Precarious Verse

Duvan, 2011, by jomaform

Why won't poetry hurry up and croak already?

Portions of this essay first appeared at Generation Bubble
This seems to the be the question Kevin Prufer asks in "There Is No Audience for Poetry."
This poem appears in Prufer's 2008 collection, National Anthem.
To ask why poetry won't go gently into that good night is to presume that it isn't already dead. According to Prufer it isn't, though it is putting up one fearsome struggle. Indeed it is raging against the dying of the light, and in a most unbecoming way. The victim's in the trunk, beating his feet to a pulp in fear and desperation as his captors make good their getaway. "They wanted him to stop kicking like that — " Prufer's poem begins: "it made their eyes corkscrew, drilled the sun in the sky / so light dumped out like blood from a leak." These initial few lines whipsaw you with a sudden change of tone. Eyes corkscrewing evoke cartoon delirium — the mustachio-twisting villain KO'ed by Our Hero. Prufer follows this with a rather gruesome, almost inquisitorial image: "corkscrews" give way to a thumbscrew sun augering flesh and bone until blood runs.

For all this violence, "The boy in the trunk wouldn't die." During the course of his captivity he "dented the trunk's tight lid," "pounded the wheel wells with a tire iron" and just generally "banged on and on." His "godalmighty unforgivable" ruckus finally exasperates his captors. Feeling that "they had no choice but to pull into the woods, leave the car, try to hitch a a ride with someone / quieter," they abandon him — poetry — in the hope that the torrid afternoon will finish the dirty business. "But from far away they still heard him," Prufer's speaker remarks in closing, "the boy / in the trunk, his empty cry."

"There Is No Audience for Poetry" shares its spirit of callous inhumanity with an earlier poem, Sylvia Plath's "Morning Song

This poem appears in Plath's 1966 collection, Ariel.
." The empty cry issuing from the boy in the trunk recalls a similar sound noted by the speaker in Plath's work. "The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry / Took its place among the elements."  Childbirth, a painful, blood-soaked affair, breeds sequelae that are also necessarily violent; the midwife's slap rouses the newly delivered fetus from its placental sleep so that it may take its place among the elements.

The same terse matter-of-factness of Prufer's poem characterizes Plath's: She seeks not to elevate but deflate her subject, strip it of any affective adornment. The groping toward recognition of a newborn's humanity enacted in "Morning Song" is a reminder that supposed givens in relationships are anything but. "Love set you going like a fat gold watch," the poem's first line reads — the work of connubial pistoning communicated to its end-product, in which that energy is captured and sustained: Newtonian sex.

Hovering between creation and creature, the newborn at first encourages radical disidentification: "I'm no more your mother / Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow / Effacement at the winds hand," the speaker protests with postpartum perversity. Incipient maternal affection, at this point no more than a vapor, dispels at being touched by winds of defiant individuality. But then from her bedroom the speaker hears her baby's "moth-breath" as it "[f]lickers among the flat pink roses" presumably adorning the nursery wallpaper. The sound proves force enough to rouse ancient currents of maternal instinct. "A far sea moves in my ear," the speaker remarks. Borne by these currents irresistibly to her baby, she finds herself discharging her maternal duty, albeit in a perfunctorily mammalian manner: "One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral / In my Victorian nightgown. / Your mouth opens clean as a cat's." Through mother and child anima moves in one monistic lurch, linking organ to organ — mothers milk-laden breast to the child's eager mouth — as well as affect to affect: the mother's suddenly blossoming love to the child's kitten-like satiety.

These linkages at the level of trope are subsequently doubled in the poem's form. The fifth stanza tumbles headlong into the sixth and final, the enjambment casting off metaphorics of the animal as it goes.

The window square
Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.

Maternal identification also rides the dawn's light. Humanity comes rushing in to swallow the speaker's earlier metaphors of distance and distaste as the early light swallows dull stars. The child has wriggled out of a grim ontology of brute facts and the fact of brutes. Formerly offering distressed animal cries, the child now voices "notes" and "clear vowels," the constituents of music and language. Neither mechanism nor beast any longer, the child in her mother's eyes is properly a child at last.

