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

Contemporary Poetry: Social Conscience? Not So Much

Brett Foster


November 18, 2011
by Brett Foster

A few months ago I came across a poem by Billy Collins in Harper’s. “Too bad you weren’t here six months ago,” it begins, a local’s comment to the speaker, who is visiting Nebraska. The speaker tells us that he “put on a look of mild disappointment” and then connects the comment to similar, earlier ones he’d heard in Georgia and Vermont. Collins provides a contextual clue in its final stanza: the phenomenon occurs this time every year “when I am apparently off”

in another state, stuck in a motel lobby
with the local paper and a Styrofoam cup of coffee,
busily missing God knows what.

For all we know, the speaker may be an anti-virus software salesman or a scout for a college athletics program, but for those who know Collins (and he’s one of our best known poets), it’s easy to read the poem as autobiographical, likely emerging from Collins’ frequent travels to universities and libraries across the country where he reads his poetry to packed lecture halls.            

I like Billy Collins as much as anyone. I share his poems with my students, and I appreciate his amiable ambassadorship on behalf of a marginal art—he makes contemporary poetry suddenly enjoyable for many people who just beforehand were strongly convinced it wasn’t. All that said, this poem, “The Sandhill Cranes of Nebraska,” strikes me as small and problematic when read in a broader context. Collins’ speaker, touring from state to state and motel lobby to lobby, seems almost embarrassingly remote from the social concerns of today. The speaker, insulated from real life, risks “busily missing God knows what” not only literally but also on a symbolic level. Why do so many poets and poems often seem clueless about the embattled world around them?

But Collins, one might object, is a modern-day Renaissance wit, a persona-maker sensitive to sprezzatura, a kind of artful nonchalance. He does what poets have done for centuries: regard universal human experience through the lens of the personal and individual. One of the most dominant poetry movements of the last century was the Confessional School, and poets remain as prone today to use “I” and “I” and “I” like an automatic stapler of self-absorption. Poets, the proverb goes, will obsess on a bougainvillea as the world burns around them. There are understandable reasons for this. The lyric mode, first of all, invites dramatizations of the self, and most poets, hungering for genuine expression, quite rightly steer clear of the season’s “hot-button” banners or the hot-winded cant of our politicians. 

Moreover, with so many American poets, the fact of their employment in multitudinous creative writing programs contributes to this impression of social or economic separation. Doubtless, the securities of tenure have ensured that many of us writers have not felt the direct, most brutal effects of the economic downturn. In other words, Collins’ lecture-tour, missed-it-all poem may be closer to reality than to cluelessness. It is the rare poetry volume indeed that acknowledges the existence of 2008’s financial collapse or a recession’s economic distress—see The Situation by Ian Harrow, or Leontia Flynn’s Profit and Loss. It may be coincidental, or not, that the first two poetry collections that come to mind are British, and both authors avoid becoming “single-topic” voices.

American poets often seem more extreme in either direction: there are the activist poets, and then there are the rest of us. We may read the New York Times and shake our heads, but instead of going much beyond that, we usually do what we’re good at, and what we enjoy—we keep reading. Dickinson over coffee, Rilke before an afternoon seminar. Maybe a little Neruda (the “political” Neruda) or Akhmatova if we begin to feel a little restless with our buffered selves in our book-lined studies. This is a little coy, I admit, but I really do not think it is too outrageous as a way of describing the common impression of the creative writer in today’s American culture.

In small doses, suitable in scale to the writing life in general and the peculiarly quiet potency of the medium of poetry, this impression may just be changing. In a second-part follow-up to this short essay, I will attempt to offer a few examples.

—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.

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
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.”