Why Is Contemporary Poetry So Bad?

We hear this complaint every few years. Modern or contemporary poetry has gone off the rails, (1) and needs to get back to rhyme and stanza form. (2). Or it's just different, and needs to be read differently. (3-9) Occasionally we get an intelligent and well-informed article admitting that poetry is currently too oblique, equivocal, painfully self-questioning, appealing to few readers, and those largely poets themselves (10) but arguing that 'free verse' itself is not the problem, as indeed I'd agree. (11)

Academic Mutterings

Mark Edmudson’s long article on Harper’s Magazine (10) voices concern within the ranks of the faithful:

Poets today commonly talk to themselves about talking to themselves. They have nothing to say on the larger issues of life.

Poets put all their efforts into developing a distinctive voice, unlike anyone else's. Argument, metre and technical finish are secondary.

Results are often (witness Anne Carson) obscure, mannered and private, requiring that critics and interpreters become in effect co-authors of the poem.

Careers are also precarious, so that poets need an MFA and influential mentor to get their first volume out, and then the teaching posts that will finally give them artistic and financial independence. That means assiduously climbing the poetry ladder, being careful to upset no one in the process.

Readers of these pages will know that I'd been making these same points for the last twenty years, first on TextEtc.com and here on Ocaso Press. Mark Edmudson speaks from inside the poetry establishment, of course, and his article is more a gentle reproof of some practices than a thoroughgoing diatribe. It begins:

‘Leafing through a volume of Robert Lowell’s poetry not long ago, I came across some lines that I couldn’t help reading over and over. They were from “Waking Early Sunday Morning” (1967), and they ran this way:

Pity the planet, all joy gone
from this sweet volcanic cone;
peace to our children when they fall
in small war on the heels of small
o war — until the end of time
to police the earth, a ghost
orbiting forever lost
in our monotonous sublime.

I was taken by the artistry of the lines, by their subtlety and their melancholy. I was impressed by the rhymes: “ghost” and “lost,” for instance, create exactly the right haunted and haunting sound. But it was Lowell’s ambition that impressed me; he was looking at the world as though from outer space, like a graying weary seer, and pronouncing judgment. He was calling things as he believed them to be not only for himself but for all his readers.’

I also like their music and melancholy, but have problems with content. In what way is our planet a volcanic cone, and why a sweet one? Outside Kant’s idiosyncratic (and rather confusing) use, sublime is an adverb or adjective, and not a noun. And then there’s the over-easy rhymes of gone/cone, time/sublime, etc. At the poetry workshops I attended decades ago the piece would have been called superficially attractive but not surviving detailed examination.

That Professor Edmudson didn't choose something more persuasive is a little disturbing in itself. His job is to teach literature, how to study and appreciate the best of its various forms. I don’t want to make too much of a single example ─ and Professor Edmudson is contrasting Lowell’s musicality and poetic ambitions with today’s efforts ─ but the case does illustrate what’s becoming general in academia: uncritical praise for establishment figures, without any explanation of why and to what extent they are important. Or any awareness that explanations are needed. If poets are part of the literary canon, it seems to follow that they are important, when academics, journalists and reviewers are entitled to write any laudatory nonsense they please. In short, are academics able to critically assess what they are teaching, and does this worship of 'important names' too much feed into contemporary poetry, given that most serious poets today earn their living and status on the university campus?

The Blight of Theory

Professor Edmudson also has some dark thoughts about the literary theorists 'down the hall', and the way that woke culture prevents today's poet from speaking for everyone, representing all cultures, social classes, genders and races.

I also believe literary theory can be over-prescriptive. Writers have always imagined themselves in other times and persons, and one reason for reading imaginative literature is to develop an empathy with markedly different lives and customs. Was the blind Homer a member of the warrior class? Representing what ethnic group did Shakespeare speak with authority in his Roman plays?

