After recently seeing some odd material published at the site (though no odder than any other I suppose), I relooked at the article by Dana Goodyear ("The Moneyed Muse") that was written after John Barr had taken the institute’s helm, and announced plans (or the desire) to shake things up a bit. (Obviously the material I had seen is an extenuation of that.) At the time, a lot of people were talking about it; at the time, I was still actively attending “Poetry Faires”, sometimes giving readings, and keeping my ear to the ground to catch the latest (literary) gossip.
The Goodyear piece made reference to a previous article by Steve Evans, which I had not seen at the time (but wish I had), laying out pertinent restructuring factors then occurring in the institutional PoBiz of the day: the essay, “Free (Market) Verse” is worth taking a look at.
Prior to his appointment to head the NEA, I had occasion briefly to correspond with Dana Gioia, and found him courteous, affable, and helpful. I’ve hardly read his own poetry—though was familiar enough with his popular essay “Can Poetry Matter”. Still, I had never thought of the broader picture of trends in the larger poetry world. Ted Koosier remains known to me as the man who, when informed of his appointment to the Poet Laureateship, knocked the side mirror off his car backing it out of the garage, such was his excitement or disconcertion at the news.
Evans examines the three men altogether, and finds commonalities of significance:
Are the skills that allow one to extract profits from a newly deregulated field also useful in the world of poetry? Does the argot of mergers and acquisitions have any purchase in the thickly populated and relatively decentralized territory of twenty-first century verse? It takes but a small feat of metaphorical imagination to get to yes. And it is here that the MBA poets, like Gioia and Barr, have shown some flashes of brilliance largely absent from their poems. For when they cast a cold eye over the poetry industry, over the toilers who staff the increasingly routinized creative-writing programs, churning out two or three thousand MFAs in poetry per annum, they see a market in need of shaking up.
The distinctive project shared by Gioia at the NEA, Barr at the Poetry Foundation, and their partner in several recent projects, Ted Kooser, a former Nebraska insurance underwriter who became U.S. Poet Laureate in 2004, can be summarized rather simply: to deny, disrupt, and discredit existing networks of poetry production, which are seen as pathetically small, disgustingly smug, and—like subsidized farming—crypto-socialist, and to restore to his rightful place of preeminence the reader, referred to alternately as “common” or “general,” who validates good poetry by actually paying for it on the open market and who never did have much use for the linguistic shenanigans of modernism and its successors. As Barr puts it: “by growing the universe of readers who will buy books of poetry, the Foundation hopes to bring economic as well as artistic life to the business of writing poetry.”
The assertion upon which the whole program rests—namely that poetry has somehow shrunk to become the exclusive property of the same latté-sated, wind-surfing, advanced-degree-holding snobs who voted for Kerry—is a fabrication so flimsy as to border on hallucination. But the hallucination is expressive. What it says is that Gioia, Barr, and Kooser, not to mention the folks at the Washington Times, Weekly Standard, and New Criterion who celebrate the poetic regime change, all very much wish that the large and diverse audience for poetry that manifestly does exist today would disappear, so that it could be replaced with a more docile and homogeneous one of their own choosing.
John Ashbury—the poet about whom I have written recently —was a "discovery" of Poetry Magazine. His particular "breed of nonsense" (as Matthew Buckley Smith called it) received the imprimatur of Poetry Magazine's "prestige," and the style continues to be taken seriously in certain quarters. Despite all the academy bashing—and Barr himself taught at Sarah Lawrence—the magazine has never strayed far from institutionally sanctioned verse: just the parameters of that sanction have shifted.
Hence you have conceptual poetry of various stripes— I mentioned that it all felt a little incestuous—even though in Nims' day much of it would not likely have passed muster. (Though Nims had no narrow conception of poetry, under his watch the magazine toed a conservative line). Where once thrived stately literary criticism, today odd creeds are given the imprimatur and name-calling—the most explicitly "anti-establishmentarian" of them reserved for Poetry Foundation's blog Harriet I suppose.
The more things get shaken up the more they stay the same.
"Horseman, pass by!"