Harper's Magazine recently published a controversial essay by Mark Edmunson titled "Poetry Slam" wherein Edmunson criticizes the state of contemporary poetry and which poets are being valued. The essay has understandably caused a stir within the contemporary poetry community resulting in many poets writing responses to Edmunson's attack.
2008 MFA alum Julia Cohen has written a lucid and insightful critique of Edmunson's complaints in an open letter. Admirably, Cohen does not simply dismiss Edmunson's argument, writing, "I want us to seriously consider these criticisms [...] as well as confront the assumptions that they bring to the literary table."
I will excerpt the beginning of her open letter here but you can read the full essay on her blog.
Dear Mark Edmundson,
I read your article, “Poetry Slam,” in the latest issue of Harper’s and I’d like to respond directly to your “slam” of contemporary poetry by offering the same audience an alternative perspective:
Using only brief fragments of single poems from only 9 living poets (including 1 Canadian, 1 Irish, and 1 actually dead)(endnote 1), Mark Edmundson lambasts the current state of American poetry. I think it’s important to bring to the attention of a larger readership the recent misdirected and lazy criticisms lavished upon contemporary poets that distract from the depth, diversity, and relevance of the work itself. Yes, some readers actually seek out and find poetry that is intellectually, emotionally, and relationally vital.
There are two basic cause/effect accusations in “Poetry Slam” that are worthwhile to dissect to show the dubious connections and terrifying implications:
#1 Because contemporary American Poetry is too “hermetic,” “private,” “oblique,” “equivocal,” it consequently “has too few resources to take on consequential events”:
#2 Because Contemporary American poets lack “ambition,” they do not “light up the world we hold in common,” i.e. they don’t reflect my own worldviews that make me feel like there is a singular “fundamental truth of human experience.”
Unfortunately, what emerges in this article is a desire for singular type of poem. A poem that a) provides unique images that simultaneously relate to obvious cultural referents (“the TV show, the fashions, the Internet”), b) sublimates most poetic techniques to present direct arguments in the form of revelations c) that respond to “the events that began on September 11, 2001 and continue to this moment.” In sum, every poem should be a humanist poem of epiphany with blatant political/cultural references to post-9/11 living. Oh yes, this sounds like a great way to enliven all American poetry!
While many wouldn’t bother, I want us to seriously consider these criticisms (as far as we can in a blog post) as well as confront the assumptions that they bring to the literary table. Ultimately, though, I want us to re-think the very questions being posed so that we can move past them to more productive conversations. While I’m not addressingall of the problems (some are too inane/insane to confront) in Edmundson’s article, by breaking down and reframing these 2 cause/effect arguments we can reorient ourselves as more culturally active citizens that embrace the multiplicity of contemporary poetry.
Continue reading Julia Cohen's essay on her blog.
Julia Cohen is the author of Triggermoon Triggermoon (Black Lawrence Press, 2011). Her work appears in journals like Colorado Review, Kenyon Review Online, jubilat, New American Writing. She is the Associate Editor of the Denver Quarterly and curates the Bad Shadow Affair reading series. She received her MFA from The New School in 2008. You can follow her on Twitter @JuliaACohen.