Who Are You Calling Opaque?

A new Harper’s essay says American poetry is obscure and out of touch. It couldn’t be more wrong.

Robert Hass
Robert Hass

Photo by Chris Felver/Getty Images

Hi, Mark Edmundson, you big-time poetry troll. I am not sure where to start with you. You took to Harper’s this month to denounce contemporary American poets. You upbraided them for their “inwardness and evasion,” their “blander, more circumscribed mode,” and claimed that they cast “unambitious spells.” You scolded them for playing “small-time games” with “low stakes,” timidly avoiding the words “we” and “our,” neglecting pop culture, and refusing to offer up a “comprehensive vision,” a “full-scale map of experience” encompassing politics, childhood, love, death, society, and nature. You scorched them in aggregate and you scorched them individually: W.S. Merwin is “oblique, equivocal, painfully self-questioning.” John Ashbery “says little.” Of Anne Carson: “The title of a recent profile in the New York Times, ‘The Inscrutable Brilliance of Anne Carson,’ has it half right.” Jorie Graham is “portentous,” Paul Muldoon “opaque.” As for Adrienne Rich, “the gift for artful expression is not hers.” You go after Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Charles Simic, Frank Bidart, Robert Pinsky, and Robert Hass, even the late James Merrill, all of whom deserve pages and pages of defense (and are likely getting it: I don’t even want to think about the contents of your inbox right now, Mark). Yes, your screed was a passionate piece of writing, dripping with erudition. You quoted great poets down through history: Dante, Milton, Emerson, Wordsworth, Yeats, Frost, Plath, Lowell. You did exactly what you want today’s poets to do, which is make a sweeping, fervent argument about something that matters. Unfortunately, you are completely out of your mind.

Even after poring over your 6,000-word essay, I’m still not exactly sure which themes you believe are appropriate for poetry—good verse apparently has to illuminate the world post-9/11, or describe the decline of the human race, or something. (At one point you praise Lowell for “looking at the world as though from outer space, like a graying weary seer, and pronouncing judgment.” Not exactly the clearest marching orders.) But I do know for sure that today’s poets are hardly limiting themselves to hermetic introspection (not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Nor are they avoiding overtly political content. A relatively recent New York Review of Books is lying on my desk. Let me open it up to the first poem I see: “Green Absinthe,” by Frederick Seidel, which contains the lines: “Bashar al-Assad (may his tribe increase!)/ Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace, / And saw, within the moonlight in his room, / The dead about to lead him to his doom.” Nope, not political at all. And farther down, an icy deployment of the same prophetic “we” you argue has gone extinct: “Something is coming more than we know how./ More than we know how. An asteroid. Soon.” You complain that poets these days only want to write about their own thought processes. I suppose you’re not interested in Sharon Olds on assisted suicide or Paul Muldoon on Obama or James Merrill on World War I or Natasha Tretheway on colonialism in the Americas. I suppose you don’t care that Louise Gluck’s latest book, A Village Life, is all about crafting a communal voice, capturing that strange collective pulse small towns know. So many lyrics out there bypass the personal, or use it to leapfrog into the abstract, that I’m unsure if you’re joking when you say that poets have given up on grand claims in order to cocoon themselves in lilting idiosyncrasy. Of course, you do admit that there’s no end of poetry being written and published out there: one can’t generalize about it all,” before, um, generalizing about all of it.

And then, Heaven help you, you go after Seamus Heaney. He is obscure and nostalgic. He hides a lack of conviction behind his admittedly distinctive voice. (He is also an Irishman in a takedown of American poetry, but whatever.) Voice, it turns out, is a bugbear for you. You think it has usurped the place of argument in the poetry of the day, that writers are all melody without myth, music without message. By way of example, you give us lines from Heaney’s “Punishment”: “I can feel the tug/ of the halter at the nape/ of her neck, the wind/ on her naked front.// It blows her nipples/ to amber beads,/ it shakes the frail rigging/ of her ribs.” This is what the absence of a transcendent theme sounds like? (Related: Do you hear the rip as a thousand poetry readers rend their clothes?) You cannot actually consider these stanzas devoid of subject matter. They’re the pounding of public humiliation mixed with private desire, a reluctant attraction to the darkness of old ritual, a weird Celtic drumbeat of empathy, disgust, and longing. Later, you hold up, as a counterpoint to Heaney, Yeats, a man who “does not hedge.” But Yeats was a veritable king of ambivalence, a writer captivated equally by the costs and the enchantments of his homeland’s “terrible beauty.” Cherry-picking a few lines from “Easter 1916” doesn’t exempt WBY from the same criticisms you lob at Heaney, though it does demonstrate how self-questioning can lend a poem complexity, depth, even greatness.

That same New York Review of Books I just paged through to find Seidel includes an article about the thinker Albert O. Hirschman, who proposed that “doubt could be a source not of paralysis and death but of creativity and self-renewal.” Hirschman decried the “overproduction of opinionated opinion,” the profusion of grandiose and ideologically hubristic statements (say, in Harper’s magazine), from which poetry should be a refuge. And what if today’s poets are reluctant to pummel us with Truths About Our Condition? What if they do gaze inward, at least at first, in a way that is less “justifying God’s ways to man” and more “an inner persistence toward the source”? God is dead, anyway, or at least unshakeable truths are. A declamatory poetry may have worked well in Milton’s time, on the comet-tail of the Enlightenment, but these days ambition has to manifest itself differently.

How should it manifest? I can’t pretend to know, but I am delighted by the paradox, in poetry, that more fine-tuned detail produces more relatable and universal verse. That’s because poetry strives for flashes of recognition—connections between the consciousness on the page and the consciousness outside of it. It bridges subjectivities: A keenly observed thought or feeling, one bearing all the traces of a particular mind, nonetheless takes root in your mind. Words that feel palpably alive jolt you, the reader, to life. You could say, maybe, that poetic voice is the expression of a soul, and that souls have porous edges. Or you could say, as Robert Hass does in “Meditation at Lagunitas” (a lyric roundly slammed by you, Mark), “blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.” Hass at once parses the specific objects and adds them together, one, two, three, so that they form a bright totality, united by blackberry-ness. He makes an important claim about how the particular and the general, the individual and the communal, are interfused. But to you, Mark Edmundson, that claim is “simply not good enough.”

You say such gestures “don’t slake a reader’s thirst for meanings that pass beyond the experience of the individual poet and light up the world we hold in common.” But that is exactly what they do. The most personal poetry proves that we share a susceptibility to its music. Our “great human truth” may be that we are all suggestible to one mind’s small flare of illumination, that the world populated by such vivid, numinous voices is the “world we hold in common.”

But, you cry, “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world!” Auden’s tart rejoinder was that “Poetry makes nothing happen.” (“It is a way of happening,” he adds, “a mouth.”) Auden wanted to steer the art away from truth-claims and toward something more flexuous and subtle—a mode, not a message. For Auden, poetry unfolded in hypotheticals, in half-truths and possibilities, toggling between feeling and thought. You may find this subjunctive space wishy-washy and esoteric, but, in it, anything can occur. That is how poets become reformers and activists. That is how change starts. But if it’s not enough for you, if you are still intent on the “legislators of the world,” then put down the anthology and turn on C-SPAN, you crazy person.