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Taxonomy and Grace

By (April 1, 2011) 60 Comments

When I first heard WS Merwin’s poem “Berryman,” I didn’t know who either writer was. Instead, I sat mesmerized as Olga Broumas—a poet whose own reputation I scantly appreciated—recited the poem in my undergraduate creative writing workshop. Her voice began with her usual airy breathlessness but quickly demanded attention. By the time the poem reached its final three stanzas, her voice was raw and unrestrained:

he said the great presence
that permitted everything and transmuted it
in poetry was passion
passion was genius and he praised movement and invention

I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t

you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write

As a twenty year old, there was something romantic about the terms “passion,” “genius,” “good,” and “write.” They embodied my driving need to express a distilled, pressing urgency — to write poems. It was my hope that somehow my limited experience could reach someone else. I believed that the poem itself could change how just one person saw the world. Likewise, I also believed that other writers’ poems could fundamentally shake me to my core and offer me wisdom, hope, and faith in humankind and could connect me to another soul I might never meet.

Over the fifteen years since first hearing “Berryman,” I still believe — however naively — that poems can speak to other human beings and can make collective society consider our own convictions, experiences, and beliefs. Yet, I also am now deeply entrenched in the creative writing field, located squarely within university walls and my profession’s various conferences. The most notable conference is AWP (The Association of Writers and Writing Programs), where I annually see thousands of writers like me. We sport name tags announcing university or press affiliation and carry a phonebook-sized guide to the various panels on pedagogy, poetics, aesthetics, politics, etc. To the uninitiated, it might appear that such a vast, diverse gathering of community committed to poetry would be elating. Yet, at the end of every conference, I leave exhausted and somewhat deflated. When I mingle with other writers there, rarely do I speak of how individual poems transformed my life. Honestly, I rarely hear any writers talk about this. Instead, we talk about our bona fides and aesthetic theories because we want to participate in the academic world—one whose tenure-line opportunities are dwindling as our numbers grow exponentially. While MFA/PhD programs have abounded for decades, I’ve never heard of or witnessed so many writers — particularly younger ones like myself — unnerved and worried. Where will our place be at the professional table? I believe these anxieties have penetrated creative writing so deeply — especially poetry — that we have become unwitting slaves to the taxonomic tendencies of literary criticism and the institutional emphasis on publication and theoretical self-labeling. In the face of what we perceive as our “professional future”, many writers struggle to remember that poetry’s greatest gift is located in making intimate human connections, no matter how disfigured or disembodied.

While creative writing in American literature has always had camps, movements (and the prerequisite back-biting and bickering), I believe our current poetic climate is so conflicted and contentious that we have done away with talking about poems on their own organic terms. Let it be clear: I am not arguing for a return to New Criticism nor do I believe in the overtly easy-blame game of it’s the fault of those fucking universities. We live in the 21st century. What’s the point of asking to return to “the good old days” when those days would have excluded the likes of me — a working class, oddly educated, and peculiarly read writer with gaping holes in my canonical knowledge? I’m suggesting that while it is important to attend to our own academic reputations and political and aesthetic convictions, it is more important that we honor the imagination by not solely treating the poem against a singular interpretive mechanism. Poems can arrive from disparate and conflicting sources — should we not discuss how those poetic sources interact as a kinesthetic presence in our lives? Furthermore, can we believe that poems have the potential to matter to all kinds of human beings without “pandering” to the lowest common denominator? For if we fall further and further into the world of literature departments and literary criticism, we fall into a world whose axis spins, according to literary scholar Stephen Cohen, on “career-making” and “professional politics” by participating in “a self-perpetuating cycle of exaggerations, misrecognitions, and demonization.”

To speak more exactly, Shakespearean scholar Sharon O’Dair argues that the current state of much literary theory is located in the politics of The New Left—concerned with gender, sexuality, and race—at the expense of Eugene Deb’s Old Left—a class-based interpretive method. Whether I find myself intellectually agreeing more with “New Left” or “Old Left,” these are only labels—a shortcut in indentifying a select portion of my brain, heart, or soul. If I were to write poems whose primary genesis is overtly taxonomical, then my work would lack the complexities of human thought and experience. After all, humans contradict themselves, behave in morally troubling ways, think circularly or contingently, and resist a singular pinning. If we judge poems not on their abilities to capture human experience, but rather on their ability to perpetuate and frontload a singular aesthetic or political theory, then we rob ourselves of the right to be unknown to ourselves. We rob ourselves of the ability to try to find what is necessary in our own lives and to articulate that through the artificial and highly flawed artistic mode of poetry. Literature matters to most people not because it reinforces a dominant ideology or singular politic, but because it reflects tension and uncertainty.

