Maybe you are sitting in a crowded bar when a man at the table next to yours begins talking just a little too loudly, a little too passionately. Maybe you notice he is using words not used in polite, sophisticated company, words like “soul” and “muse” and “tradition.” Maybe you notice his monologue gets louder and more wide-ranging the longer he talks. Maybe you notice he is challenging many common assumptions and making everyone at the table, and all the surrounding tables, uncomfortable. Maybe you notice he is right.
That man is Raymond Hammond, and that brilliant, disruptive monologue is Poetic Amusement. Hammond takes on the MFA machine, the soulless condition of contemporary poetry, and much more in this masterful and far-ranging book. It is a passionate book, but also a learned book, drawing on extensive reading in poetics as well as on Hammond’s experience as the editor of the New York Quarterly. He picks up many of the familiar arguments about the damage done to American poetry by the culture of the MFA, but he makes the unusual maneuver of rooting his complaint not just in an awareness of the contemporary scene but also in an understanding of the nature of poetry that draws on sources well before the ascendancy of John Ashbery. The result is a fuller picture of the current dilemma – some would say crisis – in American poetry than has yet been offered.
Hammond’s fundamental assessment is that we are in a crisis of “soul.” He defines soul as “life essence which exists as a result of . . . thought and action by a person” (xviii). Poets, he claims, have largely ceased to put such life experience into their poems, instead simply churning out cheap poetic product meant to gratify the demand for publication. Under a system that demands a poem a week – as part of the MFA workshop or in response to the pressure for constant publication – Hammond argues, “[w]riting becomes drudgery like mowing the lawn or taking out the trash. It no longer resonates on a deeper level to be written, but nags at a constant conscious level to be produced” (73). This distinction between what is merely “produced” and what is really written is Hammond’s most significant contribution in this book. It calls us to expect more from poetry.
Hammond blames this soullessness on the exclusive focus in MFA programs on matters of craft. Since it is generally considered impossible to teach the sort of communion with the Muse that makes great poetry, Hammond says, poet-teachers have let the ubiquitous “workshop” degenerate into endless nitpicking about mere technique, the result being poetry by committee. Poetry workshops have focused on what is easily taught or communicated among participants. Hammond is not, however, opposed to craft itself. He is, after all, the editor of the New York Quarterly, which has published a series of “craft interviews” with prominent poets for over forty years. Poetic Amusement even offers its share of practical craft tips – such as avoidance of the vague “you” and of confusing, merely personal references – though these tips are always connected to a larger point about the nature of poetry itself. Hammond’s complaint is that only craft is emphasized in many creative writing programs. This focus not only ensures that students write lifeless poems while in the process of earning the degree but also leaves them with a false sense of what poetry is, a misconception that mars all their subsequent work. Having very little experience with MFA workshops, I’m not in a position to evaluate the truth of Hammond’s claim about this focus, but, given the innumerable mediocre poems one sees published every month – poems that seem to stake their claim to our attention primarily upon their spacing or typography or some other technical matter – I find Hammond’s line of reasoning at least plausible. Certainly, inspiration is not emphasized in current literary theory or poetics, as is attested to by Marjorie Perloff’s account, in her recent Unoriginal Genius, of the new poetics of indiscriminate quotation and all-out recycling, exemplified by Kenneth Goldsmith’s transcripts of traffic reports. Hammond turns the table on the over-easy avant-garde, accusing it of lacking the sharpness to be truly cutting edge: “It is by removing the evidence of a lived life and by playing it safe, the poet evades the most important aspect of the poetic process: the inward going” (76). Hammond has the guts to insist that poetry should have, well, guts.
Despite his criticism of the current situation in the American MFA culture, Hammond does not seem to join Donald Hall in his famous cry of “Iowa delenda est.” In fact, Hammond’s position is perhaps even more radical: let us not destroy the workshops but rather let us hand the class over to the Muse. One way of giving the Muse her due, according to Hammond, is to pay more attention in graduate-level writing classes to the “tradition,” Hammond’s Eliotesqe term for the best poetry of the past. Such exposure nudges students toward a fuller understanding of poetry, a sense of possibility in the art beyond the easy poem by way of the lowest common denominator. Quite simply, knowledge of the tradition raises the bar. Exposure to real soul pushes one’s own work further. Beyond that, Hammond argues, “[t]here is a greater need for poets to have experienced life” (94). How to really live can’t be taught in a writing workshop, but a writing teacher can encourage students to dig deep into their own experiences in writing. A writing teacher can refuse to let students get away with generating mere product and calling it poetry.
Polemical, learned, and passionate, Poetic Amusement is well worth the time for both the aspiring poet and the experienced teacher of writing. It has certainly changed the way I conduct writing classes at the undergraduate level, and it has intensified the critical eye I turn on my own work before sending it out into the world. If Hammond is talking too loudly, if he is unabashedly making enemies, it is only because poetry really matters to him. Let’s hope someone at those surrounding tables is listening.
About the reviewer:
Benjamin Myers is the author of two books of poetry: the forthcoming Lapse Americana(NYQ Books, 2013) and Elegy for Trains (Village Books Press, 2010), for which he won the 2011 Oklahoma Book Award for Poetry. His poems may be read in Nimrod, The New York Quarterly, DMQ Review, elimae, Tar River Poetry, Salamander, The Iron Horse Literary Review and many other fine journals. His critical prose has appeared in journals ranging from Studies in Philology to World Literature Today. With a Ph.D. from Washington University in St. Louis, he teaches literature and poetry writing at Oklahoma Baptist University.