Poetry’s Revival and Mr. Wilson

James Matthew Wilson may never make the late-night circuit, but the poems he likes to read and write will be the ones that people continue to like to read.

Poet and critic James Matthew Wilson. (Images: www.jamesmatthewwilson.com)

Poetry used to be where, literarily speaking, it was at. For much of the last century, however, to talk about poetry has been to talk about a subject that has grown increasingly far from the center of American, British, and indeed most cultural life. G. K. Chesterton desired to be remembered as a poet but often observed that even in his day nobody was remembered as a poet. He died in 1936. Flannery O’Connor was similarly cynical about the art, observing in a 1956 letter, “I think it must be easier on the nerves to publish poetry because it’s not generally misunderstood as it’s not generally read.” In his famous essay “Can Poetry Matter?” Dana Gioia began by observing of the American scene that poetry now “belongs to a subculture”:

No longer part of 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.

This reality is perhaps not understood by many people, even poets themselves. For them, Gioia’s adaptation of Russell Jacoby’s definition of a famous intellectual, applied: “a ‘famous’ poet now means someone famous only to other poets.” While there had been a “boom” of poetry in the 1980s through the 2000s, this boom had been largely invisible to the broader reading public. Jeremy Spencer, a publisher of poetry through his Scrambler Books, wrote in a 2015 essay about getting into the publishing business. He recounted seeking the counsel of a veteran of publishing before he formally started. Reb Livingston of No Tell Books gave plenty of advice about publishing in general, but her words about publishing poetry were what struck him most, words that she later wrote down for others. Livingston’s best-selling poetry book was written by an established poet who had published in national magazines and managed to get her work taught in some university classes. It sold 228 copies. Over four years. Livingston observes that books by new poets often sell around 25 to 30 copies.

This is the reality of poetry publishing. There are certainly presses that sell more copies. A poetry title reviewed in The New York Times can sell 2-4k copies, it is true. But small, independent presses, those small shops, usually run by one or a few people, rarely see those kinds of sales. University presses, for the most part, don’t see those kinds of numbers for poetry. I attended a panel by the publisher of Grove/Atlantic and he said his press’[s] poetry sales [were] around 800 per title. They publish “big-name” poets, their books are often shelved by chain bookstores, they have good distribution, a strong reputation . . . and that’s what they sell. Publishing poetry is their charity–their poetry titles are subsidized by their fiction and non-fiction sales.

Spencer was not deterred by this reality. He reported that in the seven years of operation Scrambler Books had published sixteen volumes of poetry.

Yet as far as poetry has moved from the center of life, it is, like the fellow in the Monty Python sketch who is being prematurely tossed onto the cart of corpses, “not dead yet.” Even more, like that unfortunate soul it has been “getting better” since Spencer’s 2015 essay throwing cold water in the face of poets who thought that they could get famous or even moderately rich on their verse. Reports from Britain in 2018 noted that poetry sales had increased by sixty-six percent since 2013, meaning that in that five-year period more than a million poetry books had been purchased.

This was not just a British phenomenon. In the U.S., poetry had a kind of boomlet, much of which came from poets who had taken their craft out of sleepy quarterly journals and into the world of Instagram. Rupi Kaur was the biggest success in this category. In 2018, Faith Hill and Karen Yuan of the Atlantic reported that Kaur’s 2015 collection, milk & honey (yes, uncapitalized in the style of e. e. cummings), had been translated into forty languages. In 2017, it had edged around an epic by a reputedly-blind ancient Greek poet and titled The Odyssey to become the year’s best-selling book of poetry with over 3.5 million volumes sold. That’s a bit better than 228.

Poetry had moved from subcultural undercard to cultural main event. Yet for reasons ranging from professional jealousy to legitimate concern for their craft, many poets were not themselves happy about this sudden shift.