As Karl Shapiro pointed out many years ago, theory looks to singularize and summarize experience—to be right. Readers usually don’t look to see how a poem measures up against notions of New Left vs. Old Left theory, just as many writers don’t create poems whose values rest in how well they measure up to the aspirations of positivism or critical/continental theory. Yet, even as recently as this past weekend, I watched an argument take place after a reading when a PhD candidate took one of the readers to task because he felt the writer overstated Wittgenstein in a poem. We spent a good half an hour discussing which concept of Wittgenstein was being hyper-inflated, which Wittgenstein was referenced, which Wittgenstein was pertinent, etc. In the process, we robbed the poet of his creative agency to take what he felt was necessary from Wittgenstein and discard the rest. After all, the writer’s impetus was not to stake a fixed claim within a rhetorical framework; it was to use his version of Wittgenstein as a jumping off point to something larger and more mysterious. A more appropriate question might have been “well, why did you use this version of Wittgenstein — I read him differently but am curious as to your interpretation.” It wasn’t that the writer didn’t know Wittgenstein; it was that the student wanted his version of Wittgenstein to be the correct version, and thereby he diminished the creative act’s potential.

If this story were an anomaly, it would be hardly worth the time to document. Over and over, however, I have seen New Criticism, Semiotics, Deconstruction, Neo-Marxism, etc. become the singular apparatus on which to judge whether or not a poet or whole poetic movement is not only worth a reader’s time, but whether a certain breed of literature has any business being present in the world. Don’t get me wrong: we are poets and should be part of the world. I see nothing wrong with healthy, socially-diverse debate on class, race, gender, cities, hot dogs…you get my point. But more often than not, certain writers of reputation take complicated and dynamic ideas and reduce them to a singular theory that the public has no foothold on. Often, the worst offenders are some “widely-read” writer blogs. These writers — some of whom are firmly established in their academic and artistic careers — speak with the tonal authority of gurus, but employ no substantive argumentative scaffolding in their posts as the medium requires none. In short, the bloggers assume that they are the experts and the audience continues to support, negate, or complicate their arguments with a similar lack of argumentative rigor. Of course, there are counter experts and counter counter experts — and so this galaxy spins and — most problematically — informs how many writers measure their intellectual, artistic, and personal worth.

For example: in the past decade, The School of Quietude debate has been fodder for the creative writing blogosphere. One of its most significant participants is Ron Silliman, who over the years has selected a vast assortment of writers and placed them within two camps — those who are creating “significant” poetry and those who are not, who are engaging, instead, in Quietude. What is Quietude? According to Seth Abramson’s blog, The Suburban Ecstasies, in Dead-Sea-Scroll=length response to Silliman:

In short, the School of Quietude is simply this: The belief, as exhibited in and by certain contemporary poems, that the near-totality of words in an individual poem should be employed in such a way as to utilize exclusively their transcendent rather than immanent meaning. To the extent this proclivity, as to word usage, commonly generates a poem whose individual on-the-page “marks” constitute merely an “echo” of the visualizable universe of matter the poem evokes, the actual words of the poem may be considered Quiet. They are Quiet in the sense that they are not permitted their full expression as “words-qua-words,” but instead remain merely signifiers of a series of referents whose acknowledgment, comprehension, and internalization is the most important work of the poem.

There is nothing simple in Abramson’s description because the whole discussion of this topic has been carelessly theorized, reinterpreted, and disseminated so vastly that the term has no clear meaning. Why? Because these debates’ ultimate goals are not to further artistic diversity or engage in fostering deeper thought, but, rather, to devolve into pissing contests based on exaggeration and the desire to drag one another through a Google-ready mud. For instance, Abramson feels compelled to list his “fifteen professional accomplishments” (his tongue only half in cheek) as a method to mock Silliman. Why? Because Silliman — bandying that he would “tarred” and “feathered” for arguing that WS Merwin is a Quietest—insisted that:

If there are to be adjectival poetry, whether we call our particular adjective Beat, Deep Image, Projectivist, Modernist, Surrealist, Actualist, New York School, Black, Gay, Feminist, Visual, Brutalist, Flarf, Hybrid or New Formalist, invariably it must be an instance of a marked case, something that sets it apart from the unmarked noun: Poetry.

Silliman further assumes that if one does not adhere to his theoretical notions — in this case, the School of Quietude needing to announce itself — then one is engaging in an act aligned with misogyny and racism, as calibrated against Silliman’s own recollections of his grandmother.

