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FROM THE EDITORS
On December 29, 2022, the New York Times ran a centenary obituary. Better late than never. “Poetry Died 100 Years Ago This Month,” explains Matthew Walther, founding editor of The Lamp, a fledgling bi-monthly of the orthodox Catholic persuasion. By now, such confident declarations of death have become commonplace. Since at least the 1980s, a self-appointed arbiter every so often feels the need to enlighten the public on the relative vitality of capital-P Poetry. They either bury its long dead corpse and offer a grievous post-mortem or sit vigil bedside in hospice care, lamenting the good old days when it played a more central role in American life. Poor thing. Most prominently, in 1988 Joseph Epstein initiated a decades-long murder mystery in the pages of Commentary by asking “Who Killed Poetry?” inspiring Morris Freedman’s “Slowing the Decline of Poetry” later that year. A slew of concurring and dissenting opinions have followed. Donald Hall’s spirited 1989 rallying cry in Harper’s, “Death to the Death of Poetry,” offers hope for those who may be inclined to despair: “While most readers and poets agree that ‘nobody reads poetry’ … maybe a multitude of nobodies assembles the great audience Whitman looked for.” Dana Gioia’s anxious Atlantic essay “Can Poetry Matter?” in 1991 spells out step-bystep instructions for how to make it do so. Four years later, Freedman checks poetry’s pulse in the Virginia Quarterly Review with “How Dead is Poetry?” concluding that we must “keep standards pure” and “evaluate fairly and confidently … on the basis of universal and ageless criteria” if we are to “take poetry seriously.” Sounds like fun.
The back and forth over the unfortunate death of Poetry continues apace: “Poetry is Dead,” announces Bruce Wexler in a 2003 Newsweek editorial, asking, “Does Anybody Really Care?” D. W. Fenza, erstwhile Executive Director of AWP wonders defensively, “Who Keeps Killing Poetry?” in a 2006 Writer’s Chronicle diatribe. In her 2013 takedown “Is Poetry Dead?” Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri answers her own question in the affirmative, followed up two years later in the same pages by Christopher Ingraham’s “Poetry is Going Extinct,” which ushers forth actual government data (*gasp*) to prove once and for all that indeed it is. Reporting for CNN in 2015, Brandon Griggs asks, “Does Poetry Still Matter?” observing that “poetry, once a preeminent form of entertainment, has long since receded to the far, dusty corners of popular culture.” We prefer Kevin Young’s response in his 2012 manifesto “Deadism,” which squares the circle by conceding: “Let it be dead; let us write as if we are already dead … . Only by writing a dead poetry, a zombie poetry, can the thing come back to life, not so much reborn as born for the first time.”
Dead, alive, Poetry is the Schrödinger’s cat of the literary world. Just open a book and report what you see.
The latest pronouncement records Poetry’s time of death as December 1922 with the appearance of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” Never mind that the poem was first published in October 1922. Never mind that Walther lazily refers to Slavoj Žižek having said something first written by Frederic Jameson. Never mind that the Times had to issue a correction of misquoted lines from “Prufrock.” Never mind all that. We should take seriously the Opinion writer’s opinion in the newspaper of record. “We stopped writing good poetry because we are now incapable of doing so,” he opines. “The culprit is … the very conditions of modern life, which have demystified and alienated us from the natural world.” Eliot killed poetry by “creat[ing] an idiom that captured the disappearance of the pre-modern worldview.”
We do not need yet another apologia for Poetry. The magazine you hold in your hands now is evidence enough that Poetry is alive and kicking. Just spend some time with Sean Thomas Dougherty’s heartbreaking and (literally) breathtaking elegy “Death Letter #5,” selected by Paul Guest as the winner of the 2023 James Hearst Poetry Prize, not to mention the many other pages of living, vibrant poems. QED. Even so, Walther’s argument reveals what is actually at stake for those critics eager to conduct autopsies on the body of Poetry. The underlying reason for all this hand-wringing is not the death of Poetry. Rather, it is rooted in discontent with “the very conditions of modern life.” Epstein, Walther, Freedman, and others of their conservative ilk write from a golden age nostalgia, longing for a time when we could imagine that national unity ruled the day, when pesky differences could be erased, when we agreed as Americans on “pure” standards and “universal and ageless criteria” for what is good, if not great, and therefore worth preserving as a statement of Who We Are. Poetry is dead for those who crave social hierarchy with a zeal bordering on (if not in fact) the religious.
This attitude is certainly not new. Peruse the early pages of North American Review, for instance. The magazine was founded in 1815 in the midst of the Age of Nationalism by a group of (culturally if not politically) federalist men who understood themselves to be “the wise and the good” whose moral duty it was to govern for the common national good. NAR’s explicit mission was to define—and eventually celebrate—a uniquely American literature good enough to stand up to the excellence of Old World exemplars. Obituaries like those in the New York Times have always arisen out of (white) nationalist fantasy: Make Poetry Great Again. Philip Levine does not put too fine a point on it in a 2002 interview: “Guys like Epstein like to hearken back to some dreamland America in which people got up in the morning and opened their windows to the birds singing and when they felt their soul elevated they recited American poetry to the waiting world. Bullshit!” Hear, hear.
Perhaps this fraught state of literary affairs did begin with Eliot after all, not with “The Waste Land” but with his 1946 Sewanee Review essay “What is Minor Poetry?” Despite his protest that we should not judge poetry for its “greatness or importance” but rather its “genuineness,” the very question of definitions renewed an obsession to classify poets as either major or minor (or the backhanded label “major minor,” which the NAR’s own James Hearst considered Eliot). The canon wars of the eighties and nineties were heir to this same question, as though objective answers might ever be discovered. A hundred years ago in the NAR, Robert Graves asks a similar question, “What is Bad Poetry?” claiming that objective criteria “represent a need on the part of the critics for poetry that will repair certain deficiencies or maintain certain successes not only in the poetry of the past, but also in the social, religious and scholastic conditions at the time obtaining.” Not mere taste, for which there is no accounting, but context calls the tune. “What is bad poetry? The answer might be given as ‘Yours, when I do not understand you and when your work has no help to offer me in my troubles.’” As in 1923, so in 2023.
It’s only natural to worry over aesthetics. As editors, we do so all the time. How are the poems, stories, essays, and visual art selected for publication in the NAR? Eliot’s “genuineness” is a good starting place. Our explicit mission is to publish an eclectic range of work rather than proclaiming any specific style, voice, or mode superior. We have no single aesthetic litmus test, no standard rubric. We publish what we believe will move, enlighten, provoke, delight, baffle, or otherwise astonish our readers. We know that Poetry is not dead because we ourselves continue to be moved, enlightened, provoked, delighted, baffled, or otherwise astonished by the poems appearing in our pages.
As further evidence of our faith in Poetry’s continued vitality, the NAR has decided to launch a Youth Poet Laureate program in Northeast Iowa, becoming a partner with the national organization, which promotes poetry as a means not only for self-expression but also civic engagement. What better way to showcase Poetry as a living, breathing art form than to hand the microphone over to the next generation and listen to the astonishing things they have to tell us? ⬤