The single concrete, quantifiable complaint Edmundson lodges regarding poetry is that it no longer uses the pronoun "we" or the possessive "our." This, he writes, is evidence that poetry no longer deals in universal truths. A poet that doesn't speak as everyone must not have anything big to say about the human condition. Edmundson believes poets are reluctant to write as "we" due to a "theory-induced anxiety," an academy-instilled voice in poets' heads that says:
How dare a white female poet say "we" and so presume to speak for her black and brown contemporaries? How dare a white male poet speak for anyone but himself? And even then, given the crimes and misdemeanors his sort have visited, how can he raise his voice above a self-subverting whisper?
Edmundson's point is factually untrue. Poets of all kinds still use 'we' and 'our' and 'us.' But if they do so from the perspective of a gay man, a woman, a black woman, a Hispanic man, their attempts to look at big themes are often overlooked or dismissed rather than championed.
Take Richard Blanco's inaugural poem, the only poem millions of Americans will encounter over a four year-span. It's full of "we," "us," and "our." Does Blanco, who is gay and Latino, even count for Edmundson?
Edmundson also dismisses Frank Bidart, a poet who writes in the plural and from other perspectives besides his own—including that of an anorexic woman in "Ellen West." Bidart, too, is gay, and Edmundson reduces "Ellen West" to an "isolated droplet" in which the poet "quivers at the sight of one lover at a restaurant feeding another." The actual poem contains many scenes, none of which, as far as I can tell, feature any kind of "quivering." It is also extremely relevant to a broad range of people living in a society where physical aesthetic and health are engaged in a costly, perpetual war.
Edmundson dismisses Anne Carson, too, as "opaque" and "inscrutable"—the same Anne Carson who became a hit when her compulsively readable, gay coming-of-age "novel in verse" Autobiography of Red was name-dropped on Sex and the City. When Edmundson asserts that "no well-known poet" writes about big subjects like sex, he ignores the entirety of Carson's work. Take just one example from her collection Plainwater: "Men know almost nothing about desire / they think it has to do with sexual activity / or can be discharged that way. / But sex is a substitute, like money or language."
As a woman, though, does Carson count? Do her broad statements on gender and sex not matter for Edmundson's thesis?
The argument that poets need to tackle larger subjects may appear patently fallacious, but it's frequently repeated among writers. Edmundson's claim was explicitly endorsed by poet David Bespiel at the Rumpus, and Genoways, like Edmundson, claimed that the timidity and insularity of American writers was evidenced by a (perceived) reluctance to write about the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan is. (The idea that literary fiction writers are not all that engaged with the world is propounded by Siegel and Lennon, as well.)
Even if poets did need to tackle larger subjects—and I'm far from convinced, since my favorite contemporary poets address themes as big as sex, death, identity, history, and time—the idea that poets should solve that problem by speaking as though they had access to everyone else's experience elides an important fact. Women and minorities don't have a proportionally fair number of opportunities to speak for themselves in the literary world. (In fact, women's industry-wide low publication rates were documented to much discussion last year by VIDA, an organization for women in the literary arts.)
Literature would hardly seem in decline to the women or ethnic or sexual minorities just now getting access to its hallowed halls. That's why Edmundson's silliest assertion is that nobody finds themselves represented by poetry anymore. "No one," he writes, "will say what Emerson hoped to say when he encountered a poet who mattered: 'This is my music, this is myself.'"
But if Edmundson only recognizes himself in older, white, male poets, it may just be because he's older, white, and male.
The irony of Edmundson's essay is that it was published three months after Tony Hoagland wrote that poetry could literally save America—also in Harper's. According to Hoagland, poetry—contemporary poetry—could be used to "build our capacity for imaginative thinking, create a tolerance for ambiguity, and foster an appreciation for the role of the unknown in human life." Worthy goals, one would think.
We can all do better than writing (or publishing) tired essays about how poetry or fiction or literature is dying because it's no longer virile and manly. These writers reveal more about their own anxieties than about literature—reminiscent of Nathaniel Hawthorne's dismissal of the female writers who outsold him as a "damned mob of scribbling women."
Let's acknowledge that straight, white males' stranglehold on American culture really is loosening. They are no longer expected to speak for everyone else. That's a good thing—but you can't expect them not to complain about it.