Ultimately, the problem is not so much that a few highly intelligent writers with well-regarded credentials are bickering over what constitutes “real” poetry. The problem is that this kind of rhetorical certainty and academic posturing is now what often serves as poetic dialog. I do not believe that writers should be innocent of the various theories taxonomizing class, race, literature, etc. But if I were a twenty-five year old poet entering into an MFA program right now (remembering my own emotional proclivities of last decade), I would be told that my job is to simply write, but I would also hear students and professors announce what kind of poet I am. Unable to situate my own writing in these contexts, I would feel stupid. I would no doubt surf the byzantine blogosphere and become convinced that either I must write with a conscious agenda on hand or I won’t have the chops to be a real writer. There would be no space for a tenuous naming, or a belief in intimate bonding. Instead, I would fixate upon whether or not my “ax” is someone else’s “ax,” and since these items mean different things to different people, I’d be pigeonholed into writing about nothing except my own inability to feel like I have any right to my own language and experience. I would simply revert to cleverness. And I would be miserable.

For better or worse, I am thirty-six, and these sweepingly large treatises do not factor into my own creative work. I take what I need from theory, history, or politics, and dispense with the rest. More importantly, I believe that my work can reach other people—that it can matter not solely for its theme or message but for its crafting and attention to detail. Whether it really does or not, well, “if you have to be sure don’t write.” I write with the belief that I will reach someone but once the poem is out of my hands and in the world, I also know I have no control over how people interpret or react to it. This is the basic tenet of art: art is tenuous. Matt Henriksen, in an interview for the Studio One Reading Series, similarly claims that his poems are often random “probes into space.” Still, connectivity occurs:

Sometimes grace overcomes that distance. In spite of our definite isolation, we experience closeness. I think everyone, myself included, cheapens that closeness through short-cuts, by naming ourselves avant-garde artists or Libertarians or Christians. We assert that familial bonds are unbreakable when the grace of familial love resides in the difficult fact that our love for family, even our children, is ultimately conditional. I need not give examples. In my experience, grace always arrives through the dismantled, disfigured, and disturbed.

Henriksen’s quote is especially inspiring in that he acknowledges the randomness of language and being, but still believes in the possibility for said randomness to procure intimacy. Not all people do. In the Sunday, March 26 edition of the NYT, book reviewer David Orr, on writing about the recent hubbub in the literary community in regards to Oprah’s fashion shoot of Rising Young Female Poets, laments that “The chasm between the audience for poetry and the audience for O is vast, and not even the mighty Oprah can build a bridge from empty air.” Orr suggests that poets ruminating on the importance of their work or the political issues they champion will not fill the gap. Rather, he believes it would be best for poets to simply discuss with non-poets what it would be like to “simply to read a poem.” Orr concludes the article by quoting a poem whose ending acknowledges its own “inscrutable ending” and then argues that conclusive inscrutability widens the abyss between artist and pop culture.

I find Orr overstates the case because he inhabits an all-or-nothing attitude. Either we change everything we do in poetry all at once or we will lose the art forever. While he insists that people simply want to know “what it’s like to read a poem” and don’t care about the conditions that inform the writer and readers’ lives, I know no other method of reading that doesn’t allow for our responses to be calibrated against our own experiences of the known and unknown. Rather than just wanting the whole chasm to disappear in one fell swoop, perhaps we writers could find a more moderate ground on which to meet more diverse audiences. Could we stop speaking to just one another? Could we, both experimental and traditional poets alike, inhabit Langston Hughes’ model of “my readings or gigs” and risk being booed? Perhaps then we could realize that change can happen slowly, capriciously, and via one person at a time.

For instance, one morning in April 2010, I poured my usual coffee into my usual mug before my wife and daughter awoke. It was sunny outside, and when I cracked the windows, an air arrived that could make a person picture baseballs and budding trees and clotheslines. But I had no delight in that day — or in any day — as I had been suffering a three-year bout with severe depression and anxiety. I withdrew from my wife and child: in fact I almost hid from them. And then I started to grow desperate. I pondered, what right do I have to a family? Haven’t I always been nothing but an obstacle, “a giant infant with insomnia” to quote Jon Anderson? I closed my eyes and began to sob in muffled tones. It took time, but I gathered myself. And something approaching gnosis or fate or luck occurred. I reached for Denis Johnson’s The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly, slowly paged through the contents, and stumbled across what is a rather incidental poem in the collection, “Behind Our House”:

My neighbor walks crippled, with a head half left,
toward the flag and boxes and machines
of the Post Office, having tried
once to shoot himself, having lived,
mails a letter…

The delay between the subject and the verb and the conditions built into the description still cause my spine to go cold. I picture these little PO Boxes in the student union and picture my daughter, now a young woman, lending me her shoulder as I’m consumed in drool and having to drag my leg behind me. How tired she must be, how utterly and perpetually crestfallen. It is not Johnson’s message that shakes me; it is my own experience with Johnson’s palette, language, and measure that rattles my stature.