Literary theory, as I've tried to argue in an extended work that goes beyond today's culture wars, (12) should be a liberating experience, an adventure in the tapestry of ideas that constitute western thought. That volume also views the Frankfurt School, which some conservative writers see as undermining sound American values, as a force for good, though reminding readers that theories do not rest on logical absolutes. Ultimately our social values derive from customs and attitudes that long experience, often centuries of unhappy experiment, have shown to be broadly workable. Poetry, in contrast, often operates on the borderlands of human experience, with attitudes that are distinctly unworkable in everyday life. That is not its only function, most certainly, but it is an important one in Romantic and post-Romantic literature.


No one with a grain of sense makes a bookstore purchase without flipping through the pages, examining the contents and the author's cogency of expression. This same appraisal should be available in the literary review, but increasingly is not. Reviewing has become unabashed marketing. (13) Look at novels featuring on Amazon books, with their over-the-top blurbs. Look at the publications of the academic presses, which are worse, often giving no hint whatever of the book contents. Both are examples of successful marketing policies, but neither is honest.

Talking to Themselves

In some sense, poets have always talked to themselves, to their contemporaries and to the great figures of the past they hoped to emulate. But they have not generally talked about the truth of their expositions, which was wise, given that language is a elusive matter, with many problems of reference and recursion. (12) The philosophy of language a dauntingly technical field, indeed, and amateurs like poets are likely to produce only inconsequential musings. Since these carry little emotional weight, they cannot be more than marginally art, however we stretch that overworked term.

Why has this come about? Probably because sensible, well-read people no longer care for poetry. The pieces that typically grace the smaller presses have killed off any taste for the modern poem, which employs, when it's comprehensible at all, only the language of the everyday and humdrum. Even the great literature of the past now seems elitist, and needs to be dumbed down into our common patois, the more radical critic tell us. No matter that today's level of conversation would have appalled our grandparents, as a comparison of our past and contemporary dialogue in novels, plays and films will show.

Importance of Literature

Poetry has become fragmented and inward-looking, but was not so in Wordsworth's time, still less so in its sister art of novels. Jane Austen's keen eye in Pride and Prejudice shows how the aspirations of the middle class were accommodated by England's ruling classes, avoiding revolution and enriching both. (14) As Ramanathan remarks: 'Entertaining literature enthralls us with suspense, humor and the intense action of an engaging plot. Superior literature transcends mere action. It presents to the reader the author’s insights into human character and reveals the complex ways in which human character, action and circumstance interrelate to generate chains of consequences and results. Still finer literature reveals the complex interactions between action, individual character and the evolving character of the society in which the action takes place. The greatest literature goes still further. It reveals not only insights of individual and social character but of the character of Life itself.'

Commenting on the work of A.C. Bradley, he notes: 'A cursory review of the great literature of the world reveals that these works are replete with such inexplicable incidents, unnecessary and avoidable to the logical mind, irrational and implausible to the scientific intellect, other than as expressions of the inherent uncertainty and randomness of life, but natural and extremely common to the vision of those who perceive the deeper workings of life in its integral reality.' Can this be what contemporary poetry has lost in its post Baudelaire search for symbols in words themselves? Understanding grows out of our social life, not the dry abstractions of our theoreticians.

Literary Prizes

If climate scientists are often accused of refining only the CO2 global warming model, (15) literary critics seem worse. They bring little or no substantiation of their views but simply assume the current ranking in the closed shop of informed opinion is necessarily correct. Am I the only one who thinks the thought here too vacuous, the language too Jack and Jill, for this to be worthy Nobel laureate material? (16)

The Red Poppy

The great thing
is not having
a mind. Feelings:
oh, I have those; they
govern me. I have
a lord in heaven
called the sun, and open
for him, showing him
the fire of my own heart, fire
like his presence.
What could such glory be
if not a heart? Oh my brothers and sisters,
were you like me once, long ago,
before you were human? Did you
permit yourselves
to open once, who would never
open again? Because in truth
I am speaking now
the way you do. I speak
because I am shattered.