Plath's poem seems to argue that such recognition is not a point of departure but a destination, one that comes within reach only after eons of development are rehearsed in extreme compression. Yet if a relationship as fundamental as that of mother and child is a destination and not an origin, it's eminently worth whatever it takes to get there, for there waits the equipment for fully realized humanity — not merely the rudiments of speech but that of poetry, speech transfigured by communion with music, notes sounded in clear vowels.

Poetry as speech transfigured — which is to say, speech elevated above merely pragmatic communication — is a wonderful characterization as far as it goes, but it leaves you wondering if humankind has hung a halo on the genre only to send it flitting off to heaven. "The idea that poetry is the deadest of the dying arts, an airless attic where overwrought metaphors go to dry up and drop their wings, is perennial," observes a recent newspaper article

"Is poetry dead? Or, in the age of the Internet, does it offer us what nothing else can?," by Lauren Wilcox, The Washington Post, January 13, 2012
. At the back of this idea lurks "a rich vein of suspicion nationwide that the last time poetry really mattered was long ago, perhaps sometime in the ’50s, when poets were literary celebrities and household names, and schoolchildren knew reams of verse by heart." Allen Ginsberg howled and a nation pricked up its ears.

The Beat vogue was, however, the crest of a general wave of enthusiasm for verse. "It’s true that the mid-20th century was a heyday of sorts for American poetry," the article continues. "Poets were published and reviewed in daily newspapers and general-interest magazines, and their book releases were significant events." Fast-forward 60 years and you find that the silence greeting such events is as total as the earlier buzz was deafening. These days, most poets and midlist literary fiction writers have attained the status of Sasquatch, believed to exist but rarely sighted; while young-adult writers populate Parnassus, having earned lavish praise and fat advances in their ascent.

The oligopoly of literary tastemakers for the teen set comes as no surprise, given how they have become Hollywood's go-to outsourcing solution. Young-adult novels not only present themselves as eminently filmable — lacking the complex, often contradictory shadings and subtleties of adult literary fare — but also eminently leverageable. They have become vertically integrated properties precision-crafted to capture huge amounts of babysitting money. The culture industry has twisted open the taps, and out has poured a steady torrent of spell-casting ephebes and bloodsucking adolescents to slake the thirst of teens and teens-at-heart. "What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open / their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?" Ginsberg asks in his famous poem. For him, the answer was "Moloch the incomprehensible prison"; for the innumerable devotees of all things Potter and Katniss, it's Mammon the irresistible cineplex.

This eating-up of brains and imaginations has worn on now for many years — indeed, at least since Ginsberg's heyday. His assessment suggests that even when poetry enjoyed a wide audience, there was no audience for poetry. Ike-Likers loved more the idea of poetry than poetry itself, if for no other reason than it served as evidence of the nation's general prosperity. Cultures that esteem poetry seem to be of two types: those that rely on it to transmit values from one generation to the next, and those that call on it to celebrate its attitudes and accomplishments. In critic M.H. Abrams's terms, for the first kind of society, poetry functions as a lamp; for the second it is a mirror

The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (1953)
. But what sort of home furnishing verse could be for culture today remains an open question.

Part of the problem is that rather than means of illumination or medium for contemplation, poetry now represents an item of consumption, a geegaw to marvel at for its technical sophistication. The poetry-reading public, whatever remains of it, is expected to cast an appreciative if not entirely understanding eye on a poem as a feat of engineering virtuosity, much the same way magazine ads for the Audi A6 caress readers with its list of technical specs or the way wonks at Wired rhapsodize the latest Apple device. Positioned this way, poetry becomes language performance so rarefied from ordinary speech that it makes necessary a class of experts to mediate its effects. To appreciate this fact you need only consider the opening paragraphs of this essay, which engage in a lot of interpretive spadework in order to excavate themes of a genre's demise ("There Is No Audience for Poetry") and the temporary psychosis symptomatic of postpartum depression ("Morning Song").