That moment, my life: It seems so coincidental. I had spent the majority of my adult life hating myself, feeling unworthy to love and be loved. Through that summer and that fall, whenever I revisited those lines, I wondered why they took hold of me as if by the shoulders. I don’t know. But I know it wasn’t because of the poem’s canonical or theoretical location in 1980s poetry. Johnson believed his poem could reach someone. It did. And I am alive.

Joseph P. Wood is the author of two full-length collection of poetry, I & We (CW Books, 2010) and Fold of the Map (Salmon Poetry, forthcoming 2012), as well five chapbooks. Previous poems and reviews can be found in Boston ReviewBombVerse, Hotel Amerika, Indiana Review, Rain Taxi, Gently Read Literature, among others. He’s at work on series of essays about notions of “closed” and “open”. He teaches at The University of Alabama and lives with his wife and daughter in Tuscaloosa.


  • Blah,blah,blah is right. Bleep,bleep. What cranky Old Leftie misspells Deb’s last name? Prescription: 10mg of Emily Dickinson mixed with a glass full of Walt. Retired professor of Am Lit who abandoned the tenured clerisy for alternative journalism before Obscurantism took over. Patrick D. Hazard, Weimar,Germany.

  • Tien Tran says:

    What a strange article! I was very interested in your feeling “exhausted and oddly deflated” by AWP, but the article goes on the lament the narrowness of critical paradigms, and ends with a reaffirmation of the power of poetry to “reach someone.” I guess I should’ve been forewarned by that most abused of words in contemporary poetry, “grace” – it’s a religious concept that very secular poets make a hash of, to what purpose I know not.

    This is not meant as an attack on J.P. or on the substance of this article – only, I think that Creative Writing as an academic discipline and industry (and not the university, mind you) is very much to blame for the current malaise in American poetry. A few decades ago, Creative Writing was a new discipline, and both mediocre and good poets found jobs and plenty of opportunities for publication and recognition. But fast forward to today, and the competition is so fierce that it’s gotten ridiculous! If moderate competition is healthy, immoderate competition is utterly destructive. Today, successful poets are those bearing the right resumes, with the right references and connections. That’s it, period!

    We could go on and argue forever about this or that aspect of poetry, the meaning of poetry, the conditions of poetry, the right kinds of poetry, etc… But I believe that we have to address the institutional processes that support poetry publishing and reputations. Isn’t this where your sense of deflation comes in? We ought to get the critics back in the game. Competitions for individual poems (not poetry manuscripts) that are judged by scholars and critics but not poets, the abolition of Creative Writing as an academic discipline, and yes, an appreciation for the New Critical notion of the poem as a thing with internal logic and meaning – these will all help. Anything, other than this mechanical, careeristic, mindless process of minting poets and reputations. (Perhaps this applies to the humanities generally.)

    Again, let me emphasize that I’m not attacking any poets, especially young poets. The problem is institutional. Like our politics, the debate between ostensible left and right only serve to preserve things as they are. I am immensely sympathetic with young poets who waste years on an MFA and find themselves without a job, much less a career; while their art becomes a void. I am less sympathetic of older poets (those with university posts at least), but I understand how they got to where they are, and that the difficulty of poetry in our time is not their fault. But we have to be honest with ourselves: Creative Writing is the problem!

  • Stuart Munro says:

    I found the various critical stances pretty unhelpful really. Academic readings of poetry generally miss the point. The critic is ALWAYS inferior to the artist. ‘In the beginning was the deed.’ Poetry has never been so popular – but much of it is now set to music – it keeps the insects off it.

  • HalifaxCB says:

    Maybe it’s too late for the author (though probably not), but young poets – if they want to be read – really need to step outside the safety of academia and the poetry community that centers on it, and start exploring life. Certainly stay long enough to get a grounding in the skills and history so you understand the long conversation of the arts, but then make a point of experiencing things worth writing about. The rest of us will then be happy to read it.

  • swildwood says:

    I was very encouraged by Wood’s beginning of this piece in which he laments the ways literary theory can stiffle and squelch poetry and poets. However, his argument slips into one more exercise in positioning himself and other writers in the ideolgical camps Wood claims he is anxious to escape. In the end, he lapses into the confessional and undercuts what could have been a much more compelling argument. Unfortunately, essays like this one make nothing happen.

  • “I still believe — however naively — that poems can speak to other human beings and can make collective society consider our own convictions, experiences, and beliefs.”

    How telling you should use the faux-modest term “naively” to describe an ideological imperative — that we all must pretend a common set of “convictions, experiences, and beliefs” exists, and therefore anything indicating otherwise must be wiped out.

