BURT AND OTHERS PILE ON HARPER’S POETRY COMPLAINT

Mark Edmundson

Mark Edmundson, professor of English at the University of Virginia

We don’t know which is more ridiculous: this fellow Edmundson in HARPER’S honoring Robert Lowell as where poetry—currently lacking public spirit and understanding—ought to be now, or gnats like Stephen Burt whining that contemporary poetry, as obscure as it is, is trying, damnit, and doesn’t Edmundson know that poems are being written today about Gettysburg? And by women about their children?

Who is more useless? Burt, the walking, talking politically correct cliche? Or Edmundson, the Robert Lowell cliche?

The problem is a simple one: everyone in the poetry wars (and yes it is a war) is defending a position in the furious blind manner of trench warfare; none of the arguments are even a little bit above the ground: they are petty and ahistorical.

Burt, for instance, writes

Complaints against contemporary poetry arise, like vampire slayers, in every generation and it’s easy to see why: when you compare your very favorite famous artists from the past with almost any quick or large or secondhand selection of contemporary work, the past will look better.

But to what “past” is Burt referring? It’s not an actual past–merely one that is jealous of the present.

But yes, alas, the poetry of Philip Larkin looks better than the poetry of Stephen Burt; the former is dead and the latter is at Harvard.

Sigh.

That is a problem, isn’t it?

And further, Larkin couldn’t care less, and Burt is sweating behind flimsy p.c—disguised as scholarship.

Burt has no argument.  But let us turn to Edmundson.

Here’s what Edmundson says.  He asserts an expression of public spirit as an ideal which poetry must follow.

Professor Edmundson could not be more wrong.

Poetry is its own idealized expression which creates its own public following.

Poetry shouldn’t have to trail after public ideals.

Edmundson has it backwards.

Ironically, it is on this very point, where Edmundson is most mistaken, that his critics pay him the most respect. Burt bends over backwards to make the case that contemporary poetry is “about” this or that important national topic,  and Burt quotes fragments from Rich and Bidart sans any particular merit amidst a pointless rant of See? We contemporary poets do watch the news! So there!

A blogger name Elisa praises Edmundson’s public service ideals:

He sets out to do something noble…a manifesto-like call for poetry that’s more engaged…I’m sort of sympathetic to the general idea here and I’ve certainly approached student poetry with this rubric…I’ve encouraged young writers to be more ambitious, to be less afraid of showing effort, of caring.

EdMundson shames the avant-garde snots into at least agreeing with his general premise: Robert Lowell wrote on the Vietnam War, you little brats!

And now for the time being Elisa and Edmundson agree. But the alliance is fleeting. We quote Elisa, at some length, again:

But the problem with setting up a rigid system that defines what poetry can be and do is that it inevitably gets used in an agenda-driven way to dismiss whatever poetry you don’t happen to like. Mark Edmundson uses these three vague principles (skill/craft, paraphraseable and relevant content, plus ambition) to justify the poetry he does like and scorn the stuff he doesn’t. The only working poets he does admire, as far as I can tell, are Tony Hoagland and Frederick Seidel; his agenda does not make room for John Ashbery or Anne Carson. I mean, anyone who’s still pulling “That’s not poetry” on Ashbery, how can you take that seriously? His attempted takedown of Anne Carson is so hopelessly inept I can’t believe it got past the editors at Harper’s:

I cannot do much with the lines that begin “Stanzas, Sexes, Seductions” (or many of her other lines, either):

It’s good to be neuter.
I want to have meaningless legs.
There are things unbearable.
One can evade them a long time.
Then you die.

The poem is, I think, an attempt to imagine a posthuman identity. And surely it is distinctive in its voice. But it is so obscure, mannered and private that one (this one, at least) cannot follow its windings.

Really? How on earth is this excerpt obscure? Leaving aside the fact that it’s ridiculous to use five lines as a representative slice of contemporary poetry, these lines are far less mannered than the Lowell lines he quotes favorably on the first page (“Pity the planet, all joy gone / from this sweet volcanic cone,” etc.). At this point I can only come to the conclusion that this guy’s tastes are completely arbitrary, but he seems to think the quality of poems he favors (such as, improbably, Ginsberg’s “The Ballad of the Skeletons”) is self-evident compared to those he doesn’t – that list again random and improbable.

