The contrast between the health of poetry in Britain and the US is striking. American poetry has been butchered by the professorsby Michael Lind / July 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2001 issue of Prospect Magazine
at the beginning of the 21st century, the contrast between the relative health of poetry in Britain and its dire condition in the US is striking. In Britain, the Poet Laureate is known if not always respected and the selection of the Professor of Poetry at Oxford makes the newspapers; in the US, nobody can tell you the name of the Poet Laureate (answer: Stanley Kunitz). The best British poets, such as Seamus Heaney, James Fenton, Charles Causley, Tony Harrison and Wendy Cope, use traditional verse techniques in innovative ways to write about a range of subjects in a variety of genres, including political satire and light verse. In the US, by contrast, almost all of the prestige poetry is written in the early 20th-century mode of “free verse”-that is to say, lines of prose chopped up at arbitrary points-and almost all of it consists of relatively short poems, usually a domestic epiphany or a description of a scene or item as its subject. Hardly anyone writes poetry in the US other than professors-and hardly anybody reads it, other than the professors who write it.
The collapse of American poetry into the black hole of academic obscurity is a process that has been occurring for half a century. As recently as the 1920s and 1930s, poets like Robert Frost and Robinson Jeffers were celebrities. Edna St Vincent Millay had her own radio programme. The book-length narrative poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson and Stephen Vincent Benet were bestsellers. Between the wars, as in the 19th century, American poets were more likely to be journalists, men of letters, or even public figures than professors-John Quincy Adams, the sixth president, translated Horace.
All of this changed when a gang of professors hijacked American poetry. TS Eliot and Ezra Pound-two expatriate Americans with PhDs-inspired several generations of literary intellectuals to believe that, in Eliot’s words, “poets in our civilisation, as it exists at present, must be difficult.” Their idea of difficulty was baffling readers with untranslated bits of Sanskrit (Eliot) and Mandarin Chinese (Pound) and writing poems that could not be read, only deciphered, sometimes with the help of footnotes like those the author appended to The Waste Land. This was new. Greek and Roman and Renaissance poets, like those of the 18th century and the Victorian period, had sometimes used allusions that would baffle the ignorant, but they counted on being understood by educated contemporaries. Even the Alexandrians of Ptolemy’s Egypt, like Callimachus, who have come to symbolise mandarinism in art, wrote poetry that courtiers and generals of the Hellenistic era with a basic liberal education could appreciate.