  • r martin says:

    the writer has fallen prey to a number of the poisonous tendencies of the contemporary university, namely a serious lack of knowledge both of history and of the basics of the english language. the major figure of the old left was named ‘eugene v. debs’, not ‘debb’ as the writer imagines, nor ‘deb’ as does one commentator. the writer does not know either the different parts of speech nor how to use them — thus he trots out the non-adjective ‘elating’ and consistently misuses adverbs. this interesting essay illustrates the central truth about north american universities, which is that they are worse than useless. people who are ignorant and illiterate receive degrees, having leatned but one thing inside the corrupt groves — a visceral, racist loathing for all things and all persons european.

  • luke whitington says:

    bernard berenson said ‘not what the artist knows, but what the artist feels, concerns art. the rest is science.

    in my view in australia we have poets prancing about in front of each other, showing off to other poets.
    some are defined as more of the people” others abstracted into dim washes of obscurity.

    and editors encrusted with cronies, exchanging favoritism with favorites.

    american poets are lucky to have such a large open field to write towards.

  • Chris W says:


    A call for us to “consider our own convictions, experiences, and beliefs” is hardly an ideological imperative enforcing a common set of the above. What exactly are you accusing the author of?


  • rushmc says:

    Is it not obvious to all by now that Poetry encompasses (easily) everyone’s poetries? Some people are more theorist or nitpicker than poet–and that’s okay, too. Just don’t get suckered into taking them too seriously! Every theoretical construct has something interesting to add to the discussion, but they all so obviously fall short of being complete that it baffles me how many embrace them, invest in them, and defend them against any competing perspective.

    All Faith is false, all Faith is true:
    Truth is the shattered mirror strown
    In myriad bits; while each believes
    His little bit the whole to own.
    –Sir Richard Francis Burton

  • As a young poet, I was tenured and promoted two years before normal tenure review date. My response was to quit. Nobody thought I was doing the right thing.

    Seven books and six forthcoming books (a mix of novels and poetry) plus a husband and three children later, I can say that it was one of the best decisions of my life.

  • I agree the essay lost steam and focus in its confessional phase toward the end, but I agree with its central observation about the difficulties of criticism and the centrality of a poem’s effect on the reader/listener. Like music, poetry defies explanation, ultimately.

  • Gordon says:

    Having not read a poem in 28 years (since freshman univ., required course) I found this essay very encouraging. Maybe I’ll consider reading a poem the next time I see one in a magazine. Good stuff.

  • Mike Starr says:


    Perhaps you meant pedantry?

  • Jim says:

    A good essay in the traditional of Montaigne – personal and incomplete. It invites discussion and contemplation.

  • Mike Starr says:

    Unfortunately, I wanted my comment to display the word pedantry inside faux XML pedantry tags with angle brackets but the comment software strips that stuff out. Sigh.

  • Denis Joe says:

    I never quite understand why debate on poetry (or art in general) is seen as irrelevant or downright silly. We never hear about the irrelevance of physical exercising, yet intellectualising is seen as embarrassing.

    The situation of poetry in the US is more healthy than in Britain. There are so many schools of thought and whilst some are ridiculous, the actual existence of so many schools suggests that poetry is taken seriously.

    In Britain poets, such as the Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, hold literal meaning to be everything (and if you don’t agree with her she will write a poem about you, telling why you are wrong and publishing it in the Guardian newspaper); they are more like journalists that poets and one has to wonder why they just don’t write newspaper columns instead.

    We do have poetry discussed in terms of social issues, but that is a result of the dominance of literal meaning. I recall a reading when, during a Q&A a member of the audience, arrogantly, suggested that her poetry could help the cause of anti-racism.

    The reality is that poetry in Britain is still stuck in the pre-war days (never moving beyond Auden’s reportage –only none of the major poets have shown an inkling of his talent).

    So let all the academics and dogmatists argue the toss. It may not contribute to better poetry getting written but something positive may come out of it.

    Mr Wood states: “I write with the belief that I will reach someone but once the poem is out of my hands and in the world, I also know I have no control over how people interpret or react to it”. And really that is all that needs to be said about writing poetry or creating any art.

    I take issue with the idea (that is suggested in this article)that poet is a job. One of the most destructive aspects of education in Britain is the idea that it should be vocational and this has meant that creativity is stifled as the arts are seen as only relevant to the job market.

    I feel that the blogosphere as used by academics and dogmatists isn’t all that bad when you consider that a lot of the virtual world seems to be taken up with individuals detailing the minutia of their everyday lives (what lives they have). I run a blog on poetry issues and whilst I invite others to submit their essays or reviews and that I tolerate all-comers, I know that the writings I post are a product of what I see as being ‘right’ (like this response, I guess).

    So instead of slagging these things off, why not try seeing the healthy aspect of having such a diversity of opinion about an art-form that is probably the least appreciated but the most talked about?