Elisa is ready to join Edmundson’s noble crusade, but she realizes that all crusades “inevitably get used in an agenda-driven way to dismiss whatever poetry you don’t happen to like,” but this is an embarrassing adolescent objection on Elisa’s part; she doesn’t seem to understand that it is everyone’s right to “not happen to like” this or that poem—it is her right, in fact, and she would defend that right to anyone who would listen—and the right not to like a poem is just as important as the right to like one.  Elisa is assuming that if someone doesn’t like a poem, they have an agenda, and therefore they are not allowed to not like the poem.  But whether one has an agenda or not, people are not going to like certain poems, and there’s nothing the blogger Elisa can do about it, and her attempt to connect an “agenda” to “not liking a poem” is perhaps more dubious than someone actually having an “agenda” that makes them “happen to not like a poem,” if any such nonsense can be proven.  Do “agendas” influence “personal judgment” or do “personal judgements” influence “agendas?”  And which is more dishonest?  The whole issue seems fraught with unexamined assumptions, as one individual (Elisa) denies another (Edmundson) the right “to dismiss whatever poetry you don’t happen to like.”

Edmundson claims the lines from Anne Carson, which begin, “It’s good to be neuter,” are “obscure.”  Elisa objects, “Really? How on earth is this excerpt obscure?”

Both critics are right.  The lines are obscure.  And they’re not. 

This is a mighty problem, and one of the reasons why poetry is in such a sad state of affairs these days; the whole controversy is enveloped in a trench-warfare fog.

We need to step back, here, perhaps before the blogger Elisa busts a gut, and look at our assumptions regarding poetry in general.

Stuck In The Middle With You

Rhetoric which passes as poetry today exists on two extremes: on one end of the spectrum, we have the matter-of-fact, and on the other end, philosophical ambiguity.  Intellectuals like to live on the extremes.  That’s where the party always is.  What we have in the middle is that which is neither matter-of-fact, nor philosophically ambiguous; it is merely what might be characterized as the Platonic “good” in words, what the public memory still identifies as poetry: Longfellow, or Emily Dickinson, poetry from “the Past,” but poetry which has an actual historical and rhetorical identity. Robert Lowell, the Frankenstein Monster of the Southern Agrarian New Critics, has an historical identity.  This middle ground occupies not only a rhetorical middle, but an historical one.  It is roughly equivalent to the “golden mean;”  a rhetoric with an existence between two poles.  One of the many reasons it satisfies its readers is because it is neither too matter-of-fact, nor too ambiguous.

The Carson example, as Elisa points out, is not “obscure,” but it is philosophically ambiguous—and, in keeping with self-conscious Modernism, matter-0f-fact at the same time.  The Carson excerpt has its interest, but Edmundson, as blundering as he is, is correct: the interest is not a poetic one.

The test is very simple: Carson posits the “neuter” person with “meaningless legs” as she speculates philosophically  on sexual difference, or the lack thereof.  The “poem,” at least in the excerpt, however, never comes into focus; instead we are offered vague choices—a shelf full of sexual philosophy presents itself to us—is it really good to be “neuter?”  How so?  From whose perspective? Etc, etc?— and words do have the power to do this; but this is speculative philosophy, not poetry.

The ambiguity of speculative philosophy will always trump the softer meanings of poetry—they are not the same, and those who assume (and there are many) that the ambiguity of philosophical speculation is poetry are really lost.

When the frustrated Elisa writes, “this guy’s tastes are completely arbitrary,” one can see how absolutely at sea she is, bemoaning “agendas” on one hand, and the “arbitrary” on the other.

Edmundson has blindly stirred up the blind.

VIDA SHOCKER: ARE WOMEN TO BLAME?

It’s idiotic to blame a whole gender, isn’t it?

Well, OK, let’s do it…

Even animals can count.

Humans, one would think, would be a little more savvy at interpreting data.

We’ve seen the latest raw numbers, in which male reviewers far outnumber female reviewers, and this should make a woman’s blood boil.  The whole tribe of women should be deeply offended.

Do you feel it?  As a tribe?

