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A review of “How to Become a Poet Today”

by Frank on February 25th, 2013

First off: this is not a “how-to” book.  In this long and eloquent essay on the state of modern poetry, Rachael Rabinovich begins, as did T.S. Eliot in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” with the observation that to judge a work of literature, one must appreciate the traditions and context from which it sprung. To explore this, Rabinovich examines a representative sample of works from the “The Best American Poetry 2000,” edited by David Lehman and Rita Dove, and comes to the conclusion that modern poetry focuses mainly on the little things of life, the poet’s inner dilemmas, and that the impulse to change society for the better has all but vanished from the current corpus. She articulates the reality that most poets nowadays are the inbred products of writing programs and make their daily bread working for colleges. They teach each other, publish each other, praise each other, while the world glides by unmoved. Gone are great poets in the mold of Wallace Steven. T.S. Eliot or William Carlos Stevens, who lived in and for the larger world. Rabinovich indites modern poetry as becoming a closed closet of backscratching academics. This, facilitated by the dominance of free verse, has led to a dumbing down of the work. The old rules of craft have been tossed out along with a sense of responsibility toward the human condition. Though the essay veers into diatribe frequently, it showcases plenty of poetic examples and statistics that make a case–whether you agree or not–impossible to ignore. Overall this is an amusing, thought-provoking piece, with a reasonably optimistic ending. It more than repays the read. (I must add a spoiler here, because it won’t harm the reading. There’s a multilevel pun in the writer’s choice of pen name. Rachael Rabinovich, famously (or infamously), appears in a line from “Sweeney Among the Nightingales.” Eliot would have approved).

How to Become a Poet Today by Rachael Rabinovich, Pascal Editions.

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