The Atlantic article referred to the long-time cleavage between two different literary worlds: the one centered in universities, their presses, and MFA programs, and the other in the New York-based publishing world. The rise of Kaur, Leav Langan, Cleo Wade, and other poets whose fame came from social media had introduced a third party in the dispute over poetry. One does not have to be too cynical to see that what was going on in such fights perhaps had less to do with quality concerns than it did with attention being paid and revenue being delivered. Those who attained success in the MFA/university world may not have made it on Broadway, but they were often able to achieve positions as professors and writing instructors that guaranteed not only benefits but a place on the writing circuit that was, if not as glamorous as those appearing at the 92nd Street Y or other New York hotspots, still respectable and lucrative. As Gioia had put it in the early 1990s, “Never has it been so easy to earn a living as a poet.”

What the Instagram poets did was create another instance of what writer David Brooks has called “SID,” “Status-Income Disequilibrium.” What Brooks was referring to was the change that happens when people who are in a “titled” class suddenly find that others who have not become similarly socially titled are making much more money and getting much more fame for doing the same things. And while the titled classes of the literary world, whether from the Ivory Tower kingdom or that of Literary Gotham, can easily look down on the poets of internet fame, it must be tough to see them, in the argot of our day, not just earning a living but “making serious bank.” Many of these poets are now touting sales numbers that more closely resemble those of grocery store thrillers. They are also hawking mugs and other artifacts imprinted with their own poetry. In his online shop, the poet Atticus sells items ranging from a $35 poster to a $174 “talisman.” Hill and Yuan observe:

The ever-growing popularity of these [Instagram] poets also makes them valuable to other brands, providing newer and bigger ways to commodify their words. Cleo Wade’s poetry has been featured in Gucci advertisements, emblazoned on Nike sneakers, and scrawled across dishes sold by boutique homeware stores. During last February’s New York Fashion Week, the designer Tracy Reese had models strut to poetry readings on the catwalk. Even the insurance firm Nationwide is getting in on the trend; it recently released a series of commercials in which poets wax on about the miracle of a mortgage.

Even worse, they are now the ones who are being asked to represent poetry in public. The cultural dukes and duchesses are now being ignored in favor of interloping nouvelles littéraires.

But if the criticism of the Insta-poets is probably not entirely about the quality of their work, it is certainly about that. The British poet Rebecca Watts wrote a scathing piece titled “The Cult of the Noble Amateur” in which she took down these figures with particular reference to fellow Briton Hollie McNish, arguing that such amateurs have sacrificed the priority of craft and language for a kind of ill-governed emotional immediacy. “McNish’s poems consist of assemblages of words that relate to familiar topics. Their effect is limited to recognition, which merely reinforces the reader or audience member’s sense of selfhood. As McNish and her critics acknowledge, her fans are drawn to the poems by the themes—sex, relationships and perceived social inequalities—as well as by McNish’s ‘unpretentious’ presentation, where unpretentious means abundant in expletives and unintimidating to anyone who considers ignorance a virtue.”  She cites the opening of McNish’s “Midsomer Murders,” a poetic analysis of the British detective show:

there’s so much blood on the streets
why do we love to wade in it?
behind the safety of tv screens
we dip toes wet to the limits
it’s the underside of life
we like to lick a little for some reason
obsess over lips, spill, red, kissing death
camera shots zoomed
into actors’ faces screaming

Watts observes that this is one of McNish’s more poetic poems, “actually superior to her usual style of garbled literal statements with the odd approximate rhyme thrown in.”

Watts notes that McNish’s own publisher was reported to have sent her a lot of poems since McNish seemed unaware of any tradition into which her own individual talent (which Watts thinks small) could actually find a place. She wonders if McNish bothered to read any of them.

Watts’ critiques of McNish and other Insta-poets strike a chord with me. Read any of the works of other poet-celebrities such as Kaur, Cleo Wade, or Atticus, and one finds that they often resemble the wisdom of fortune cookies in the style of greeting cards or posters that one finds in a sixth-grade classroom. Here’s a typical Rupi Kaur offering:

people say things
meant to rip you in half
but you hold the power to not
turn their words into a knife
and cut yourself.

True as the sentiment is, “Sticks and stones may break my bones/but words will never hurt me” is still better poetry.

At their best the Insta-poets have something approximating the juvenile poetry of Chesterton. Here’s Atticus on love.