The latest figures:

Males out-number females in book reviewing: Harper’s: 28-3, New Republic: 79-9, London Review: 210-66, Times Literary Supplement: 814-340, Atlantic: 16-4, New Yorker: 138-58, Paris Review: 6-1, New York Review of  Books: 215-40.

Not to make a big deal of this, but these are all liberal/left publications.

So what the hell is going on?

Are left/liberals sexist?

Ingrained sexism exists.  It does.   But to say this doesn’t solve anything.

Should a magazine present content based on gender alone?  Is it feasible for editors to go out looking for women writers—just because they happen to be women?  Is this really going to happen?  We cannot help but think that, in reality, in any sort of consistent manner, it will not.  This is not a solution, and anyone who offers it as one, is being condescending, at best.

We need to move beyond VIDA outrage and take a closer look at  the possible causes of these numbers.

We have a crime, so let’s look at the editors/publishers and cast about for a motive.

Is the following male guilt issue what’s really going on among these liberal/left editors?

“I reject this view because it is a woman’s view.”  Or, worse:  “I reject this article for the sole reason that it is by a woman.”

We need to embrace this—or not.  Because if we embrace it, (liberal) males are guilty as hell.

Do we embrace it?  In 2013, do we embrace this?

You’re probably wondering when we are going to arrive at the point we made at the top: “Are Women To Blame?”

We will get to that in a minute, but first we wanted to express outrage at the raw numbers and ask the vital VIDA question: is this the primary cause of these numbers:  liberal editors are rejecting work by women because it is women’s work?

Or, is it closer to the truth that less women are reviewing books—and why would this be so?

Could it be…could it be…that there are less women authors in history (because of past injustice) and so naturally less women are reviewed? 

The VIDA numbers demonstrate this: male authors reviewed outnumber female authors reviewed by a similar percentage to male v. female reviewers.

Women, fighting against VIDA prejudice and championing their own, are less likely to review male authors.

Now the horrible truth flashes upon us.  If men are more willing to review women and, at the same time, women are less willing to review men, does not this simple fact alone go a long way towards expressing itself in VIDA’s raw numbers?

Are women, acting in a manner ostensibly benefiting their tribe, in fact, hurting it?

Holy Counter-Intuition, Batman!

We also need to ask, and VIDA should look into this:  What’s the statistical breakdown of  gender in scholarship?  Are women restricted by being less widely represented, expertise-wise, in scholarly subjects, as a larger proportionate chunk of women, for instance, pursue “women’s studies”—thus narrowing their appeal to editors who need to fill out their magazines’ content?

One VIDA lesson might be:  Never take narrow views—even when following the seductive sirens of social justice—because, in the long run, you will only hurt your cause.

Finally, on a different note, has anyone broken down the VIDA numbers in terms of gay v. straight?  What if it turned out the female count was actually higher than the straight male count?  Would this matter at all?  Would this make the numbers a little less outrageous?  Or no?

ELIZABETH OAKES SMITH: “SHE SENT AN EMISSARY TO ENFORCE THE DELIVERY…HE WAS CRUELLY BEATEN…”

“…HE REFUSED TO RETURN HER LETTERS, NOR DID SHE RECEIVE THEM UNTIL DR. GRISWOLD GAVE THEM BACK AFTER POE’S DEATH.”

Poet, playwright, journalist, lecturer Elizabeth Oakes Smith, 1845, testifying on the murder of Edgar Allan Poe

Smith did not name the offended woman, but Poe scholars know who she is.  Scarriet will investigate all of this further.    A recent work by John Walsh made great strides in solving the mystery of Poe’s death:

“Now the least curious aspect of the Smith charge is the way it was, and has been ignored.   Only when Mrs. Smith had put forward her beating charge [1857] did the cooping idea make its appearance.  At first, Thompson accepted Poe’s death [1849] as did everyone then, as the result of a drunken debauch.  Not until the late 1860s did [Thompson] come out with his cooping theory.  By then, Mrs. Smith had twice stated her own belief in Poe’s having been beaten to death by ruffians who were related to, or agents of, some offended woman.

“John Thompson, it can be seen, in addition to being the originator of the idea, was also the one who, through Stoddard and the influences of Harper’s, then The Southern Magazine, deliberately put it into print.   …if there is no real support, no actual evidence…for the “cooping” theory, then how and why was it ever conceived?”