This need for mediation spawned an entire industry of poetry creation and criticism that caters primarily to itself. Dana Gioia's remains the classic statement on this situation. "American poetry now belongs to a subculture," Gioia writes

"Can Poetry Matter?" (1992)

No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group. Little of the frenetic activity it generates ever reaches outside that closed group. As a class poets are not without cultural status. Like priests in a town of agnostics, they still command a certain residual prestige. But as individual artists they are almost invisible.

Poets write for, read and respond primarily to other poets. If poetry has entered a terminal stage of irrelevance, its dispatch no doubt owes something to its professionalization. The observation made in the title of Prufer's poem, "There Is No Audience for Poetry," reflects the fact that when everyone involved in the creation, publication, and criticism of verse is a poet, the very notion of what it means to write and read verse undergoes a profound change. The genre loses vitality, and virtuosity loses its ability to electrify, becoming a disinterested display of acumen such as you might witness in an anatomical theater. Prufer's conceit of kidnapping and murder are particularly apposite for the poetry industry, which requires a steady stream of cadavers.


Though regrettable, the professionalization of poetry isn't all that surprising. The genre has simply gone the way of all flesh in postindustrial capitalism. Chapbooks, anthologies, selections, and collections of verse circulate in an economy not so different from the commercial paper moving about in the circuits of high finance. As with derivatives, the traffic in poems takes place among a small, exclusive club of players who determine valuations that are incomprehensible outside its confines. Rather than an "inexhaustible artifact," as Mark Strand puts it

The Weather of Words (1999)
, poetry becomes as poor an index of creative verve as the Dow Jones Industrial Average is of the net worth of Joe and Josephine Six-Pack, and poems just so many exotic structured linguistic vehicles.

The exotic character of poetry, by which it is defined a priori, has done much to encourage this development. Remarks made by Paul Valéry in poetry's 1950s heyday suggests that this development was an inevitability. He writes "that of all arts ours is perhaps one which coordinates the greatest number of independent factors or parts

Paul Valéry, "Poetry and Abstract Thought" (1954)
." He lists these as "sound, meaning, reality and imagination, logic, syntax, and the double-invention of depth and form." Unlike painting or sculpting, the material of poetry is that of everyday communication — "the common language," as Valéry himself calls it — which is made to leap in place, achieving in the execution uncommon complexity and richness. Poetic effect rests on defamiliarization, although not necessarily as a preliminary to alienation but to its overcoming. Just as the speaker of Plath's "Morning Song" needed to inhabit the attitude of alienation she presents for most of the poem, the reader needs to inhabit the bewilderment that usually follows an encounter with a poem. Neo is led to the room in which he is offered the red pill. He takes the red pill and is shown how far down the rabbit hole goes.

Neo needs his Morpheus to guide him, however, just as Dante needed his Virgil. Poets, like everyone else under the late-capitalist sun, must justify their continued existence in terms of productivity. And what better justification can they find than in the typical university creative-writing program, in which they can offer their services as both masters of their craft and exegetes? The Masters of Fine Arts program functions as a factory dedicated to industrializing poetry's esteem while valorizing the material that passes through it, both poems and poets. "Receiving an MFA does not certify you as a poet," Robert Bly argued decades ago

American Poetry: Wildness and Domesticity (1990)
, "but it certifies that you are no longer a blue-collar person."

Of course, we are then grateful to the Lord of the Castle who lifted us out of the beet fields. So these ... like-sounding poets produced at Iowa of St. Marks resemble those parties of governmental officials in Chekhov or Tolstoy, talking quietly, so glad to be able to wear white gloves."

For poets, esteem is the wage won — and often hard-won at that. Yet through it all they risk censure for being slackers or shirkers. One is reminded of lines from the opening stanza of William Butler Yeats’s poem, "Adam's Curse" (1903):

I said, "A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world."