When I look at you
I find it hard to believe
that the whole universe had not conspired
to bring you life
I cannot think of a more beautiful reason
for it all to exist
than you in this day.

Flannery O’Connor once observed that in comparison Ayn Rand made “Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.” Wading through Cleo Wade’s online “greatest” poems (like those of the others, easily searchable), I find that Atticus and Rupi Kaur suddenly seem like Rumi and Emily Dickinson:

we can
be more
when
we take a minute
to
stop thinking
and
start feeling.

Whatever ill feelings Ms. Watts has about the celebrity and net worth of such figures (her website indicates she makes extra money by running poetry workshops and charging aspiring poets £10 per page for criticism), she is not wrong about their poems’ quality. Or perhaps, to court the emblazoned mug-and-talisman market, I could say:

I do think
and also feel strongly
they really do
stink.

Watts suspects that the middle-aged critics who used to, well, criticize such poets and now celebrate them are motivated by the desire to appeal to a kind of “inverse snobbery” that takes on elites. Her ritual invoking of the assumed evils of Donald Trump indicates, however, that old-fashioned elite snobbery is still alive, too. I suspect that critics lauding such figures are motivated by several other concerns, however. The first is the desire to appear hip and happening. Fetishization of the young is a tried-and-true tactic of fogeys attempting to stay in the game. Second and relatedly, a number of these poets are themselves very beautiful young women. (Atticus is likely not a handsome man, but he has created a sense of mystery by appearing publicly only with a dramatic mask.) Given that the critics changing their minds are not just middle-aged but often male, the suspicion arises that hanging around young women who, if they were working at the insurance agency, wouldn’t give them the time of day, provides a further corrupting incentive to critics on the make. Third, the critics themselves might be more aware than the poets that though most Insta-poetry is dreck, it leads other people to wonder about poetry and perhaps read real poetry. Kaur’s publisher observes that poetry was for a long time at the back of bookstores. Now it is at the front: “And that naturally helps sales of all poets. The classics and other contemporary poets are selling.” Never forget the power of ads that tell you, “If you liked this book, try this other one.”

Though I agree with Rebecca Watts’ judgments of the Insta-poets, it must not go unmentioned that part of the reason why the sometimes-true-but-always-banal product of the Insta-poets has popular appeal is that both the Ivory Tower and New York (or London) kingdoms of the titled poets have been stuck in a rut for a long time. One cause of this rut has to do with the character of the poets and another to do with the character of the poems. While Watts complains of the ego- and personality-driven nature of the Insta-poets, it is worth remembering that the titled-class they have usurped was similarly afflicted. As Gioia observed, earlier famous poets such as Dylan Thomas would give poetry readings in which they spent half their time reading other poets’ work, while by the last decade of the twentieth century, “most readings [were] celebrations less of the poetry than of the author’s ego.”

Because of the consistency of vicious pride in the human ego, though, it is more likely that the character of the poems themselves bears the most burden of blame. While Walt Whitman’s and T. S. Eliot’s poetry will probably live on for many a day, the verse of too many poets, “free” as it was of rhyme, fixed meter, and any organization of its rhythm for so long, was part of what led to poetry’s near death in the first place. While my grandmother, who taught school in a one-room schoolhouse in Indiana during World War I, had learned by heart poems by Tennyson, Longfellow, and others, later generations had little poetry memorized, perhaps because much contemporary poetry was simply not memorable because not memorizable. The American critic Keith Preston’s satirical quatrain is apropos.

Of all the literary scenes
Saddest this sight to me:
The graves of little magazines
Who died to make verse free.

In a literary universe of complicated free verse that most people don’t “get,” the fortune cookie/schoolroom poster version of poetry on offer today is at least comprehensible. The Godfather of the eponymous films made people offers they could not refuse. Most of the titled poets offered their readers poetry they could not even understand.