  • dave says:

    Denis Joe:

    J.H. Prynne, John Burnside, Roy Fisher, Alice Oswald, Kathleen Jamie, Keston Sutherland, Glyn Maxwell, Michael Hofmann, Geoffrey Hill, Denise Riley … I could go one. For some time. Yeah … we’re really stuck for diversity in the UK. And it’s awful that we often sully the art it by publishing it in national newspapers, where everyone might read it. We do not hold literal meaning to be everything – just not a bad place to start, if you want to take a few readers with you. Don’t caricature things you know nothing about. And look up ‘inkling’.

  • Jon Jermey says:

    Once poets stopped making the effort to rhyme and scan, it was only a matter of time before people stopped making the effort to read them. Rhyme and meter are integral to making a poem memorable and effective: poems without them are just chopped-up prose which is harder to read. There are reasons why people still read Shakespeare and Shelley, not Eliot and Pound.

  • Ismail Anderson says:

    People don’t read Eliot?

  • Jeff Jacobson says:

    i’d like to echo and elaborate a point made by a few previous commenters – the problem is professionalization.

    when the author laments young poets’ becoming ensnared in theoretical debates in the academy, he leaves untouched the question of what a poet is and how to become one. apparently, one becomes a poet by getting an mfa, or perhaps a phd, and then getting a job as a professor of poetry or creative writing at a university. a poet is a person who writes poetry, but many seem to assume the only way to do so is to become a ‘professional’. paradoxically, the professional status thus granted does not make one a full-time writer of poetry but a teacher and (if you want tenure) critic. careless theory propagates.

    the situation is, i believe, the result of the fundamental misidentification “i want to be a poet, i want to write poetry, therefore i will pursue an advanced degree and become a certified poet. my job will be poet.” substitute any art: music,writing, painting. if you want, or need, to make art, then make art! get a job in the meantime, something preferable tolerable. wallace stevens sold insurance! if you have a lot of extra money and want to immerse yourself, perhaps pursue an advanced degree, but don’t do so with the expectation of becoming a ‘professional’.

  • Charles says:

    Perhaps the crisis in poetry has some relation to this. Intelligent painter/sculptor, 69, treasures great music, art and novels for over 50 years, and buys CDs and books. Relation to poetry always tenuous and mostly confused. Here is the portion of the poem that moved the writer:

    My neighbor, half crippled, with a head half left,
    toward the flag and boxes and machines
    of the Post Office, having tried
    once to shoot himself, having lived,
    mails a letter…

    Can’t understand it. What is the verb that “toward” modifies? Is “toward” itself used as a verb? Or, is he mailing the letter toward the post office? Is he tossing it through the air in that direction? Or, is he FACING left (toward the post office) rather than having half his head missing either figuratively or literally? Or should I assume that the verb for which “toward” is an adverb (perhaps “shuffles”) is left out on purpose, as only a non-specialist like myself would expect or need it to be there? Why must I spend more time trying to decipher the sentence, find where its subject, verb and object are, than seems worth it to me? This is why I put a lot of poetry down and go back to exploring unheard classical music and opera, or read a novel. Who needs or wants this endless struggle to decipher sentences?

    Am I part of a potential audience that is alienated?

  • Shalom Freedman says:

    One aspect of the problem is that there are simply so many people writing Poetry. There are it seems at times far less reading it than writing. Or rather everyone who reads it writes it. The process of determining what is of value, not to speak of what is enduring value is one also complicated by the loss of Authority , if there ever was true Authority, in making such determinations. I do not know the answer.
    I read and reread my favorite poets. I read whatever comes my way. I write my Poems out of my own need to do so.
    I understand I have not provided an answer to the question the article raises. I do not know if there is one.

  • Mick says:

    Hello, I remember a poet named Joseph (Joe) Woods who used to live a few doors away from me here in Dublin, about 15 years ago. I don’t suppose it is the same fellow? Mick

  • Zela says:

    It is good to be an octogenarian and free. Especially to live in a rural backwater in New Zealand and to know that I can write and paint and work out my own philosophy without self-consciousness . The fact that I do continue to paint and write without the need of an audience seems to me to validate the act of creativity. It is nice to share and discuss but ‘doing’ is more iortant

  • Dave says:

    Mr. Wood wants to get back to doing poetry, and I applaud him. But he has a hard time saying things simply and forcefully in this article, repeatedly slipping back into vague language and gratuitous “lamp post” citations that will vet him as an academic. It’s exhausting. He never quite reaches escape velocity, and gravitas keeps pulling him back down. Us too.

    Perhaps this is Mr. Wood’s intention. Certainly it was the most compelling illustration of his struggle. As a rather dim layman I have neither the erudition nor the insight to satisfy this crowd. But something springs to mind from that humble bard, Bob Seger:

    He wants to dream like a young man
    With the wisdom of an old man
    He wants his home and security
    He wants to live like a sailor at sea ….