Kept out of view in appropriately discreet bourgeois manner is the perspiration that accompanies the lightning flash of inspiration. Thus purblind, one might suspect that the end of a poet's efforts is not the articulation of sweet sounds together but communication into a plum sinecure at a liberal arts college somewhere. Newly minted MFAs would certainly prefer not to return to the beet fields, after all. Who would?

Emancipation from the beet fields for a foremanship at the MFA factory is all that's truly at stake, it would seem. It turns out that the culture hasn't deviated from Abrams's mirror-lamp metaphorics all that much. For all its ostensible irrelevance, for all its professionalized rarefaction, poetry remains every bit as much a mirror as it ever was — a mirror of production.

The phrase "mirror of production" comes from Jean Baudrillard, who developed it in critiquing Marx for being insufficiently radical. Captive to a producerist bias, Marx failed to see labor itself as alienating. Baudrillard deems this a poetic failure, because Marx never conjured new terms and tropes to replace those minted by bourgeois economists. Instead of throwing a light on the means and methods of possible revolt, Marx simply held a mirror up to prevailing conditions, leaving the multitude to console itself with "a fable of political economy

The Mirror of Production (1975)
" that is subsequently "retold to generations of revolutionaries infected even in their political radicalism by the conceptual viruses of this same political economy."

Poetry may wander in outer darkness, culturally speaking, and may indeed be in its death throes as a literary form, but even in its marginal and moribund state it continues to reproduce at the level of discourse existing political, social and economic relations and will continue to do so until that darkness completely claims it.


It may be that poetry is finding not its death but its apotheosis in the post-industrial economy, devoted to the production of information, services and affects rather than commodities and goods. The previous era's assembly lines and repetitive tasks haven't been so much surpassed as sublimated: "All ... workers enter into production in as much as they are speaking — thinking

A Grammar of the Multitude (2004)
," Paolo Virno insists. "This has nothing to do ... with 'professionality' or with the ancient concept of 'skill' or 'craftsmanship,'" he adds: "to speak/to think are generic habits of the human animal, the opposite of any sort of specialization." These generic habits of the human animal delineate the field of value creation, the so-called social factory, coextensive with society itself. Human habits of thinking and speaking are conscripted into enriching an elite few in what amounts to a wholesale appropriation of "the social brain," or "the general intellect." "The general intellect corresponds to the moment in which the banal human capacity of thinking with words becomes the main productive force of matured capitalism," Virno writes elsewhere . Banal, generic, yet altogether indispensable for being so, every person in the developed world puts money in someone else's pocket simply by expressing her humanity. Every use of language is a creative act — is in essence poetry.

If every use of language in the social factory is poetry, then none is — at least according to conventional sense. What's dying is not poetry per se, but poetry-as-institution, a residual formation if there ever were one. Dying along with it are the  distinctions that aided up-and-coming poets in their flight from the hated beet fields, distinctions that, as poet Annie Finch pointed out, have social media to blame for their erasure. "What does it mean that, for the first time in the history of poetry, a poet can maintain anything like awareness, let alone a sense of connection, to such a gigantic number of other poets?" she asked in a 2009 blog post

. "Not only do we have instant access to reading their work online, we can also develop some kind of social awareness of them, whether through meeting them at conferences and readings or simply through browsing Facebook updates and YouTube clips." It could very well mean a return to the beet fields, as salvation in the form of  a sweet gig at Birkenstock College has gotten tougher to come by.

Poets thus find themselves in the same predicament as everyone else who's trying to earn a living. Finch puts a decidedly positive face on it. She mentions "prizewinners and students and even the deceased ... all merrily juxtaposed by the great equalizer of the alphabet" and concludes, "This is something new in the life of poetry, and I’m excited to be part of it and to see where it may take us." A similar equalization is at work in the early stanzas of Plath's "Morning Song," a sense of estrangement so stark that orgasm becomes simply the brute effort to set ticking a fat gold watch of an infant. This equalization is a reduction of all persons and things to the common denominator of bare phenomena — bald cries, elements, echoes, drafts, distillation. Submitted to this reduction, persons and things have trimmed from them their distinctiveness, the qualities that set them apart as unique or remarkable.