While their poetry may not land them on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, there has been a renaissance of poets whose critical intelligence and gut says that if you love verse, the one thing that you must not do is set it all free. Their judgments are that traditional and fixed forms are, as Chesterton said of Christian morality, not the bars of a prison but the walls of a playground. Some go by the name “new formalist” and some do not, but they all see that free verse is also cheap. The New Criterion Poetry Prize, begun in 2000 and given annually “for a poetry collection that pays close attention to form,” has given“a more reliable indicator of readability than most other poetry prizes.” (https://www.freeweekly.com/2010/11/25/finding-form-for-god-and-hell/) The insights banalized by Rupi, Hollie, Cleo, Atticus, et al., can be made immediate and subtle in the hands of true craftsmen.

Unlike Hollie McNish, these poets have read other poets and consider themselves part of a tradition that includes greats of the long past and also recent poets such as Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, Robert Lowell, Donald Justice, Howard Nemerov, Mary Oliver, and others. Dana Gioia is probably the greatest of these contemporary poets, but there are others who are now being read and noticed. One of the most remarkable is James Matthew Wilson, an associate professor in the department of humanities and Augustinian traditions at Villanova University. Though he is said to belong to the “West Chester” school of formalists associated with Gioia, such inside baseball is less important than the fact that he has produced a remarkable body of both criticism and poetry.

This joint task of poet and critic is one that is not always appreciated. The 1960s literary enfant terrible Brendan Behan carped, “Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they are unable to do it themselves.” But the best critics are often themselves poets. Adam Kirsch observed in a discussion of T. S. Eliot, the “poet-critic has been an institution in English literature because usually only an artist has the stubborn animus, the conviction that art should be one way rather than another, that makes for interesting criticism.” In Kirsch’s view, the poet-critic knows how it is done because he or she is actively doing it at a high level. This is certainly the case with Wilson, whose The Fortunes of Poetry in an Age of Unmaking was a battle cry against those who disdained the traditional craft of poetry from plush chairs, either university-endowed or seated next to Mr. Fallon on the late night circuit. No civilized-but-impotent yawp, it is accompanied by a body of work that has earned him a raft of prizes, including in 2017 the prestigious $50,000 Hiett Prize in the Humanities awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Perhaps more valuable is the approval of critics such as Gioia, who has labeled him “the most conspicuously talented young poet-critic in American Catholic letters.”

The 2018 second edition of his collection Some Permanent Things shows his dedication to craft and a willingness to change his mind about early attempts at semi-traditional verse still studded with the “gnarled, irregular measures of academic modernism.” He had imitated the modernists but repented: “In retrospect, I was naïve to do so. I prefer a well-wrought meter and rhymes that click into place with surety and precision. I have spent the balance of my maturity studying and admiring the fluency of those poets who embrace, rather than hold at arm’s length, the traditions that make their work possible. And I have only desired to write the sort of poetry that I would like to read.” The result is that, in addition to adding poems to the earlier title of the same collection, he rewrote a number of poems “to come closer to that ease and fluency that belongs to the classics of our prosody.”

While academic modernism judged formal poetry dead, Some Permanent Things displays a remarkable variety of forms and subject matter, both indicating the complexity and creativity of life. Its theme matches its formal qualities insofar as the collection as a whole is governed by the desire to see permanence in nature itself and in the goods of family, communities, and the Church. In the long “Verse Letter to John,” Wilson versifies the words of Edmund Burke from Reflections on the Revolution in France about “sophisters and economists” who “undermine the unbought grace of life.” He sees such undermining in a culture in which “no one even bothers/ to praise the dead these days” and liturgy creaks along with the scratchy microphone-enhanced words of a suburban priest while the speaker looks up from a cry room at books clearly shelved because unused, whose spines bear “names like Knox/And Sheen, Gheon and Maritain, de Sale/Chautard, and several other building blocks/ Of the Church in a stronger, different age.” Yet hope peeks out in the form of a vision on the cry-room screen of the signs of faith that mark faces of some who “have come, hoping to recover what’s/not lost but shelved.” His own procession to communion is filled with prayer for an infant daughter Livia:

I pray that she have eyes to see that here
Alone, despite the kitsch and clutter, here
Alone do body, home, and spirit last,
As the Incarnate Word redeems our fear.