    Beautiful loser
    Read it on the wall
    And realize
    You just can’t have it all
    You just can’t have it all

    As long as people insist that being a poet should meld that pleasing Byronic vibe with regular paychecks, collegial respect and the professional credentials that chase away a lifetime of “What are you doing with your life?” doubters, it will remain absurd and unsatisfactory. Because words are not pullman porters, capable of hauling all that baggage.

    So Joe, just write already. Let the rest be damned.

  • Heather Stephens says:

    I believe the verb in question would be “crippled” and therein lies one of the joys of the poet: to be able to take a word and use it in a way that gives it an expression of the emotion behind the whole poem. It may well be that you are part of an audience that is alienated. I constantly hear people dismiss poetry as rubbish because they do not understand it.
    I classify poems into two groups. Ones that I love. Ones that I may love one day. The poems that I love are the ones that J P Wood are describing, that I find something personal in. The others either I dont understand, in which case I havent a personal connection with, or I havent spent the time on.
    But why not read a poem with the mindsight expressed by Tolkien when addressing the critics of the epic Beowulf. He could not understand why there was such a need to pick something to the bones of reality instead of just reading it and enjoying it.

  • HalifaxCB says:

    Jon Jermey – well, I still read Eliot; in fact I was wandering about this morning sobering up & thinking that Prufrock might be pretty germane to this discussion…As for scan and meter, well, I still go back to Whitman for all kinds of reasons, and there’s a chaotic ramble (at least on the surface) if there ever was one…

  • Kev Ferrara says:

    The law of supply an demand: The more there is, the less it’s worth.

    Anything digitized becomes infinitely scalable, endlessly supplied… the act of digitizing anything sends its value on a course asymptotic with worthlessness.

    Writing was the great attempt to digitize thoughts, to make them easily distributable as memes from one human mind to another. With the billion toilet paper rolls of text spooling out from a billion computers daily, words have come out of the closet as infinitely available for free, and thus mostly worthless (substantive journalism excepted). We are drowning in a vast over-supply of words. Who but the word-blooded isn’t sick to death of words?

    Words have no real estate value. Only real estate, in the widest sense, is acceptable as tangible exchange for other real estate. The salient characteristic of real estate is that it is not scalable. It isn’t just words, it isn’t digitizable.

    Theory is advertising, which only works to recruit the zombified children raised on words instead of real estate, who believe advertisements, as long as they don’t come from commercial enterprises (excepting the universities of course.)

    In the closed market of University-Funded Theory Cults, earballs are everything, and self-aggrandizing theoreticalization is the game.

    Poetry? Mere words. We’re talking business here. With a gift for gab, some uni-wag gets to eat well on your dime for life. Nice work if you can get it.

    The barricading-in of poets in universities, protected from the reality of the marketplace that others must weather, is an admission of weakness, a hiding behind mommy’s dress. If you want to be a professional poet, one paid for value added, go into advertising. The 9 to 5 slogging public is pretty damn sick of financially supporting the university playpen.

  • Charles says:


    Thanks for trying to answer my complaint. The urge to understand where subject, verb and object are in any sentence is very strong, as strong as the urge to return to the tonic at the end of a piece of music. Those composers who don’t nod enough to expectations to bother returning to the tonic are a relatively unlistened-to minority (and as Milton Babbit said, “Who cares if they listen?”).

    However, having said all that, I have to admit I returned to the fragment of poem this morning and it makes a lot of sense to me now, don’t quite know how. Perhaps the act of writing about it opened my mind to it past the grammatical problem. Don’t know how often I would sit down and do that with a poem I don’t understand. With Dickinson, of course, I very well might. But how many others?…

  • David B says:

    Well, Charles may be satisfied, but after he pointed it out, I don’t think it’s possible to find a grammatical function for ‘toward’ in that snippet. I can’t agree that it modifies ‘half-crippled.’

    I respond to Charles’s little puzzle not as a significant flaw in the poem. The excerpt provided is obviously a powerful bit, and makes an argument for the notion that great poets are sometimes those lucky enough to live next door to people who are easy imagery.

    I think you might agree, though, Charles has raised at least a funny little thing. A bit of a bar bet, if you will, here’s five poetry-infused internets offered as reward for the first person to provide a satisfactory explanation of the function of ‘toward.’ Heather has her claim, but c’mon Heather: ‘My neighbor half crippled….toward the flag’ is a possible construction, but it is far different from what is presented, which is: ‘My neighbor, half crippled,…toward the flag’ and the commas are there to specifically prevent your reading, no?

