A Brief Reply to ‘Poetry Slam’ by Mark Edmundson

from Claudia Rankine’s ‘Don’t Let Me Be Lonely’

Like many of you, I recently read “Poetry Slam: Or, the decline of American verse” by Mark Edmundson in the latest Harper’s (also of note is the brilliant rebuttable by Seth Abramson). I’d like to make the following points as my humble response.

First, from the discussion of Merwin in the first section of the essay, it seems Edmundson has forgotten The Lice or The Rain in the Trees – all the volumes in which Merwin eloquently displays his view of environmental decay and the human values that are its downfall. Poems like “The Last One” and “Native Trees” certainly are not “oblique, equivocal, painfully self-questioning,” as Edmundson describes contemporary poetry like Merwin’s.

Without question, Merwin has a “lyric gift; a serious theme, passionately addressed; real ambition,” in short, the qualities that Edmundson lists as lacking in contemporary poetry. But, perhaps, Edmundson and I see these qualities differently. This brings me to my second point. Edmundson’s sense of “ambition” seems to stem from a lack of ambition on his part. Striving towards “common” ground and universal humanity through poetic eloquence is all well and good, but this is reductive and restrictive to the multitude of idiosyncratic voices that makes contemporary poetry so startlingly alive. This multitude of voices also performs an all-important questioning of what “common” means, a necessary performance indicative of an extraordinarily diverse world.

Edmundson’s argument also speaks to the notion that poetry is only necessary when the common reader needs revelation, which should not be limited to times post-trauma. Poetry is needed to address the trauma of everyday life – a trauma too menial for Edmundson, too uncommon to the notion of “common” Edmundson has in mind.

As a supplement to this second point, I’ve started a list of titles that, perhaps, would complicate and enrich Endmundson’s view of ambition and universality. This list appears at the end of this post; I invite you to add to this list in the comments section.

My third and final point is directed at Harper’s, a magazine I read and admire. There seems to be a rash of articles extremely critical of our community’s current status in contemporary life. They seem self-loathing, as if poetry were no longer up to the challenge of relevance. This could not be less accurate. Poetry is, more than ever, up to the challenge. A quick glance at the list I have started below will direct you to writers whose work transcends these newfound grievances. When I read an article like Edmundson’s, I think to myself that the poetry of Ashbery, Carson, Merwin and Rich is exactly the work that unifies, enlightens and challenges readers to the task of being alive. This work should be upheld to indicate a mere fraction of poetry’s courage and insight in the face of cowardice and ignorance, not another article that smacks of in-fighting. To my mind, this is the kind of article that distances poetry from culture even further.


alphabet by Inger Christensen; Garbage and Sphere by A.R. Ammons; 100 Notes on Violence by Julie Carr; The Cloud Corporation by Timothy Donnelly; Area by Marcella Durand; The Maximus Poems by Charles Olson; National Anthem by Kevin Prufer; Voyager by Srikanth Reddy; Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine; Turtle Island by Gary Snyder; Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith


  1. Thanks for this, CK, though I think your attention gives the essay more credit than it is due. The poet does not answer to the critic, nor is she compelled to sing in the public hall of fuckery for that fuckery’s amusement—as the speculum speculorum. Long live the insular, the reflective, the gnostic, and let Edmundson keep “Daddy” as his bedfellow.

  2. I enjoyed your post, Chris. I have to say that I think Edmundson’s way of thinking reminded me a little of Stalinism (good art must serve as a useful socio-cultural tool). I do not think Edmundson reads very much contemporary poetry; after all, anything beyond Stevens is clearly ‘too opaque.’ (Anne Carson is ‘opaque’? Is he reading the same Anne Carson I have been reading?) This man wants a crystal-clear message! And he’s looking for a new church, I think… (He does seem to like the preachy and pompous late Eliot, after all.) And the worst thing is that Edmundson’s argument is such a tiresome cliche, all told; it could have been written by a robot. (And Edmundson is by far no Harold Bloom, whose conservative judgements we forgive because the man is just brilliant)

    Time for Edmundson’s retirement, I think!

    1. Agreed, Michael. I often found myself baffled by how he could think Carson and Merwin and the others were opaque. I also like how you identify what he’s after as a new church. It does seem like there is only one way (one system of belief) to adhere to, and if you don’t, you’re looked down upon and seen as needing to see the light.

      1. I think Edmundson should take a year’s sabbatical and spend it on the Island of Attu, wrapped in soft hides and with a trunk full of poems by Clark Coolidge ever at his side. He will return to the mainland richer, more natural, less tedious, more musical…

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