Ten New Year’s Resolutions for American Poetry, 2017

by Gerry LaFemina

These are resolutions for poetry. For readers. For writers. For what’s possible. For some, they may seem curmudgeonly. So be it. For some, they might seem frivolous. So what? We live in a time when there are more poems being written, being published in journals, published in anthologies and books, and yet, as someone who’s been reading poetry seriously for thirty years, I find myself often looking for poems that satisfy me beyond a first reading, and those seem harder to find. So here’s a list of resolutions for 2017 for American Poetry. They’re meant, in part, tongue in cheek, of course. But only in part.

    1. No more hyperbolic blurbs, particularly with comparisons to other poets. No, I don’t believe someone’s first book is as groundbreaking as Wallace Stevens’s Harmonium. I don’t want to hear that we haven’t seen an original voice like this since Dickinson. I’d rather see blurbs written like they were discussing coffee blends: ‘These are rich, earthy poems with a robust line and a bitter but strong aftertaste.”
    1. Stop confusing content with poetry. I understand the importance of what’s being said. But poetry is about how it’s being said. When we celebrate a book of poems, can we talk more about what writing about this subject as poems does for the subject? And what the subject does for the poems?
    1. And speaking of subject matter. Poems about writing poetry: please, stop. The subject has become cliché. I get it. We write poems. Writing poems is a magical, remarkable, inspiring, frustrating, aggravating thing. Yes. And since the audience for poetry is often mostly writers of poems, we get it. We really do. Nothing feeds into the popular criticisms of poetry more than poems about writing poetry.
    1. Of course, we write about our experiences (including our writing of poems). But does the I (or its most noble of stand-ins “you”) have to always be involved from jump. Poets, let’s forgo the openings that announce ourselves. “I’m sitting by the window staring at the windblown leaves…” What’s wrong with “Out the window, windblown leaves…”?  The I is implicit. When the I finally does show up in the poem, I promise (see what I did there?), its subjective power will be that much more effective.
    1. The I, though, is a powerful thing. Let’s continue our commitment to diversity. One of the joys of being a lover of poetry (and a poet who teaches) is the capacity to have people from all walks of life, with all sorts of voices, of all backgrounds, religions, and sexualities speaking. Part of the reason I wrote this list is to encourage them to be challenging and to challenge themselves.
    1. And let’s challenge authority, too. The biggest concern about the Trump election in terms of poetry for me is the rush to write poems about the election, about Trump. The easy poems are already present: “Grab them by the pussy” and “nasty woman” and “bad hombre” and “huge” are going to be in a lot of them. Poetry has to be more than just reactions; let’s write challenging, beautiful mediated responses. Let our challenges be complicated and powerful, not familiar, not political cliché. Trump’s hair is bad. His skin is Dorito colored. Surprise me.
    1. We can learn a lot about what surprises readers by reading the great poets of the previous few generations. Right now, it seems like most readers of poetry are reading their peers, and maybe the peers of their teachers. The twentieth century is rich with poets whose work should be celebrated, names that are slowly being forgotten: reclaim the poets of the sixties and seventies. The thirties and forties.
    1. And yes, yes. These are a great time for poetry. Let’s all subscribe to at least one or two (more) literary journals. Let’s support the editors and publishers who allow us to keep doing what we do, who keep insuring we have an audience. Ditto, let’s all buy several more collections of poetry than we did last year.
    1. Let’s read those journals and books with our most demanding selves. Let’s not settle as readers. Let’s not settle as writers.
    1. Bring poems to the streets, to the pulpit, to the classroom, to the bar…. For poetry to remain a living art, it is up to us. Give books of poems as presents to those who don’t normally read poems. Be excited about poems, and not with just other poets. Celebrate the poem, not just your own.

As for myself, I have my own resolutions as a poet. They are: 1. Read more (I already read a lot, but still), Facebook less. 2. Toughen the standards for my own work. 3. Correspond more with writers I admire—let them know I’m thinking of them and their work. 4. Order more books for the University library; why wouldn’t I spend their money to support presses and poets I’m grateful for. 5. No more pigeons, subways, or punk music in my poems (whoa, nelly!). 6. Write more in fixed forms—I used to write in forms a great deal, but recently, the desire to write in forms has vanished, but form teaches us so much about free verse. 7/ Say no to people’s requests more often (I don’t have to write every blurb I’m asked to write) so I can give more time to the writing and editing of poems. 8. Keep being grateful, patient, and attentive; those are three attributes every artist needs, which can’t be taught. 9. Experiment with new poetic strategies, while keeping in mind that experimentation doesn’t have to mean white space, language poetry lite, or other postmodern trappings of the avant-garde. 10. Teach, write, revise, live, repeat.


 

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