“As one who once considered himself in the vanguard of writing as writing, it is difficult for me to describe my feelings when confronted by a new generation of writers who are dedicated not to an exploration of any particular literary dimension I can identify beyond a snotty tone of voice. I know this isn’t something I ever had in mind.
Beyond that, there are a number of other identifiable trends, which I would characterize briefly as: 1) Poems that prove how smart I am; 2) Poems that prove what a master of rhetoric I am; 3) Poems that prove I am a dope addict; and 4) Poems that just generally prove how hard I am to understand in any way…”
You might assume this was written by a critic as an indictment on today’s crop of poets. However, it was written way back in 1974 by Aram Saryoyan, commenting on the New York School (Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, and others who followed them), and I found it on Don Share’s Squandermania blog.
I guess all poets fall into some of these the identifiable trends at times, even without trying to. At least, those who never fall into them must have no ambition whatsoever. There is a fine line between writing something brilliant and something merely to ‘prove how smart I am’, between something uncommon and original and something that only proves ‘how hard I am to understand in any way.’ It’s easy to fall onto the wrong side of that line. The only way to avoid doing so is to play it safe and not even try to be brilliant.
On the other hand, the idea that writers have given up on genuine feelings and ideas of substance in favour of tone, snotty or otherwise, might be a damning indictment. Or does tone – especially the stylish, ironic tone that largely gives up on sincerity, insight and truth, and that does characterise much 21st century writing – have a more important role to play in poems than Saryoyan admits? Can the tone of a poem arrest a reader and make a poem memorable every bit as much as an exploration of emotion or ideas? Or has Saroyan hit the nail on the head and identified why so many poems will never stick in a reader’s mind?