There seem to be two overriding sentiments about American poetry
1) there is a lot of it
2) it is all crappy
Now I certainly don't want to be the apologist for putrid verse, but it seems to me that both these things cannot be true at once.
In December I interviewed a professor of English at Columbia University who said that modern poetry had swelled to such a size, with so many different pooets writing; and, simultaneously, become so fractured, with so many different schools and styles, that it had become a sublime object--utterly impossible to wrap ones mind around in full. Imagine a shiny ball so large you can't see the edges--can't determine, indeed, that it is a ball. Now imagine this ball to be made up entirely of twinkly splinters--splinters just large enough to feel in your foot, but not large enough to pluck out with tweezers. That's more or less what he thought modern poety was. (One further analogy to a big ball of splinters, he also seemed to think that most of it was annoyingly painful.)
A month later Daivd Orr published his epic "On (Great)ness" in the New York Times where he said more people were writing than ever before and none of them were great, with the exception of, possibly, John Ashbery.
This kind of talk makes me so mad, it makes me so mad. Now I just don't see how anyone can make such broad and pompous claims with a straight face. "Great" artists (whatever that means) have died in obscurity. It's the nature of art that you don't always know what you are looking at, and, often, you get more on a re-visitation than you did at the first pass. Moreover, if modern poetry is so large and nebulous that you can spend all day everyday reading it--and still have more to read--then how could anyone possibly know it is all bad?
"What if the next great poet is laboring away in obscurity?"
I asked this of a former teacher (and prize winning poet). He said it couldn't happen. "We are more self-aware now than ever before," he said. Couldn't happen. But, he added one caveat.
"If," he said, "they were submitting"--to magazines, publishers, etc.
"If they were submitting?!? If they were submitting!?!" You mean this recluse crazy genius has regular lucid correspondence with Knopf? Yeah, I know, the crazy-genius is an idiotic stereotype, possibly just as unlikely as the idea that no modern poetry is good--writing well takes work, it takes time, and, often, it takes talking to other writers. The next great poet isn't going to come out of thin air. Poets, despite what Plato might have told you, are people, too.
But even if a poet was submitting their work, I just don't buy the arguement that they couldn't get missed. We could miss them. We could totally miss them.
And that's okay.
Life is like that--it's large, it's messy, it's complicated. To the point of incomprehensibility. Sublime things (in Burke's defention of the sublime) are, so overriding that they can't be analyze. They fill the mind and wipe away thought all at once, like the moment a drill bit hits a cavity in your mouth. Your only thought is the pain--you have no thoughts. That pain is sublime.
One of the pleasures of art and poetry is escaping to these prescribed little worlds where everything is orchestrated and controlled--where we can see everything. It may take a long time to read Homer's Odyssey, but you can do it, you can see the edges. You may get more on a second reading than you did on a first, you may get even more on a third, but the borders are always going to be there. Art expands in depth into understanding. Art doesn't circle ever more diffusely outwards into incomprehensibility--it can't. Because we are always going to be able to see the edges, be they the borders of a book, or a painting, the last bar of the song. Thus everything within those borders will seem to have a reason, even if the only reason is to create a simulacrum of disorder and outward expansion. The real world, however, expands outwards into incomprehensibility. It's the difference between the cliff face that inspired Wordsworth to write a poem, and Wordsworth's poem about a cliff face.
Thus the American poetry scence has come to resemble life, not art. The world is more populous than ever before, and more people are literate than ever before. In the United States women are taught to read and write, minorities are taught to read and write, poor people are taught to read and write. Those are three groups big groups were never taught to read and write before. That's great.
So what American poetry has gotten a lot harder to keep track of, and sift the good from the bad? Tough. That's life.