The Poet According to Harper's

This poet, first arrested by the implied promise of this passage (Buzzfeed headline: “How to become a Great Poet (TM) in three easy steps”), is struck by the subtle gendered irony contained therein.

We might say that three qualities are necessary to write superb lyric poetry. First, the writer must have something of a gift: she must be able to make music, command metaphors, compress sense, write melodiously when the situation demands and gratingly when need be. She must also have something to say. There must be some region of her experience that has transfixed her and that she feels compelled to put into words and illuminate. She must burn to attack some issue, must want to unbind a knot, tighten it, or maybe send a blade directly through its core.

Given these powers — the power of expression and the power to find a theme — the poet must add ambition. She must be willing to write for her readers. She must be willing to articulate the possibility that what is true for her is true for all. When these three qualities — lyric gift; a serious theme, passionately addressed; real ambition (which one might also call courage) — come together, the results can be luminous: one gets Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” or Plath’s “Daddy,” or Lowell’s “Sunday Morning” (or Wallace Stevens’s). But without that last ingredient, ambition, nothing great will come.

— “Poetry Slam: Or, the decline of American verse,” by Mark Edmundson, in Harper’s July 2013, p. 64. Full text behind a paywall here: http://harpers.org/archive/2013/07/poetry-slam/

Some relevant pieces of information about the text:

  1. A few years ago, Harper’s was one of the worst offenders on the VIDA list. It’s still not doing so well.
  2. The author uses the feminine pronoun to refer to the hypothetical Great Poet.
  3. Three out of four of the examples of Great Poetry are by male authors.
  4. The author of the article is a man.

Since I’d rather be a Great Poet (TM) than a Women’s Studies professor, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about these facts and whether or not they indicate that Harper’s Magazine has a long way to go before its head will be completely removed from its own posterior.

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