Externalism in the New Century (Updated 12/28/06)

The concern some younger poets like myself have isn’t about narrative as a poetic form, but about the self-absorption of poetic content in general. Recently, I started on a sort of self-guided tour of contemporary poetry and found myself aghast that so much of what is written and published today (and has been since the late 50’s, early 60’s) is virtually meaningless outside of a poet’s own experience and perspective.

Many of the remarkably few poems that attempt to think outside this confessional-mode box and address real, vital contemporary issues (political, societal, or otherwise) do so from an unresearched and unexperienced perspective that renders the poem impotent. Take, for example, Muldoon’s “Soccer Moms.” Muldoon tries to address a significant contemporary issue (an ongoing perception of the feminine as victims) but his complete lack of research into or experience with the subject turns the poem on its head and provides the opposite effect–that of pity for women who aren’t head-over-heels in love with the feminist movement and make their life choices accordingly.

What some of us propose is a renewed emphasis on external content in poetry. There are a few poets who have managed to publish this kind of significant, meaningful writing and work with their subject matter splendidly, but it might be interesting to see how these poets began and what they were publishing early in their careers. I suspect we would see a focus on individual moments in individual lives and nothing more. These individual moments can be valuable, but without honest reflection on the currents that inform and shape these experiences, poetry contrived from them falls short of its ultimate potential to inspire change.

There was a time when poetry was an educational, philosophical, and even political approach to significant contemporary issues. Poetry during these times was well-regarded with the public and much of it has survived the ages. Volumes of criticism are written about some of it while most contemporary poetry doesn’t get much more than the occasional review. Why? Because there isn’t any substance to analyze.

It’s been said that Mary Oliver is a best-selling poet because the public doesn’t want to hear the truth about our current societal state; however, that theory doesn’t explain the increase in sales of foreign poets like Szymborska who are challenging the status quo in their own nations and perhaps even in ours. I believe the American public would be more responsive to poetry if it was written in terms of both craft and content. Publishers of poetry should take note of the increase in sales in novels, short story collections, creative nonfiction, and even personal essays that address major and often controversial subjects. Poets should take note of this trend, as well.

So the question arises: Is today post-postmodern or something else?  Gary Wilkens answers:

The poets of my generation are still working on that, and will get back to you.  But hints have emerged:

“It is a poetry not centered on technique or intimate experience, but rather the external, contextual elements of human experience. It is not any further squeezing out of 20th century Modernism. As with all movements, it begins in the rejection of its immediate predecessors, ie., Langpo, Confessionalism, and Formalism.

“It considers language eating language to be unproductive and acknowlegdes a world beyond language games.

“It considers the poet’s persona-as-is to be a played-out subject, and aims to put the whole person back into the world of things and away from his/her belly button. Or suicidal tendencies, or difficult mother, or alcoholism, insanity, etc.

“It considers all poetic techniques to be equal tools, and does not promote free verse over meter/form or vice versa.

“It’s not postmodern as it lacks skepticism of language and incredulity concerning metanarratives. Both have served in the past and will serve in the future.

“It is obviously not yet fully formed, but its aim is not to fight the battles of or pursue the obssessions of 20th century poetry.” 

Feel free to comment with an “I agree” or “I disagree.”  I’d love to see some conversation around this subject!

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