—John Evangelist Walsh, Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe St. Martin’s, 2000.

Poe’s death is still a mystery, but we at Scarriet have faith that one day the mystery will be solved.  First, the cover-ups and lies need to be cleared away, and that is gradually happening: the drunken debauch, and now the ‘cooping theory’ have been debunked.  There are many odd facts surrounding Poe’s murder.  The oddness of those facts should actually make the solving of the case that much easier, (to steal a little of Dupin’s logic.)

A significant author, a mother, an early champion of women’s rights, a friend of Poe’s, here is a poem by Elizabeth Oakes Smith, which could be a tribute to Shelley.  It sheds no light on Poe’s death, but it does make the whole matter more interesting to know that the source of a theory on Poe’s death is by a very fine poet, and this should also give us pause: why have so many fine writers with connections to Poe been ignored all these years?   Are you getting tired of the Harvard University/F.O. Matthiessen/N.Y. Review of Books view of 19th century American literary history?  Emerson, Emerson, Emerson, Whitman, Whitman, Whitman?  Well, we are, too.

The Drowned Mariner
by Elizabeth Oakes-Smith

A mariner sat on the shrouds one night;
The wind was piping free;
Now bright, now dimmed was the moon-light pale,
And the phosphor gleamed in the wake of the whale,
As he floundered in the sea;
The scud was flying athwart the sky,
The gathering winds went whistling by,
And the wave as it towered, then fell in spray,
Looked an emerald wall in the moonlight ray.

The mariner swayed and rocked on the mast,
But the tumult pleased him well;
Down the yawning wave his eye he cast,
And the monsters watched as they hurried past
Or lightly rose and fell;
For their broad, damp fins were under the tide,
And they lashed as they passed the vessel’s side,
And their filmy eyes, all huge and grim,
Glared fiercely up, and they glared at him.

Now freshens the gale, and the brave ship goes
Like an uncurbed steed along;
A sheet of flame is the spray she throws,
As her gallant prow the water ploughs,
But the ship is fleet and strong:
The topsails are reefed and the sails are furled,
And onward she sweeps o’er the watery world,
And dippeth her spars in the surging flood;
But there came no chill to the mariner’s blood.

Wildly she rocks, but he swingeth at ease,
And holds him by the shroud;
And as she careens to the crowding breeze,
The gaping deep the mariner sees,
And the surging heareth loud.
Was that a face, looking up at him,
With its pallid cheek and its cold eyes dim?
Did it beckon him down? did it call his name?
Now rolleth the ship the way whence it came.

The mariner looked, and he saw with dread
A face he knew too well;
And the cold eyes glared, the eyes of the dead,
And its long hair out on the wave was spread.
Was there a tale to tell?
The stout ship rocked with a reeling speed,
And the mariner groaned, as well he need;
For, ever, down as she plunged on her side,
The dead face gleamed from the briny tide.

Bethink thee, mariner, well, of the past,—
A voice calls loud for thee:—
There’s a stifled prayer, the first, the last;—
The plunging ship on her beam is cast,—
Oh, where shall thy burial be?
Bethink thee of oaths that were lightly spoken,
Bethink thee of vows that were lightly broken,
Bethink thee of all that is dear to thee,
For thou art alone on the raging sea:

Alone in the dark, alone on the wave,
To buffet the storm alone,
To struggle aghast at thy watery grave,
To struggle and feel there is none to save,—
God shield thee, helpless one!
The stout limbs yield, for their strength is past,
The trembling hands on the deep are cast,
The white brow gleams a moment more,
Then slowly sinks—the struggle is o’er.

Down, down where the storm is hushed to sleep,
Where the sea its dirge shall swell,
Where the amber drops for thee shall weep,
And the rose-lipped shell her music keep,
There thou shalt slumber well.
The gem and the pearl lie heaped at thy side,
They fell from the neck of the beautiful bride,
From the strong man’s hand, from the maiden’s brow,
As they slowly sunk to the wave below.

A peopled home is the ocean bed;
The mother and child are there;
The fervent youth and the hoary head,
The maid, with her floating locks outspread,
The babe with its silken hair;
As the water moveth they lightly sway,
And the tranquil lights on their features play;
And there is each cherished and beautiful form,
Away from decay, and away from the storm.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,246 other followers