Feature Articles

A PARADISE OF MFA: 'O MY AMERICA! MY NEW-FOUND LAND!' by Kevin Kiely

(Poetry Ireland News, September/October 2008)

"Poets who once had audiences now have students" - Robert Lowell

No other continent gives succour to its army of poets, as does the United Stations of Armageddon! Permitting 'our foreign correspondent' to generalise: American Poetry is more demotic, more daring, more erotic, more experimental, more expletive and more Kevin Kielyexotic than the European model. The poetry scene is less of a cosy-cartel swamped in arts-politics for the simple reason of population, population, population. Marx ultimately feared and loathed the teeming masses but not Whitman and the Transcendentalists. Slighting reviews, the establishment's cold shoulder, cliques and feuds are 'viewed' here as European neuroses. Political and nihilistic poems are designated 'protest poetry'. American poets were born-again-Wittgensteinians involved with language alone long before the Beats, and created freezer-fresh colloquial everyday speech that mocks the claims of the Romantics and their modern heirs. American poets revile encyclopedic-wikipedic terms: language poets, sound poets, found poets, performance poets, rap poets, jazz/blues poets, and of course, crap poets, yet embrace multilingualism. In Europe, the Babel of archaic unused tongues yields a late harvest of translations, American poets see translation as their duty, and do it better.

Auden and Larkin, for instance, are seen as of their time, 'disconsolate surly decadents'. Wallace Stevens is glossed as 'all too French' because he ultimately found poetry the supreme fiction and American poets 'reject' the Rimbaudesque stance of poéte maudit despite their own outsiders and suicides: Hart Crane, Vachel Lindsay, Anne Sexton, Plath, Berryman, Jarrell, and even Harry Crosby. America, unlike Europe does not exalt the mad, bad and dangerous over the stealthy, the academically tenured, and the continually touring. American poetry is geographically wider yet nationally assertive, even if a micro-indistry. 'Poebiz' and its self-assured practitioners stand taller at the lectern addressing the multitudes, as perhaps once the ancients did from Athens to Carnac, the hillsides of Cymru, Alba, Tara, and Drum Ceat. The 'American poet' is secure in the knowledge that Bob Perelman extolled in his long poem of the 1990s, 'The Marginalization of Poetry', transmogrified with a lengthy exegis as The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History (1996).

To savour the infinite mass of fabulous American poets is like opening a super-size organic soup in feverish ecstasy, starting with (the usual suspects) the 3 'R's': Rakosi, Rexroth, Reznikoff, adding Denise Levertov, Lorine Niedecker, Cid Corman (more nervous than Beckett over a word), Jerome Rothenberg, Cathy Song and Keith Wilson. Milosz's 'Ars Poetica' is the antithesis of American aesthetics:'What I'm saying here is not, I agree, poetry,/ as poems should be written rarely and reluctantly,/ under unbearable duress etc'. American poets reject this as 'European groaning', and Pollock-like fling buckets of words, as it were, onto the studio floor and become clowns cycling in non-Euclidian circles to make their art, embedded in what Richard Wilbur described as Emily Dickinson's 'gleeful ironic gaiety'. The 'punchy' journalese of Ed Dorn's Gunslinger reflects all of the people all of the time, even if American poets accept that not all of the people require poetry: and that my friends is democracy be it truth or untruth. Open another collection at random, finger two lines from Creeley's 'Ballad': 'Oh come home soon, I write to her. / Go fuck yourself, is her answer.'

Therefore, the poet of destiny who pines in Celtic Tiger Ireland devoid of An Chomhairle Ealaíon / RTÉ / Irish Times approval should either seek asylum in America, on an MFA program or teach if there are a few chapbooks on your CV, all of which easily leads to (paid) academic editorial work. Magazines abound = accessible publication = university circuit readings = friendships, clubs, pubs, fraternities, sororities and foxier venues. The MFA lifestyle will remove the pining poet from the long queues for summer schools' committees, poetry-reading venues, poetry welfare slams and soap opera writers' groups east of the Atlantic. Yeats, armed with an MFA might have gone beyond Gonne amidst a campus populace of enraptured apprentices, vistas of unsurpassing beauty, evenings in for solitude, or evenings out for diversion, late-night free Shuttles, gymnasia to start the day.

Europe condemned various poets into exile such as Ovid, Dante, Joyce and jailed scores of others such as Tasso and Akhmatova, neglected Baudelaire and various notables, murdered many including Lorca, and hanged our own Piaras Feiritéar, whereas America has hosted a steady constellation of writers, inclusive of Thomas Mann, Huxley, Solzhenitsyn and Milosz. Heaney, Kinsella, Montague, Boland, and Muldoon owe much to Uncle Samson; the shortest way to Tara is no longer via Holyhead but via the Winedark Ocean east of Galway: do you want to hang on until a cnuas is placed around your neck? Do not be a stay-at-Homer! Go west to Shangri-La-La-Land!

Fulbright Scholar Kevin Kiely is concluding a study of the poetry collection in The Woodberry Poetry Room, Harvard University.

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