free to substitute painting for poetry and to lean into your own opinion.
Most of our poets now speak a deeply internal language not unlike [Merwin’s]. They tend to be oblique, equivocal, painfully self-questioning. They not only talk to themselves in their poems; they frequently talk to themselves about talking to themselves… Their poetry is not heard but overheard, and sometimes is too hermetic even to overhear with anything like comprehension.
Contemporary American poets now seem to put all their energy into one task: the creation of a voice. They strive to sound like no one else. And that often means poets end up pushing what is most singular and idiosyncratic in themselves and in the language to the fore and ignoring what they have in common with others. The current poet may give a certain sort of pleasure by his uniqueness, but no one reading him will say what Emerson hoped to say when he encountered a poet who mattered: “This is my music; this is myself.”
What happens when poets at the height of ambition somehow feel the need to be programmatically obscure? The obvious result is that they shut out the common reader. But they also give critics far too much room to determine poetic meanings —
Contemporary American poetry speaks its own confined language, not ours. It is, by and large, pure. It does not generally traffic in the icons of pop culture; it doesn’t immerse itself in ad-speak, rock lyrics, or politicians’ posturing: it gravitates to the obscure, the recondite, the precious, the ancient, trying to get outside the mash of culture that surrounds it. The result is poetry that can be exquisite, but that has too few resources to use to take on consequential events.
Mass culture and mechanical reproduction surely play a part in the current retreat of American poetry, but what about MFA programs? Poetry now is something of a business. You make your way into the game by getting a sponsor: often it’s a writer in residence from your undergraduate school. Then come the MFA and the first book, both of which usually require sponsorship — which is to say pull.
To thrive in this process you often must write in the mode of the mentor — you must play the game that is there to be played. You must be a member of the school, you must sing in the correct key. If you try to overwhelm the sponsor, explode his work into irrelevance — well, the first law of success is simple: Never outshine the master. The well-tempered courtier knows how to make those above him feel superior. He knows that in his desire to succeed he must not go too far in displaying what he can do. The master will not like it — and there will be no first book, no fellowship, no job, no preferment. It is only by making the master look more accomplished, by writing in his mode, becoming a disciple, that the novice ascends.
I often think that our poets now write as though history were over and they were living in a world outside collective time. They write as though the great public crises were over and the most pressing business we had were self-cultivation and the fending off of boredom. Many of our poets are capable of work that matters. There’s a lot of talent in the room. But we need them to use it and to take some chances. We need their help. Against what’s offered by the bankers and the ad men, the journalists and the professors, and the politicians (especially them), we need the poets to create our sense of the present and our hopes for the time to come. What Shelley said is so: True poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.