Thereís nothing poets love better than sneering at other poets. Those whose taste is markedly different from ours arenít just bad poets; theyíre not poets at all. Not true poets, anyway. They have no integrity, no real love of words. Every choice they make is driven by ego and ambition.
Ask any poet what the biggest problem is with contemporary poetry, and the answer is always the same: Other Poets. If only those formalists would stop being so stuffy and hidebound; if those verse librists werenít so undisciplined and self-indulgent; if those academic careerists werenít so cryptic; if those Sunday poetasters werenít so literal-minded; then maybe poetry wouldnít be going to Hell in a handbasket.
Of all the ongoing poetry wars, the one that most interests me these days is Edgy vs. Nice. I guess itís because the arguments are all ad hominem, and thatís more fun than the intellectual stuff. The American Heritage Dictionary defines "edgy" as "daring, provocative, or trend-setting." Whatís daring and whatís trend-setting, however, are often very different things. Iím using "edgy" here in the "daring, provocative" sense because thatís how Iíve heard it bandied about lately. In that sense, poets who write on edgy themes are considered edgy even if their writing style isnít.
(Three paragraphs in, and already someone, somewhere, is cursing me under his breath. Yes, Iím talking about poems that are about things. By some peopleís definition, such poems cannot be edgy. Well, I happen to feel like talking about subject matter. One war at a time, please.)
Hereís how poets see each other across the Edgy/Nice divide:
Edgy poets care about nothing but shock value. They donít write about edgy things because they feel moved to write about those particular things, but because being edgy gives them a certain cachet. Terrified of being accused of triteness, they rummage around in garbage cans for poem ideas, hoping to find something suitably dark and gritty. Edgy poets have no appreciation for the insights to be found in moments of quiet contemplation; theyíre all about blood and gore, dead prostitutes, crucifixes immersed in urine, and orgies. Though they appear daring, theyíre really playing it safe, hiding behind their fashionable edginess. At heart, theyíre cowardly conformists.
Nice poets are old ladies (who may or may not live in Cambridge) or emasculated men who value inoffensiveness above all else. They write about nice things because theyíre afraid to write about real life. Prudish and conventional, they cluck like hens whenever anyone shocks their delicate sensibilities by writing about anything other than life in suburbia, parenthood, love, or the beauty of nature. In their poetic vision, thereís no sex, only G-rated love between spouses, and no controversy. Nice poets are so afraid of offending anyone that they end up delighting no one. At heart, theyíre cowardly conformists.
So who really are the cowardly conformists? Thatís easy: Other Poets.
Whoís really edgy? The definition suggests edgy poets are a distinct minority, but itís a verifiable fact that every male poet thinks heís edgy. It matters not a whit what kind of poetry he writes. Search the world over for the stodgiest of stodgy male writers, and I guarantee he fancies himself a rebel, even if his rebellion consists in using archaic diction to pontificate on the virtues of temperance.
Iíve heard The Shit Creek Review described as edgy. At the time, I objected. There was something pretentious and dorky-sounding about it: I kept imagining Conan OíBrien doing one of his ironical cool-cat moves and saying, "Watch out, baby. Iím edgy! Rowr!" But TSCRís submission guidelines mention the use of form as potentially edgy. Formalists, edgy? I thought we were all a bunch of prudish, whalebone-corset-wearing anal retentives. Thatís what they tell me, anyway. But free verse is still predominant, and bucking trends, arguably, is edgy. By that logic, Candelabrum, with its formal poems about flowers and sunsets, is twice as edgy as TSCR. After all, poems about flowers and sunsets have been out of favor for ages. Theyíre not edgy; therefore theyíre edgy.
If "formal therefore edgy" doesnít hold water, neither does "formal therefore not edgy." Mike Alexander, one of the administrators at Sonnet Central, once went to a poetry reading by Sapphire, and was listening appreciatively until the end, when she sneered, "Can you believe some people are still sitting in the closet writing sonnets?" The audience laughed, which is not surprising, since most people think of sonnets as flowery, archaic love poems. But Sapphire is a well-known poet with an MFA degree; sheís speaking from a position of authority when she tells people sonnets are for wimps. Iíd fight her on this, but Iím too wimpy. Instead, Iíll just say that in my opinion, a sonnet is as good or bad, as tame or shocking, as shallow or insightful, as what you put into it. Consider Tony Barnstoneís "White Pig, Dark Pig," a sonnet about Japanese cannibalism during WWII which appears in the December 2006 issue of The Cortland Review1:
I didnít rape the women, didnít lust
for their dark flesh, not like you think. I dreamed
of food, not sex. A man does what he must
to live. I ate dark breasts and brains...