    I don’t think there is a satisfactory answer, at least in the excerpt as presented. Alas, I could not turn up the full version of the poem online, apparently this is one of those quaint old ‘pay-to-read’ situations.

  • David B says:

    Pardon, in the above, I feel mortified that I split an infinitive in such civilized company.

  • Jim says:

    The poem was mistyped, which clears up this whole “toward” issue (and fundamentally impacts this essay, please fix!):

    “My neighbor walks crippled, with half a head left,
    toward the flag and boxes and machines
    of the Post Office, having tried
    once to shoot himself, and, having lived,
    mails a letter.”

    It’s actually a whole different verbal play happening here, with a compound sentence holding these very dark clauses wrapped inside a sentence of normalcy.

  • Karl says:

    “As a twenty year old, there was something romantic about the terms ‘passion,’ ‘genius,’ ‘good,’ and ‘write.'”

    It does not inspire confidence in the rest of the article when the writer dangles a modifier. I suppose it’s pedantic to object to it, but then, the article promotes the virtues of the good old pre-theory days in the academy. What about the virtues of correct writing?

  • Open Letters Monthly says:

    Thanks everyone for engaging with this piece in such a spirited way. Our author is steering clear of the comments field but we at Open Letters wanted to thank you for your readership and the errors that you’ve caught in the text. The errors are ours, and we have corrected them.

    Thanks so much and please check back with us soon.


    John Cotter
    Executive Editor
    Open Letters Monthly

  • Anne says:

    It says something to me that the author is “steering clear of the comments” field. What does this mean? That he seeks to engage discussion without caring to have to respond to it? It seems to me he just wants to be seen–that he too is just another poet showing off. He wants an audience to read and care about what HE thinks but he’s not willing to care about what THEY think back.

    Mr. Wood, have the courage of your convinctions to take in your criticism and be humbled by it. That is how we all grow–as poets and as human beings.

  • Jan Sand says:

    Poetry, like excrement, comes from the gut and both make pretty good fertilizer.

  • Joseph Wood says:


    I will come out of my hole one time on this occassion. I am thankful for all of the comments, even the harshest and most pointed, as well as the numerous kind notes I’ve received.

    I steer clear of comments because it is my belief that a piece needs to make an argument and then author needs to move out of the way. An essay speaks for itself–for better or for worse.

    I steer clear of comments not because I wish not to engage, but because I believe–like some writers do–it is best to let people respond without the author poisoning the well or derailing response, no matter how positive or negative that response may be. I believe it interupts the natural evolution of thought.

    While I stand by my essay, I also consider all comments and think about them. Some I consider deeply, some pass by, etc. I do, however, think about them when writing in the future.

    That’s about as far as I wish to take things here. At the current time, when I write for OPM or other journals, my position will be not to defend or explain, but rather to silently consider points and then consider their intersection to how I consider the world.

    Thank you everyone,

    Joseph P. Wood

    That may not jive with some people here, but that is the my position.

  • Denis Joe says:

    dave. First off, i don’t know which dictionary you use but my use of the word ‘inkling’ is correct (to mean ‘a hint of’).

    Whilst you are obviously a fan of of informing ‘poetry’, and prefer that the poet ‘tells’ you what to think rather than you discovering your own meaning, that is all well and good. there are no fixed rules on how an audience should relate to art.

    For me, I prefer the poet to respect the audience and not see us as in need of guidance, but allowing us to find our own way.

    Your list includes many good versifiers, but they are simply British poets all walking the same treadmill and whilst I recognise that not all poets from this side of the Pond fall into the category of ‘propagandists’ (I note, for instance, you omit, Tom Leonard and Edwin Morgan, for example.

    But if their should have been a Laureate to represent british poetry, perhaps Pam Ayers would have been a more honest choice, as ‘popularising poetry’ seem to be your main concern.

    I think you might want to look up the word ‘caricature’, I am baffled as to your use of the word in relation to my stated opinion.

  • Minal Shekhawat says:

    This essay obviously sparked passion in many of these commenters. I am shocked at the negativity. The majority of comments has left me wondering if, as a culture, we need to relearn how to read. Perhaps, even if I don’t concede the case, the essay is imprecise. The resulting ambiguity, however, reveals less about the writer’s faults and more about the readers’ interpretive limits. I believe in Joe’s “humanness”-don’t you get it?-it’s the poet’s humanity that is being defended here-articulated by him without pretense and with sincerity. Let us not turn the clock back and embrace the cold suggestions re: hey-deys and new critical methods of this critical bunch, who are likely obsessed with the typographical error. This is a great piece of commentary, which has been woefully misunderstood. Shame on you supposed lovers of poetry for your narrow foresight and egregious lack of vision. I am happy to know where my bread is buttered, and how.

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