This insight into the power of the particular, particularly in the one who took flesh amid a particular people so that he might be present in body, blood, soul, and divinity in every particular place is what lends the volume political and cultural bite.

The Lord of History gives his subjects home
In a particular country: where we live
Best when we cultivate and do not roam.
We give thanks in our care for what’s not ours:
To curb the fire ants and plant the soil,
To help our neighbor mend his backyard fence.
Like Benedict, we live by prayer and toil.

The poetic critic of our country does not hate it so much as he hates the sacrifices made to the moment rather than those made to the Lord of History in the moment.

The River of the Immaculate Conception, a poetic sequence created in commemoration of the premiere of Frank LaRocca’s Mass of the Americas, takes this same approach of love of what is present with truthfulness about the double origins of our modern world. In part V, “GLORIOSA DICTA SUNT DE TE,” the poet begins:

When we think of our land, we often think
Of those bare wilds waiting to be claimed,
As if it were a force of will alone
That made it ours, and mixing sweat with dust,
Its matter with our labor, what was nothing
Becomes somehow a thing that might be loved,
Be built upon and put to use, defended.

After acknowledging that the tales “of pioneers and makers of great things” inspire awe, he thinks too of the nature of land not as the raw material of our making, “But as a state, a platform where we stand.” The great work of man is not simply the making of material stuff but the making of meaning. That work is one that might be sweaty but does not depend on the will and the muscles so much as the receptive powers.

For naming is a kind of grace not deed.
It clarifies what was not understood,
Such that, what outwardly remains the same
Becomes itself more fully and more truly,
Transformed within by the articulate light.

The task of the American Catholic is to see one’s country as it is while keeping in mind its potential glory in a new heaven and new earth. Mississippi is a fine name to say and spell, but the Jesuit Jacques Marquette’s designation of “The River of the Immaculate Conception” is one to keep in mind when thinking about love of country.

I may be doing a disservice to Wilson, making it seem as if he is always “balanced” in his poetry. But he is capable of plumbing the depths of darkness and despair as well. The Hanging God, published before The River of the Immaculate Conception, has the same mystical vision as the other volumes, but it is a vision of night, sometimes from the perspective of those who are lost, some from those who only feel that way. Lost loves, loves that had little true love in them, the meditations of immigrants whose isolation seems as dark as the oppression they fled. Even a poem titled “After the Ascension” basks not in the glory of the ascended Lord, but imagines from the standpoint of a believer bewildered that the promise to “renew everything” was not going as planned:

The light goes up and leaves a shroud.
We savored an extended feast
As he broke bread, ate, and allowed
Our fingers to press in each wound.
Now, though from every bond released,
We’re left staring from a hollow mound.

A friend with whom I shared the poem observed, “If the title was ‘After Ascension and Before Pentecost,’ it wouldn’t be so depressing. But that’s probably not a criticism.” I do not take it as such either. Instead, it is testimony to the ability of a Catholic poet to speak in words whose meter and rhyme click with certainty and precision as they diagnose our own emotional uncertainty even amid the assurance of faith. Next to lines like these, the emotional forwardness of the Insta-poets in their mode of lament seems not just less intense, but as drab as the curse words on a restroom stall. Which, by the way, is what many of them largely consist in.

James Matthew Wilson may never make the late-night circuit. So much the worse for the circuit. But if we are thinking about the fortunes of poetry in an age of social media, I’ll bet the works of both the titled modernists and the interloping Instas will be the ones that will disappear after their fifteen minutes of fame is up. The poems Wilson likes to read and write will be the ones that people continue to like to read. As they tell stories and reveal the characters of men, women, and places, all in the light or the shadow of grace, they repay the reader not just with pleasure but the sense that there is a deeper order to our world that clicks away as surely as the beats of the poem.

(Editor’s note: This essay is adapted from the preface to the summer 2020 issue of Logos.)


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About David Paul Deavel 26 Articles
David Paul Deavel is Editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture and visiting assistant professor of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas. His book Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West, co-edited and introduced with Jessica Hooten Wilson, is forthcoming from Notre Dame Press.

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