Is this what people write when theyíre sitting in closets hiding from reality? Would sitting somewhere else have made the poem come out with different line breaks?
Something bothers me about this defense, though: it implies that Barnstoneís sonnet is exempt from the charge of hiding from reality only because itís about something ugly. In the same issue, Myrna Goodmanís "November Morning, 1972" is a softer poem, a poem no one would consider edgy. Itís about a suburban woman giving a neighbor boy a ride to school. Iím sure some critics would consider it worthless pap. Thereís no sex, no urban grit, no gobbets of gore; therefore itís not rooted in the real world. It doesnít matter if, as I suspect, Goodmanís poem describes something she actually experienced and Barnstoneís was concocted from third-hand accounts while he sat at his desk; his poem will be seen as more realistic.
Edgy poetry isnít necessarily more realistic than other poetry, but poetry as a whole would be unrealistic without it. Obviously you wouldnít want poetry to be all edgy, or all nice; the difference is that thereís more danger of the latter actually happening. Given that most readers donít like to be made uncomfortable; given that the poetry scene, in print at least, is dominated by book-loving college graduates who have never, say, been homeless, or killed a man; given that our writing always reflects our experience, directly or indirectly; the Edgy:Nice ratio is always low.
In "The Poetry of Nicey-Nice," Joseph Salemi criticized Rhina Espaillatís poetry for being too nice. Well, I like it, but it certainly isnít edgy. One part of his review that bugged me, though, was his suggestion that sheíd purposely adopted a fashionably doubtful stance toward religion. Itís true that devotional poems are not fashionable. How often do you come across an unabashed expression of religious faithóa specific faith, mind you, not the nebulous, universal kindóin a poetry magazine? But it doesnít follow that Espaillat was only pretending to be doubtful in a cynical attempt to curry favor.
Iíve written a few poems about religious doubt. I didnít do it to score points with some editor, but because I doubt. Nor did I decide to doubt after consulting a focus group; Iíve never had any choice in the matter. Are poems about doubt "nicer" than poems about faith? It depends on the venue, and the kind of faith. Are we talking about Poetry or First Things? And whatís the message: that the beauty of spring should remind us of Christís resurrection, or that fornicators roast in Hell forever?
Whether your poetry is nice or edgy, someoneís going to question your motives. I learned this when a poem of mine was called edgy in an online workshop. (Yeah, thatís right. Iím edgy, baby. Rowr!) Soon afterwards, another reader mentioned my poem as one of several that had gotten her thinking about the nature of pandering. The implication was that weíd consciously tried, like ad execs, to come up with topics that were sexy and attention-grabbing. In truth, my poem described a scene (involving a man, marijuana, and an eleven-year-old girl) Iíd felt moved to write about because it was thought-provoking. I had hoped the poem would get readers thinking about things like complicity and responsibility. Which brings me to my next two points: (1) edginess is relative, and (2) it can be distracting. Where the poet may have intended to explore some idea, readers may see only selfconscious, gratuitous edginess.
Good edginess is never gratuitous. Take "After Experience Taught Me..." by W. D. Snodgrass2. Talk about edgy: a poem that tells you how to rip a manís face off. The first time I read it my reaction was "Wahhh! I didnít want to know how to do that!" Itís a horrifying image, but it has to be horrifying. The poem ends with this question:
What evil, what unspeakable crime
Have you made your life worth?
If you werenít shuddering at the thought of ripping someoneís face off, the question wouldnít have so much weight. In asking yourself, "Would I do that to save my own life?" you end up taking stock of your life, your character, your most basic values. How many nice poems make you do that?
