Excerpts from "D.H. Tracy and the Role of the Critic," in CPR:
It still takes me aback a little when I meet a poet in contempt of criticism, or who has received advice from teachers—I have actually heard this—to avoid criticism altogether. When poetry seems determined to mediocritize itself in this way, I suppose I look to poet-critics to save us from being a laughingstock. The best criticism I know combines analysis worthy of philosophy or science, with learning worthy of scholarship, with fineness of feeling worthy of art. Poet-critics, empirically speaking, seem to achieve this suspension comparatively easily.
I would guess that if you hired a left-brainiac economist to analyze “the present situation of poetry,” he or she would find that the dynamics of the system match those of an economy with overwhelming quantities of counterfeit money in it. People have given up accepting the tender. There is real value being created, but it is in the gray market, so to speak, in the barter economy of coteries and sometime hermits. It is no one’s fault—America in its wisdom has figured out how to get lots of poems, things that are nominally poems, printed.
Politics, from polis, city; polites, citizen. Politics is the goings-on in the city, the interaction of citizens. What makes political poetry so often a non-starter is that it has no polis on which to operate: the poet has no venue in which to dramatize the competition of interests, and we are left with the asserting self and untethered opinionating. Homer can dramatize the competition of interests—boy can Homer ever do this—but in American poetry there are very few polities. We have Spoon River and Tilbury Town, not a great deal else. What was the last poem you read with three characters in it? (Not that it takes even that many—for an example of how a dramatic gift can carry off a political satire, see Tom Disch’s “The Cardinal Detoxes.”)
I wish we had more means of talking about collective experience, not fewer. Political poetry? As Gandhi said of Western civilization, It would be a good idea.
... a nasty externality not much talked about: the torque placed on the mission of poetry when there are large numbers of people with material entitlements to defend. Most of us are middle class, after all, and don’t like to think of ourselves as useless; therefore, some utilitarian benefit to poetry and the teaching of creative writing must be continually asserted. In the marketing copy of our time, poetry stops torture, poetry restores lost muscle tone, poetry removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. As for what poetry actually does, it stands there gotten up in the fireman’s outfit, a beatific smile on its face, as the helmet slips over its eyes.
When I look at the bourgeois poets of another era, I am struck by how freely their art breathes without this burden of continual self-justification. Williams and Stevens had their usefulness seen to by their day jobs; on the page, they are relaxed in a way that now seems strange. It is very difficult to imagine the creative writing professors at Asshole State (to borrow a phrase from the late great Alan Dugan) coming out for poetry as the Supreme Fiction. It would seem irresponsible. Who gets paid to study the Supreme Fiction? People who get thrown up against the wall when the revolution comes, that’s who.
Editors find it relatively difficult to source prose about poetry, and if you can pass modest standards of competence you can publish it pretty easily, much more easily than poetry. Any publicity being good publicity, its net career effect is probably positive.
The idea that America isn’t worth listening to anymore is a brutal, difficult pill for me, betokening as it does personal and collective artistic impoverishment, and making this question very difficult to answer affirmatively. John McWhorter wrote a book about this contraction of linguistic capital a couple years ago, and got poo-poohed—it is the kind of harrumph that gets harrumphed. But I don’t think Lyons is wrong. Independent of poetry’s infighting, marketing budget, and organizational problems, I suspect there is no topsoil here in which poetry might grow and spread. What’s critic to do, except add a little manure?