Philip Levine's recent appointment as Poet Laureate of the United States is welcome news. Levine is a master of the plain style, and though his poems are more often than not narrative they have a strong metaphorical sense. Whatever story he tells becomes a universal one we all can share. It's not surprising that poems like "What Work Is" and "They Feed They Lion" have made their way beyond his fellow poets to a wider reading public.
Levine's appointment is also timely. Growing up in Detroit, working blue collar jobs that included a stint at the Ford auto plant, he is the quintessential populist poet and a powerful spokesman for the working class. Levine knows what it feels like to stand in line in the rain, knowing "that somewhere ahead a man is waiting who will say, 'No, we're not hiring today.'" He knows that such treatment breeds anger that inevitably ends in violence; when those in power "feed they lion" that lion eventually "comes."
Still, Levine's appointment reminds us that American poetry's future has never been more tenuous. He is, after all, 83 years old. Indeed, most of the living American poets who have achieved wide readership are now senior citizens.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti is 92; Richard Wilbur, 90; Gerald Stern and Maxine Kumin, 86; W.S. Merwin, John Ashbery and Galway Kinnell, 84; X.J. Kennedy and Adrienne Rich, 82; Gary Snyder, 81. The celebrity poets coming up behind them are already in their 70s or close to it: Mary Oliver is 76; Stephen Dunn, 72; Billy Collins, 70; Sharon Olds, 69; Louise Gluck, 68, Kay Ryan, 66.
But surely there are young poetic geniuses waiting in the wings? There are, in fact, more "emerging" poets in their 20s and 30s today than our current 2500-plus poetry journals can publish. College MFA programs are cranking them out by the thousands each year. The cream of the crop get book awards and teaching posts; but, unlike Levine and the other poets just mentioned, none is attracting many readers outside their limited poetry-writing circles.
Are we about to witness an authorial twilight of the gods? Is it GĂ¶tterdĂ¤mmerung time for American poetry?
To answer that question we need to go back fifty years to 1961 when our legendary Modernists were in the gloaming: Robert Frost was 87; Carl Sandburg, 83; William Carlos Williams, 78; Ezra Pound, 76; Marianne Moore and Robinson Jeffers, 74; T.S. Eliot, 73; E.E. Cummings, 67. Within twenty years they were all gone, along with younger Modernists Elizabeth Bishop and W.H. Auden.
But there wasn't a hint of GĂ¶tterdĂ¤mmerung in 1961 because several vibrant poetic revolutions were already underway. In 1955 Alan Ginsberg had published his controversial Howl and Other Poems, followed in 1958 by Ferlinghetti's popular A Coney Island of the Mind. In 1959 Gary Snyder imported Chinese, Japanese, and Zen models in his influential collection Rip Rap. In 1960 Donald Allen published his New American Poetry anthology which introduced readers to "The Beats," "New York School," "Black Mountain," and "San Francisco Renaissance" movements via Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Frank O'Hara, Charles Olsen, Denise Levertov, John Ashbery, Robert Creeley and other strong voices busy transforming America's poetic landscape.
Nor did the excitement end there. In 1959 W.D. Snodgrass published his Pulitzer Prize winning Heart's Needle and Robert Lowell his epoch-making Life Studies and "Confessional" poetry was born. Anne Sexton joined them a year later with To Bedlam and Part Way Back. And by 1962 Sylvia Plath was at work on the poems that would appear posthumously in Ariel and Other Poems, a collection that would have as much impact as any volume of 20th century verse.
These newcomers were not writing as adoring disciples of the Modernist masters. Siegfrieds and Brunhildes on the ramparts, they were profoundly dissatisfied with Valhalla and eager to burn it down. The Modernists and their New Critic supporters didn't speak to their experience and times. They were too reticent about biographical, cultural and political matters and too constrictive and patrician in style. The new wave of poets raised diverse aesthetic hammers and smashed the Modernist mold, forging many distinctive voices, talking about all aspects of their personal lives—sexuality, drugs, war—nothing was off limits. A new generation of readers arose to greet them saying, "Here, at last, is the poetry we've hungered for."
Surprisingly, we have not had a comparable revolution in poetry since the 60s. Oh, there were and still are "the new formalists" and "new narrative" poets—but that's a reinvigorating of a past aesthetic rather than a true revolt. Some will point to the "language poetry" that began back in the 70s (now on life support); but an elitist movement limited to a tiny group of theorists is more terrorism than revolution.
Why has poetry been running in place for fifty years? Why are younger poets content to dance with the ghosts of poetries past? Why is it hard to think of poets now in their 30s or 40s who are likely to achieve the wide readership that Levine and the above mentioned poets enjoy?
Our new poet laureate has himself suggested the answer. Although he attended both Iowa and Stanford back when the workshop concept was new and exciting (and limited to those two universities) no one has expressed more contempt for the hundreds of ho-hum MFA programs operating now than Philip Levine:
"Today, [he writes in The Bread of Time] anyone can become a poet: all he or she has to do is travel to the nearest college and enroll in Beginning Poetry Writing and Semi-Advanced Poetry Writing, all the way to Masterwork Poetry Writing, in which course one completes her epic on the sacking of Yale or his sonnet cycle on the paintings of Edward Hopper, or their elegies in a city dumpster, and thus earns not only an M.F.A. but a crown of plastic laurel leaves."
If, as I have argued, dissatisfaction with existing poetry is essential for the creation of exciting new work, degree-granting MFA programs make true creativity difficult if not impossible.
The programs naturally encourage complacency rather than dissatisfaction. Young poets flock to university campuses to learn from teaching poets because they admire them, often to the point of idolatry. They want to learn to write like their professors who would be masochistic were they to suggest that their own poetry must be rejected before the difficult work of creating authentic new work can begin.
The programs have succeeded in training young poets to be what Ezra Pound calls dilutors—those who write like, but not quite as well as, their mentors. In the nineteenth century the French AcadĂ©mie ruthlessly guarded against upstarts who threatened to subvert their authorized styles. Today, America's Poetry Academy represses innovation by limiting prestigious publication, degrees, prizes, readings, and financial support to a select circle of colleagues and graduate students.
This care and feeding of their own has had the added benefit of marginalizing independent poets who pose the only real threat to the status quo. Lacking guidance from and allegiance to the professionals, independents are more likely to be dissatisfied with program sanctioned poetry than disciples. The most talented among them might question the relevancy of that poetry—and that might put six figure salaries, reading fees, and traveling fellowships in jeopardy.
Independent poets are rarely awarded significant honors by the professionals; their poetry is seldom taught in program workshops; nor are they invited to read at university venues. They are kept offstage, away from the spotlight. Were a young independent poet to write astonishing new poetry not many would get a chance to read it.
So, alas, it may be GĂ¶tterdĂ¤mmerung time for American poetry. Still, we can take heart from the fact that the French AcadĂ©mie eventually failed to stop the Impressionists. I'm confident that sooner or later, the purveyors of mediocrity will fail. Meanwhile I'll pull Wotan and Fricka and Levine down from the shelf and enjoy their excellent verse once again. Who knows? Having just turned 70, I may still be here when Siegfried and Brunhilde come on stage and the next poetic revolution begins.