James Kirkupís "The Love that Dares to Speak its Name"3 was so edgy in 1976 that its publisher, Denis Lemon, was convicted of "blasphemous libel." The poem describes homosexual acts committed with Christís dead body. To some that may sound like an attack on Christianity, but the poem is anything but. How to explain this to a Christian who finds it offensive? Well, first you have to know that the title is a play on "the love that dare not speak its name," a phrase from a poem quoted by Oscar Wilde during his trial for "gross indecency," i.e. being gay.
Next you have to imagine what itís like to be treated by Christians as if Christ had died on the cross for everyone but you. And finally, you have to read the poem and see for yourself how much the narrator loves Christ. He expresses his love symbolically through sex:
It was the only way I knew to speak our loveís proud name,
to tell him of my long devotion...
Kirkup is saying that heís human too, and as such, worthy of Christís love: "He loved all men, body, soul and spirit - even me." Heís saying it in an in-your-face way because others have been aggressive about excluding him, and heís got to barge his way through to Christís table. For an edgy poem, itís really quite sentimental and life-affirming.
Edgy poetry is often nice under the surface. Few would deny that Nigel Holtís "Perversion Sonnets"óa series of love poems written in the voices of coprophiliacs, urolagnists and other fetishistsóare edgy. Much of the imagery is gory or scatological. Whatever your initial reaction, odds are youíre not going to say, "Aw, isnít that nice." But the series is about love, something that takes many shapes and can be found in surprising places. Specifics aside, thatís nice.
Still, Holtís sonnets probably wonít be read on the air by Garrison Keillor. In his review of Good Poems, August Kleinzahler famously attacked Keillor for (you could say) not being edgy4. Really, I think his problem with Keillor was that he felt Keillor was trying to impose some kind of edgy-free vision on the poetry world, as opposed to just publishing one nice book. Poetry wars are like that. Any sensible person knows that good poems can be edgy or not, formal or not, etc., but every poet is convinced the Other Poets are bent on wiping out his tribe. Traditionally, Edgy poets have been more justified in this belief than Nice poets; after all, when was a poet ever censored or jailed for niceness?
On the other hand, nowadays, what is there to be afraid of? Daring implies risk. Baudelaire took risks, but in the United States, in 2007, nobodyís going to clap you in irons or even ban your poems for obscenity. The worst that can happen is your officemate Googles you and decides youíre a weirdo; and letís face it, you were never going to be friends with her anyway.
Same with political poems. We speak of poets "courageously taking a stand," and thatís certainly true in some countries, such as China5 and Morocco6, but American poets have little to fear. I suppose it would be risky to write a perfectly unambiguous poem urging readers to blow up the White House, but even then I doubt youíd be in real trouble unless you actually included bomb-making instructions in the poem. Letís test that theory:
Blow up the White House.
Blow up the White House right now.
Go on, I dare ya.
Iíll let you know what happens (assuming they give me Internet access from Guantanamo).
For most English-language poets, "risk" means the risk of not being published, which means the risk of not getting a nice ego stroke and a complimentary copy of some magazine that will be read by the other poets published in that issue. I suppose if youíre on a publish-or-perish career track, thatís a real risk. But the Snodgrass poem was published. Sapphireís poems on child sexual abuse and other edgy themes have been widely published. Bukowski was wildly successful in his day and is still popular now. Profanity is no longer taboo; everybody and his brother knows Larkinís "This Be The Verse" by heart. I hate to say it, but the only thing thatís still edgy, really, is racism. Itís the only thing people will admit to being shocked and offended by, the only thing that still gets censored. Thankfully itís also old-fashioned, otherwise weíd be drowning in Neo-Nazi verse by poets anxious to appear daring.
So what am I saying? I suppose I should try to wrap all this up with some kind of point. Okay, here goes:
Donít try to be edgy.
Donít try to be nice.
Try to write good poems.
1 The issue is online here: http://www.cortlandreview.com/features/06/december/index.html?ref=home
2 For the full text, see: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=171513
3 For the full text, see: http://torturebyroses.gydja.com/tbrkirkup.html
4 All three of our names begin with K, end with R, and have two L's. Isn't that, like, really weird?
5 A Chinese poet named Qin Zhongfei went to jail last year for writing a satirical poem.
6 Moroccan poet Ali Lmrabet was imprisoned in 2003 for writing satire.