The article contains much intelligent (but not over-convincing) comment, but is the intrinsic quality, or, rather, the lack of it, on our reviewer's horizon? Is this 'motherhood is good thing' vacuity an eco-friendly poem? It can be argued so, but it's hardly compellingly the case. And isn't being 'shattered' a bit crass? Similarly with Seamus Heany's District and Circle, (17) where the first of five sonnets runs:

Tunes from a tin whistle underground
Curled up a corridor I'd be walking down
To where I knew I was always going to find
My watcher on the tiles, his cap by his side,
his fingers perked, his two eyes eyeing me
In an accusing look I'd not avoid,
Or not just yet, since both were out to see
For ourselves
        As the music larked and capered
I'd trigger and untrigger a hot coin
Held at the ready, but now my gaze was lowered
For was not our traffic not in recognition?
Accorded passage, I would re-pocket and nod
And he, still eyeing me, would also nod.

These five sonnets are generally regarded the best of a widely-praised collection, but is not the language rather unadventurous, the thought pedestrian, and the needs of the sonnet very imperfectly met? The piece runs easily but has nothing much to say.

Larger Matters

Those who read widely, beyond literary matters and the offerings of the mainstream press, may see matters as indicative of much wider malaise: erosion of civil liberties, increasing resource wars, spread of Marxist or woke ideology, prevalence of lies in public office, economic policies preferentially enriching the already rich, etc. I have put some references to the alternative press below, (18-20) to views will seem outrageous if not downright repellent to the more orthodox-minded, but may serve to suggest that a deep sense of unease and deception in public affairs is also corrupting our cultural life. (21) The Romantics turned away from the horrors of the Industrial Revolution, and our generation is equally affronted by the lies of our public spokesmen. We could at least argue for a stronger social element in contemporary poetry, not simply to recapture the reading public, but because, historically, the better poetry always cared for the larger picture.

In short, I think we should hold our poets to more account. Why certain periods are productive of great poetry is hard to say, but one requirement may be their belief in common enterprise, where they have an intelligent and demanding audience. In my brief article on Philip Larkin I have suggested that his audience failed him, (22) and the same may account for Geoffrey Hill's obscurities. (23)

The currency of Contemporary Poetry

We often talk about the currency of an idea, meaning how fully it is accepted and employed, which is an analogy worth taking further. To quote from my ebook, Money, Coinage and Society: {24}

'Coins were taken on trust, and had to be so accepted, as assay facilities were few and far between. Debasement of the coinage did occur in long-established and self-contained economies, however, and the Roman denarius, for example, continually declined in silver content without occasioning widespread disaffection. It was even replaced by the antonininus, ostensibly worth two dinarii, but often consisting of base metal given the thinnest of silver washes. Sometimes, of course, matters did go too far. Augustus felt compelled to introduce a splendid new coinage to mark the end of Republican Rome and its murderous wars of succession. Elizabeth I of England also replaced the woefully debased coinage of Henry VIII with standards that lasted three hundred years. But again it was the power and legitimacy of the issuing authority that finally counted, and while this was maintained all was generally well. With these intangibles comes custom, moreover, and real novelty in coinage may not be acceptable. The usurping Chinese emperor Wang Mang (7-23 AD) issued a bewildering variety of coins, which added to his unpopularity, but was not the only reason for his overthrow. Mohammad Tughluq, from 1324 to 1351 the gifted but capricious Sultan of Delhi, tried to press a leather coinage on his long-suffering subjects, but was ultimately unsuccessful and had to redeem the novelty with hard silver.

'With these points in mind, we come to see that money does not equate to coinage, but to the customs, laws and accepted practices that make for trade and commerce in civilised nations. It is these that make such needful activities operate to the satisfaction of all parties, not the properties or innate value of coins per se. Money is ultimately only a token of how human beings conduct their affairs. For most of money's history, stretching back four millennia in the Middle East, there were no coins at all. Today, coins and banknotes make up only 3% of money: the rest is digital entries, a few key-strokes that debit one account and credit another.'