The impulse behind this method of organization is clear: It sidesteps evaluative, potentially pejorative, connotations. If poets must be organized, best that it were done in the most bland and indifferent way. Yet as those familiar with the work of Michel Foucault know, even a supposedly bland and indifferent way of organizing involves an exercise of power. The power exercised in the present instance — grouping poets alphabetically for easier online access — is the power to bracket considerations of literary merit, a poet's inherent quality, for the first letter of a poet's last name, a pure accident. Such juxtaposition is indeed a consequence of social media, but whether this juxtaposition is a merry one remains in question. The equalization apparent in alphabet arrangement, as Foucault writes,

manages "to suspend, neutralize, or invert the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect." In the social-media-determined society envisioned by Finch, arrangement vis-à-vis other versifiers comes down not to any ranking in terms of relative excellence, superiority or inferiority but to whether your last name happens to begin with "B," "L" or "W."

Alphabetically arranged, poets find the hierarchical relations neutralized — if indeed not inverted — in order to discourage judgment, promote inclusivity, and protect feelings. If, as Finch suggests, such is an aspect of "the new life of poetry," you wonder if any self-respecting poets would really want to live it. The equalization undergone by process of alphabetization, like the equalization of all persons and things to the common denominator of bare phenomena, bears a resemblance to  the 19th-century industrial worker. Marx writes of "the separation of the intellectual faculties of the production process from manual labour

Capital, Vol.1 (1867)
," which ends up with these faculties coming to reside with the capitalist and his managers. "The special skill of each individual machine-operator," meanwhile, is, well, suspended or neutralized. Pari passu with the deskilling of work is the notion of the "unskilled" worker, who, as such, sees evaporate his bargaining power. He stands helpless before the capitalist, who employs him in this condition and imposes on him "a barrack-like discipline, which is elaborated into a complete system in the factory."

The post-Fordist moment has seen not the disappearance of the factory but its ascension to a dominant trope and ordering principle. The social factory is, after all, a factory, so you'd expect its same disciplinary urge to be everywhere manifest. Knowing this, contemporary poets would be wise to reject the seemingly innocuous, nonpejorative arranging to which Facebook and other social media would submit them. If they ought not rest on their laurels, they should at any rate insist on them.

And that means insisting on the skills that won them. They must vie against the prevailing socioeconomic attitudes that seek to diminish their specialization in favor of their generic habits, to reduce them to just so many atoms of a teeming, speaking, thinking, and — most important — value-producing multitude. Broken to the ranks of an immaterially laboring articulariat, poets lose the petit-bourgeois distinction that accrued to them in earlier Fordist days. Back to the beet fields they march to toil shoulder-to-shoulder with their fellow human animals in the production and valorization of words, thoughts, signs, and affections.

The image of the indolent versifier that Yeats so strenuously argues against is still a prevailing opinion about poets and in turn has informed the general lament of Prufer's poem. The best that can be hoped for at this point is that Prufer's observation that there is no audience for poetry in true only in the sense that it's inevitable that no considerable collection of people shows itself ready and willing to hear or read poetic works. Since the advent of the novel — and, later, cinema, radio and television — the form has found itself under assault. A genre expressly devoted to the aesthetic possibilities of its medium, language, appears absurdly out of place in an era of accelerating email, text messaging and YouTube. It may be just as inevitable that there is no audience for poetry because no one is ready and willing to take up its cause, but that's far more depressing to contemplate.

Percy Shelley famously asserted that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind, but they've since been stripped of their gavels and handed shovels. Alain Badiou claimed that "the complete devaluation of manual work" figures as one aspect of "a debased consensus regarding a state of things as changeable as the weather ... yet apparently shaped by inflexible and interminable external constraint

Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (2001)
." There is no audience for poetry. If you can agree that this is the case, then you may just have taken the first step toward building a new consensus, one in which standing for poetry means standing for every individual indulging his generic habits under conditions of post-Fordist alienation, one in which the restoration of the poet's dignity is likewise the restoration of every worker's.