Thursday, November 03, 2005

“Richard Siken’s Crush…represents a common and very dangerous strain in contemporary poetry that treats as incidental both the lay reader and the world beyond the poem.”
-Michael Hansen from Speakeasy Poetry Series

This is an argument about contemporary poetry that annoys the crap out of me. The quote above is taken from the reviews section of the website for an important and popular NYC reading series. Siken, to whom the quote refers, is the most recent Yale winner. Never mind that I love his book. Never mind the fact that it seems pretty straightforward to me—it’s about the self-consciousness and inner isolation that comes, very naturally, with being misunderstood by other people—in the case of Siken’s speakers, the cause of misunderstanding is often homosexuality, but the feeling of being misunderstood portrayed in the book applies broadly—and which can be fostered by language. What is the root of this notion that poetry, or literature in general (see Ban Marcus’s recent article in Harper’s in which he, albeit unfairly, trashes Jonathan Franzen for advocating only accessible literature), should be careful not to alienate anyone by being challenging? One of the best things about contemporary poetry, because it has proliferated in so many different directions, is that it caters to a wide variety of tastes and needs, from those who want poetry that neatly and obviously refers to the world at hand, to those who want poetry that requires intimate and esoteric knowledge of the culture of poetry before it makes any sense. To call Siken’s book representative of a “very dangerous strain in contemporary poetry” (and let me stress that I think this is a misreading of Siken’s book in particular—it’s not that weird) is to confess a fear of difficulty in general. We don’t come to poetry for the same pleasures we expect from TV and Sci-Fi novels. We come to it for a challenge, for its capacity to portray less familiar emotional states, and for empathy with our own experiences of those unfamiliar, but no less real, emotional states. To deny that in favor of poetry that is easily accessible to “the lay reader” is to miss the point entirely. We should work hard to understand some things—poetry is an exclusive club, but we each have the capacity to initiate ourselves through patient apprenticeship. Most of us spent our high school and college years in our rooms curled up with books gratefully struggling for understanding. Certainly, for me, those years paid off.


S.R. Deardorff said...

Truth is both yours and your opponent's view are subjective, self-centered, and probably, but not necessarily, narcissistic.

Not that narcissism hasn't created many a great things.

peace n whatnot,


morescotch said...


crush is really freaking awesome.

Anonymous said...

narcissistic, maybe. but also to be kept in mind is that those who have once been in thrall to Mr. Lux often fall under this mist of Clarity for the Reader Now! Struggle for Understanding Never!

and since i might be more your kinda narcissist than michael's i say right on. workers of the world unite.

Michael Hansen said...

Doing a cleanup of the Speakeasy site, and double-checking to see that our old reviews are showing up on web searches, I found this post. Thanks for reading the review, Craig.

A thought: you ought to read more than the first couple of paragraphs.

Since my argument had nothing to do with accessibility, and since the poet I champion in the review, Peter Streckfus, is a very difficult poet, your complaints here don't make a lot of sense. Siken is accessible, sure, but that's beside the point: his poems are masturbatory bits of self-mythology, and they're boring, and they sound exactly like 85% of the stuff being mass-produced by recent MFA grads all over the country.

You disagree with that assessment, no problem, I'd be interested to find out why (seriously, I would, I'm not being flip). But I don't like being pulled out of context, especially when the circular conclusions you reach not only have nothing to do with what I said but also just return to the old, tired arguments: tv is easy (is it, always?), sci-fi is easy (is it, always?), poetry is HARD (is it . . . always?). There's a difference between accepting that poetry isn't widely appreciated, and loving it anyway, and thinking that you are, by virtue of your lonely place as a poet or reader of poetry, part of an "exclusive club." That's pretty much what I hate about Richard Siken's poems (I'm sure he's a nice guy, nothing personal). Certainly, my comments never had anything to do with this easy definition of "accessibility," especially the way Thomas Lux talks about it, which I despise, to respond to the one of the anonymous commenters.

I like William Carlos Williams as much as I like Gertrude Stein, and I happen to think that's just fine.

--Michael Hansen

Craig Morgan Teicher said...


I appreciate your taking the time to respond to my post. And you got me, you're right on the charge of taking you out of context to make a different argument than the one you were making in your review. Rereading the review now, I realize that I was responding to something that was on my mind at the time of which your review reminded me, so I went with it. That was an unfair use of your work.

But there are still a few things in your assessment of Siken that don't sit right with me, and which are probably the reason why I was so alarmed that you called his work a "dangerous strain" in contemporary poetry, even though I went on the write about a different danger, against which you were not in fact arguing.

I should say that, while I'm interested in Strekfus' book, I like Siken's much better, and part of my disagreement with you must come down to a difference taste. But, put simply, I don't think that Siken's seeming solipsism makes him a bad, dangerous or even self-indulgent poet. I actually think he's quite empathic, which is why I value his work so highly. It seems to me that we live in a cultural moment that is extremely isolating, in which we are asked to believe that TV portrays "reality" even though what happens there rarely matches up with anything that really happens. The threats to our health and safety that we're living with--threats like AIDS, Terrorism, racial, sexual and religious prejudices that we pretend are no longer problems--are vague and pervasive. Now that's not news to anyone. What I think is important about it in terms of contemporary poetry is that it makes sense to me that poets right now would take the distortions of their own imaginations as their principal subject--I think that's a necessary and empathic turn, as it was when Eliot, Lowell, Berryman and Plath did it. I think it reflects this moment and its principal troubles, one of which is the difficulty in verifying what is "real" through the scrim of mass-media and constant pressure under which we live. And, of course, language is the medium through which those exterior distortions are communicated, so it makes sense to me that a poet like Siken would struggle with the language he uses to characterize himself and his nearby surroundings in his poems; participating in his struggle as a reader makes me feel less alone in my own struggle, and it seems dangerous to me if we don't have poets doing that. A number of other really wonderful younger poets, such as Mary Szybist, Peter Gizzi, and Rachel Zucker, seem to me to be similarly engaged to equally powerful empathic effect. That said, there are many younger poets I admire whose projects have a more public focus, like D.A Powell, who I think is one of the most important and lasting poetic voices of his generation and of this period in time.

I think it's unfortunate that you seem to have so little faith in the poets coming out of MFA programs right now, because, while a lot of their work is, as ever, not good, a lot of it is really good, the poets having digested the concerns of their immediate predecessors as well as more distant influences to produce work filled with empathic humor, reflexive intensity, and deeply felt engagement with both the world at hand and the literary tradition.