'Money in modern times is overwhelmingly a fiat currency, where confidence is all. Despite assurances, loans were never fully backed by gold, even in the nineteenth century. To be able to ‘see the money’ gave confidence, but Britain also led the gold standard by reason of a worldwide confidence in its industry, its military strength, and probity of its institutions. Long and stable government gave everyone a faith in the system, and that trust still underpins the financial institutions. Here lies the reason why the banks were bailed out in 2008, and not the innocent parties, though the terms probably guarantee another crash. Sound money is needed by all regimes, and counterfeiting carries heavy penalties: it is not simply unethical but suborns the integrity of the state.'

That said, we can return to Professor Edmudson's observation that 'Poets put all their efforts into developing a distinctive voice, unlike anyone else's. Argument, metre and technical finish are secondary.' That goes along with the Postmodernist emphasis on relative viewpoints, the need to be endorsed by the leading publications, and the decline in critical reading skills. The last are unneeded, may even weaken the fiat value of the poem concerned. Those outside the current poetry world, who don't accept its authority, will of course find little to like in these 'emperor's new clothes' enterprises, but they are simply not attuned to poetry as it is now. As René Lalou remarked of French poetry back in 1973:

L'essentialle de la poésie, écrit Gaetan Picon dans son Panorama des Idées contemporaines, n'est plus dans son contenue ou sa sa forme prosodiques, il est dans son langue même, qui tend à devenir fin-en-soi et création originale. {25}

We should also remember that banks crash every so often, rendering their digital assets worthless.

References and Resources

1. Graham, J. Y. Your Suspicions Are Correct: Free Verse Poetry Is Garbage. The Federalist. September 2017.
2. Böttger, D. Rudyard Kipling and exactly why modern poetry systematically sucks. Seven Secular SermonsSeven Secular Sermons. December 2018.
3. ‘Dbn367’ Is modern poetry Truly terrible? Reddit/poetry. 2017
4. Parmar, S. Is contemporary poetry really in 'a rotten state' - or just a new one? Guardian. November 2018.
5. Charles, R. Why is modern poetry so bad? Washington Post. June 2013.
6. Mouradian, V. The Art of I: Why Contemporary Poetry Is So Bad. AreoMagazine. December 2020.
7. Jacobs, A. Why Poetry is So Bad
Beachcomber. March 2021
8. Smith, D. Modern verse/ just gets worse/ ... Guardian. October 2005.
9. Clark, B. The Narcissism of Contemporary Poetry. The Walrus April 2019.
10. Edmudson, M. Poetry Slam Or, The decline of American verse. Harper’s Magazine. July 2023
11. Holcombe, C.J. Writing Poetry Ocaso Press
12. Holcombe, C.J. Literary Theory Ocaso Press
13. Holcombe, C.J. Death of Literary Criticism Ocaso Press
14. Ramanathan, J. Literature as a Key to Understanding People, Society and Life. Cadmas Journal May 2018.
15. Plimer, I. Green Murder. Connor Court Publishing, 2022.
16. Rumens, C. Poem of the week: The Red Poppy by Louise Glück The Guardian August 2021.
17. Anon. District and Circle Fawbie October 2006
18. Money, Economic and Banking: Wall Street on Parade.
19. Foreign Affairs: Global Research
20. Covid: Dr. John Campbell videos
21. Ferguson, C.H. Predator Nation. Crown Publishing, 2012.
22. Holcombe, C.J. Poetry and Personality. Philip Larkin.
23. Holcombe, C.J. Duplicities of the Word. Geoffrey Hill.
24. Holcombe, C. J. 2020. Money, Coinage and Society. Volume 2. 383. Free from Researchgate.
25. Lalou, R. 1973 Histoire de la Poésie Francaise. Presses Universitaires de France. Chapter IX.