Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Forum Thread: In 2111, What 2011 Poets Will Our Academic Descendants be Reading and Assigning?


This post originally appeared on this site on April 9, 2008, when Poets.net was still very young. I believe this question is worthy of another look.

As Bugzita on Foetry (Reply #34, November 28, 2006), I posted the following:

Quite frankly, most poetry published today would not pass "The Uncle Lyle Test." My Uncle Lyle is an ordinary Joe who likes to read, which I did not know until he read my first book (which sort of passed the test, but not entirely--oh, well).

Say what you will about bestsellers, but they are bestsellers because they pass the test imposed by the Uncle Lyles of the reading world. Now if your work is so rarified that it leaves most readers scratching their heads, that's fine, and there's something to be said for creating work that excludes all but a few insiders--academia does it all the time. That's a choice, and I respect that.

But I have a problem when these rarified poets start whining and moaning because no one wants read or buy their books. So some of them resort to dishonest methods to drum up bogus awards, which, from what I can see, are based less on quality of work and more on how well-connected they are. So everyone sets up a "press," and poets publish each other's poetry, no matter the quality: "Wink, Wink." To those not in the know, it all looks very respectable.

The problem is: the published work itself becomes insular and not all that interesting to the average reader. And because most readers are average in terms of intellect and tastes, the rarified poets' books sell, perhaps, one or two hundred copies, sold to other poets. Of course there are always exceptions, but, unfortunately, this insularity seems to be the norm.

And you wonder why poetry no longer matters? :?:


So, then, in 2008 (2011), as Jennifer, I pose the following questions for your consideration and opinion:

In 2111, what 2011 poets will be considered as literary representatives of our era, their works published in The Norton Anthology (2111 edition) and assigned by our academic descendants to school children and college students? If you wish, support your supposition with details.

Conversely, what 2011 poets will slide into obscurity? If you wish, support your supposition with details.

Related thread: "Is Poetry Dead?"


  1. When you say '2008 poets,' do you mean poets who are alive in 2008? I agree with the thrust of your essay.

    It's funny, but poets that pass the "Uncle Lyle Test" in the 20th century tend to be women: Edna Millay, Dorothy Parker, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Elizabeth Bishop.

    But all sorts of poets--whom nobody remembers anymore--probably did write poems that passed the "Uncle Lyle Test," but they were/are completely ignored in favor of a lot of 'revolutionary' blowhards, and when bad poetry, or poetry that exists for some 'cause,' gets recognized and praised for generations, not the appreciation of 'Uncle Lyle's poetry,' but the will to enjoy and write what Uncle Lyle will enjoy, simply dries up, or the impulse moves over into writing novels, though I'm not sure the novelists are pleasing Uncle Lyle much these days, either. If you don't like murder mysteries, you're sort of out of luck. Uncle Lyle probably reads those fat biographies of people like Harry Truman--interesting, maybe, but not poetry.

    Eventually the Uncle Lyles all die. You have people who wear sports regalia, the cutthroat business people, the office workers who watch porn, the feeble-minded, the women who dream of purses and shoes, the moral majority who associate poetry with oddball, forbidden subjects, old people who garden or watch TV, the young political activists, but there's no more Uncle Lyles, there's no more people who care the slightest bit about poetry, or know what it is, even if that poem were a poem Uncle Lyle would like.

    And in the university? They chop up Uncle Lyle and laugh.

    This is a very ambitious topic, Jennifer.

    Perhaps we need a poll. Make a list of 100 living poets, and we'll vote on them. Will they be read 100 years from now?

    We need some sort of starting point.

  2. Actually, Anonymous, Uncle Lyle does read poetry, but nothing written today. If you say "Donald Hall," he'll ask, "Donald who?"

    He reads the schoolhouse poets, such as Robert Frost, probably because Frost was so much vibrant in the popular culture and actually read at President Kennedy's inaugural back in January 1961.

    Frost's poetry is also accessible to the average reader, while, at the same time, is satisfying on a more sophisticated level.

    Can you think of a modern poet who accomplishes inticing both the common (wo)man and the intellectual? I contend that THESE 2008 poets (whoever they are) will be remembered and studied 100 years from now.

    Uncle Lyle knows *about* Maya Angelou (who read at Clinton's 1993 inaugural), but I doubt if he has ever read her, but I could be wrong (I'll have to ask him--in fact, I'll do just that and report back to you on that).

    Uncle Lyle is no dummy, but other than getting his business degree for his job, he eschews the ivory tower.

    What's more, he wouldn't care what "The University" would think of him and his tastes. If they laugh at him, he would laugh right back.

    BTW, he's a lot of fun to be around. Even as a little kid, I enjoyed his corny jokes and I loved his Dean Martin song imitations.

    But more than that, I suspect that his tastes pretty much reflect the tastes of the average person who does read a lot, but for pure enjoyment and not intellectual analysis.

    I'm going to compile a list of poets who are currently writing today (2008, that is), and if you'd like to help, either note them in the comment section, or email me Bugzita[at]gmail[dot]com.

    Maybe we can create a list of about 100 poets (give or take).

    At some point, I'll start a new thread, and we can vote on them.

    I have two for the list:

    Donald Hall

    Li-Young Li

  3. Jennifer,

    So the poets have to be alive?

    Poets alive today who will be read in 2108?

    Well, let's see... how many poets who were publishing in 1908 are being read today?

    Can we investigate this first?

    Before we do, we should look at how poets were made famous back then.

    Hundreds of poetry anthologies were published in the first half of the 20th century. Almost all of them featured poets long dead, over centuries of time, 1687-present, etc, or, broad subjects: Catholic verse, Humorous verse, Chinese Poetry, etc

    The anthology of 'young poets' and modern poets and contemporary poets is a fairly recent phenomenon, and confined to a few editors: Untermeyer, who was a friend of Frost; Oscar Williams (who was he friends with?) and his "Pocket Book of Modern Verse" which includes Whitman as the beginning of 'free' and 'modern' poetry, as the god of "American poetry arrives at last!" (which is bunk). Williams leaves out Browning as 'too Victorian' and Williams dismisses 'the Victorians' in a stupid, non-scholarly manner; Browning is as 'modern' as anyone, but Williams evidently couldn't see that in the late 1950s. "Modern was good, Victorian was bad" was the mantra, whatever that meant.

    One editor/poet who weighed in with an anthology of contemporary poets was Auden: Criterion Book of Modern American Verse (1956). Auden was annointed by TS Eliot. I don't have this volume, and wonder what poets Auden included.

    The point here is that poetry reputation is like a sausage. It is made. It doesn't just happen.

    There was also a book called 'Contemporary Verse' produced in 1936 by A. Marion Merrill and Grace E. W. Sprague. I'd love to peek inside that book. Did it sell? Who reviewed it?

    In the Oscar Williams anthology, I see only a handful of poets alive and publishing in 1908. Kipling. Yeats. 90% of the anthology are poets who emerged after 1908. The period between about 1920-1980 seemed to be the golden age of the anthology, just from a cursory glance. Hundreds of contemporary names emerged during this period, a swarm of minor poets, as poets from the 19th century were reduced to a few major figures that were taught in the schools.

    As we look at the next 100 years, it will be interesting to see what the 'collective memory' will do to names that we know now. Will Walter de la Mare be replaced by Billy Collins? Or will Walter de la Mare outlast Billy Collins? Will the formalism of Richard Wilbur outlast the eclecticism of Jorie Graham?

    But again, such decisions will be mostly political, and have less to do with poetry than we might think.


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