The unsolved mystery is why no poetry written since the time of Eliot, Yeats, Stevens, Frost, or possibly Auden has anything like the same memorability as theirs . . . Wallace Stevens’s poetry is more beautiful, and Robert Frost’s often more powerful, than Eliot’s, but the latter’s, once read, refuses to leave the mind. . . Eliot was the equivalent in literature of Albert Einstein in science in that everyone seemed to know that these men were immensely significant without quite knowing for what.Daniel E. Pritchard on The Wooden Spoon took up the gauntlet, noting that plenty of publishers, magazines, and blogs, including “The Quarterly Conversation, Jacket, Maggy, Pen & Anvil, Dark Sky, Dzanc Books, Fulcrum, The Critical Flame, and others . . . have persisted under the fantasy that through hard work and imagination we can make something worthwhile. Make literary culture vibrant. . . that we are literary culture.” To prove his point: when Frank Wilson responded by commenting that “while there are plenty of good writers around . . . the culture as a whole no longer seems to . . . take literature seriously,” Pritchard used that as a springboard for a follow-up post:
Well, it's absolutely fair to say that no single person has the stature that Eliot did then. Ashbery or Heaney are closest. But I'm not sure that such a figure is possible any longer. First, the narrative has changed: as an audience, we no longer anoint demigods because we no longer adhere to the same hegemony and homogeneity that existed at mid-century. . . Second, we have largely unmasked / undermined the pretension of high culture. People no longer feel the need to pay lip service to so-called high art, and alternate traditions have been legitimized in kind.
Besides, there are so many excellent poets writing today: John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich, Geoffrey Hill, Rae Armantrout, D.A. Powell, Mark Levine, Ange Mlinko, Maxine Kumin, Ben Lerner, Mark Strand, Seamus Heaney, Tim Donnelly, and many more. Beyond that, there are even more young poets uncounted: scribbling, sweating, reading. . .Patrick Nathan’s first impulse after reading Epstein’s essay was to mourn, but then he perked up:
With household names like Cormac McCarthy, Gabriel García Márquez, Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison; with incredibly perceptive critics along the lines of Martin Amis and Harold Bloom; with lesser known writers like Anne Carson and Eula Biss performing thrilling literary experiments, we have nothing short of a wonderfully diverse and enriching literary world. Epstein’s article only shows his unproductive and twisted nostalgia. . . In today’s world, a lover of the literary arts has a chance at greatness even if he or she couldn’t afford to go to Harvard or Oxford. In fact it’s what most of us are banking on. Things are only going to become more exciting from here.Epstein’s essay resumes an alarm he sounded as early as 1988 in his now-famous essay “Who Killed Poetry?” (also in Commentary). Apparently, what he has read and witnessed since hasn’t changed his mind. Has he missed reading someone? Is the change in culture he is describing a difference in quality or in values? Do we sacrifice “memorability” for diversity? Is our current culture dying or vibrant? We’d like to know your thoughts.
Related LOA works: American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, volume one: Henry Adams to Dorothy Parker (includes 14 poems by T. S. Eliot); John Ashbery: Collected Poems 1956–1987