Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Contemporary Poetry: What It’s Typically Good At, and How That’s Changing

Brett Foster


by Brett Foster

I wrote previously about how American poets too easily isolate themselves from social engagement, how they tend to fan out toward extremes—toward expressly activist poetics, or toward ignoring public discourse. There are understandable reasons for this, I argued, and concluded by saying that these tendencies may be changing. I will soon offer some examples, but first, what is the perceived norm?

Most American poets remain content with dramatizations of the lyric self, or with minimalist observations of local or natural worlds. That’s our work, and we’re convinced that it’s good. As Americans, we often show great interest in stuff. That attention enables strong imagist poems, or provides lyric narratives with desirable tangibility. It also invites a concentrating look that sometimes excludes the broader picture, or conceals the context in which the regarded object exists. There’s the rub.

Recently the poet Frederick Seidel wrote an essay in The New York Times about Ducati motorcycles and how the current American zeitgeist seems unable to appreciate them as works of art. Being male, middle-aged and middle class, I confess to having read Seidel’s piece rhapsodically, and still admire its defiance, amounting to a joyous sneer at a diminished, anxious age. (Today we find thrills in Apple products, he says.) In prose or verse, American poets do this well: desire, describe, praise, appraise.

Yet what of the more urgent issues facing us? It is the rare poetry volume that offers, for example, a searing narrative of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath—see Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler, Nicole Cooley’s Breach, or poems by Evie Shockley. See Terence Hayes’ “Fishhead for Katrina,” or Nikky Finney’s Head Off & Split, which just won the National Book Award.

“I can see with opened eyes the harm there be,” wrote Gregory Corso to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in defense of his poem “Power.” This doesn’t mean that poets have had their eyes half-closed; they, if any do, see keenly. Rather, more are looking beyond their usual imaginative landscapes. One can see this in the later writing of former poet laureate Robert Hass, recently clubbed at an Occupy event on the University of California Berkeley campus. The current laureate, Philip Levine, seems fashioned for these lean times. During the dot-com boom or Enron heyday, he quietly wrote poems about torments of work lost and workers’ loss of dignity, of hope.

The goals in these cases should be more subtle, more surprising, than we usually imagine the goals of “political” poetry to be. I’m least convinced by verse that subscribes patently to a party line. I would nominate myself first as a poet who would make a comically, maybe criminally, bad politician. On the other hand, it may be that our system could stand to have a few more career politicians develop an appreciation for the meditative language of which good poetry boasts. One of the columnists in my local newspaper recently spoke of Jon Huntsman, back-of-the-pack candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, as a “telegenic master of the complete sentence.” That’s funny, but it’s also cause for alarm.

Poets striving to be newly meaningful as expressers of social consciousness must resist delusions of genuine political heroism being delegated to creative writers. Such a stance is rarely productive, for good writing or for good-faith social engagement. Czeslaw Milosz warned Western writers against envying their Eastern European peers’ circumstances and romanticizing the courageous writing that emerged from these trials. Don’t envy the hunchback his hump, he said. Chinese artists increasingly face these challenges today.

Let us honor their witness to us—but then carry on with our own work. Saul Bellow once acknowledged that politics are “one function of a person’s humanity,” and yet asserted, as a great novelist would, that “the forms outside do not assure the manhood of the man.” Right political belief “secures nothing,” he continued, adding that one can be a revolutionist without participating in a political movement. Perhaps poetry’s protest is aimed at the natures that often seem to define or betray us. Perhaps poetry’s revolutions first occur in the squares of the heart, the mind’s encampments.

—Brett Foster’s first book of poetry, The Garbage Eater, was published earlier this year. His writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Atlanta Review, Books & Culture, IMAGE, Kenyon Review, Poet Lore, Raritan, and Salamander. He often fears being more informed about sixteenth-century English politics than on American politics today.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”