Dec 10, 2007

The Condition of Literature

Twenty-five years after assessing literary culture for its inaugural issue, Joseph Epstein (pictured) has come out with his new take on the state of our current literary culture in the September New Criterion. It is a sprightly overview of Epstein’s opinions on where we now stand, mostly in America, with asides on England and Europe, at least concerning those better-known authors who appear to have a chance of becoming canonical in some sense. But the meaning of that term to Epstein is dubious and problematic: he doesn’t appear to be willing to consider literary art in terms other than commercial success, as shown by his discussing only writers of best sellers, as if they only form the core of literary culture. The essay can be found at:

In one section of the essay Epstein discusses poetry, and I found his views worth perusing and even compelling at times. He offered an arresting quotation from the New York Times Book Review (which I had missed because I seldom bother with the NYTRB’s feeble reviews of feeble, shoddy poetry) from some reviewer on the freedom of poets nowadays:

The strength of American poetry depends on the fact that hardly anybody notices it. To emerging poets, eager for an audience, this marginality may seem frustrating, but it is the source of their freedom. Because nothing is at stake except the integrity of their medium, poets may write about anything in any way, from decorously rhymed couplets to sonically driven nonsense.

It takes a moment before it hits you how hilarious those words are. Epstein adds this comment, “Nobody notices -- what a strange strength, what an odd advantage!” But it’s not only that few notice the ersatz poetry written in our time -- the stuff I call prosetry or, more properly, prosetic musing. It’s also that even fewer pay much attention to good poetry, real poetry, when it comes along. Epstein’s taste, almost certainly, does not fall along Wintersian lines. In fact, he seems to have his own taste for garbage, the manufacture of which seems so unstoppable. He mentions five poets whom he claims are still worth reading(1), who are writing important work today. The five are a dubious lot (and they bring into question Epstein’s critical judgment). Galway Kinnell: has anyone seen anything significant from this flaccid muser? Kay Ryan: a devotée of the very short poems, very short lines, and oddball observations; he has written nothing that interests me at all. Joshua Weiner: does anyone know any good poem to come from this free verse muser? Peter Porter: an Englishman who writes in loose meters and occasional rhyming stanzas; he might have written a good peom or two; is any modern classicist impressed with his work? Tim Steele: the one sound recommendation in Epstein’s group. Steele is a formalist, influenced to a small degree by Winters and more by later members of the Stanford School. He has written some fine poems, though I have my doubts that Steele has achieved anything truly great so far. Still, I think he's up to good things.

Notably, Epstein mentions to William Logan’s recent summary judgment on Hart Crane’s poetry with disapproval. (Logan writes frequent verse chronicles for the New Criterion.) Logan’s judgment was, surprisingly, largely negative -- surprising because Crane has become an object of hagiographical devotion in recent decades. This is the first mention I’ve seen to Logan’s contrarian piece (though there might be others that I’ve missed), which I discussed on this blog some months ago. I find Crane overrated, but others of the Stanford School disagree. John Fraser includes some of his poetry in the important quasi-Stanford-School anthology A New Book of English Verse (see the link in the right column). Epstein seems to think that Logan’s harsh handling of Crane was a colossal mistake, a sign itself of the ills poetry is suffering. But I consider Logan’s piece one tiny sign that the sorrowful crossing of poetry into the Hades of prosetry might not be imminent. Still, let me reassure you, I do not expect a full recovery to health for poetry. The only present hope for classicists of any stripe is in the development of Wintersian or classicist enclaves sheltered from the lures of prosetry.

All in all, I found Epstein’s essay worth reading. I hope you’ll check it out.


(1) How many times have you read a critic’s list of five or six or seven worthy poets writing today that matches no other list of five or seven that you’ve seen? This must have happened to me more than a hundred times in my life. There seem to be thousands of published poets, to speak only of the U.S., but few poets or critics agree on who is writing the best poetry (almost all of which isn’t even poetry to a classicist). I have looked up hundreds of poets whom I have read about in these breathlessly impassioned lists, only to feel my own jaw drop in disbelief that I have been guided to the discovery of yet one more set of five prosetic musers who work is worthless. Epstein’s list yields a few more.

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