Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Monday, June 24, 2013

Is. Poetry. Dead. Redux.

Addendum: I'm a bit sick of reading is-poetry-dead and the-novel-is-dead articles. Journalists never tire of the topic. Tomorrow I think I'll write about something entirely different. Wombats. Ladybugs. Cat videos. Nobody ever seems to get tired of cat videos.

This morning I was reading a 2009 Sally Thomas column, Is Billy Collins Killing Poetry?  and wanted to leave a comment, but the comments were closed. I was not thinking about Billy Collins so much as about the survival of poetry and the need to pay attention beyond the poets thrust into our faces by--by whom? the so-called poetry establishment? by the fact that it's easier to keep repeating the same old names?

For the record, I do not think in the least that Billy Collins is killing poetry, even though I admit to having written a riposte to "Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes" that was published in The Raintown Review and later made into a video by that multi-media artist, Paul Digby. Eventually "A Fire in Ice" appeared in my collection The Throne of Psyche (Mercer, 2011.)

Poetry survived the Dark Ages and the great vowel shift and one historical period clashing with another. It has even survived the tedium of the "authorless poem" and the enshrining of poetry in the ivory tower. It has survived mountains of terrible poems. It even survives all the people who claim they hate the stuff but haven't bothered to read enough to discover what's good out there.

What itched at me about the column had to do with the comments. Sally Thomas waxes enthusiastic over one of my favorite contemporary poets, the not-long-late Charles Causley, both his poems published for children and those not. I dearly love Causley and was glad to see her piping the news. A number of people left comments, and took the chance to bash Collins about the head a bit. But not one said, "Charles Causley. He sounds wonderful. I'll look him up." In fact, not one who wrote in even mentioned Causley.

Is it the same-old, same-old? Are people quite willing to talk over and over about how dreadful contemporary (academic! dull! pretentious! etcetera) poetry is--and some of the time, they are quite right--but not willing to explore somebody of beauty and joy and music and humor and depth like Causley? Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin rated Charles Causley very highly indeed, and they were both pretty demanding readers.

Plenty of interesting poets work quietly among us. Is it possible that some readers--even those who are writers--would rather disparage Collins (or Olds or Graham, or whoever their most-disliked "popular" poet is) than do some digging for poets they might like better?

On the web, Charles Causley is little seen because of copyright issues, but he is well worth seeking out. You might like him.


  1. John O' Grady reminded me of Dana Gioia's article on Causley, which I almost included. Suppose I should have. Thanks to John for a jab!

    So here it is:
    The Most Unfashionable Poet Alive: Charles Causley

  2. :-) Yes. So much gorgeous amazing poetry, and that's just in the little eddy of the literary world that I inhabit. I can't imagine having so much time on my hands that I'd waste it reading and writing about bad poetry, when there's so much good stuff around. How long do these folks expect to live?

  3. I'm very glad that you're in my eddy! Or one of them. I think I have a number of tiny eddies, though they appear to be starting to interlock...

  4. I don't understand this either, as I am always discovering amazing new poets -- it is much the same discussion with the contemporary short story those alleged vacuous-bloodless-academic-over-edited offerings. And some of them are -- but there's also a whole new generation of short story writers that delight me daily.

  5. I think this has some importance to the Edmundson article mentioned in today's post, Midori... If you come back, you might pop up there and leave some names of new discoveries that you especially like.

    Shall come by and see what you're up to--hope life is a little less busy now.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.