MICHAEL ROBBINS HAS A CRUSH ON ANGE MLINKO, OR WHY THE CRITIC SHOULD NEVER HAVE A MUSE

Ange Mlinko: The Critic Should Never Have A Muse

Michael Robbins has disappointed us in his attempt to make a Scarriet-like, sweeping definition of poetry: “Where Competency Ends, Poetry Begins.”

Robbins has intelligence and wit, and we like his writing, but the jury is still out on whether he will fall into dyspeptic Pound-ism or soar like an Alexander Pope and laugh with silver laughter at the dunces.

We still have high hopes for the critic Michael Robbins—we have no hopes for any poet today—critics need to quiet the noisy poets before poetry can be heard again.

In his latest piece for the Chicago Tribune, Robbins drops the ball—he decries “competency” by selecting for laudation a quintessential piece of competency by Ange Mlinko, a “friend” of his, Robbins confesses to his readers, but a friendship, he insists, based on an “admiration for her work,” and not (as he attempts to drive the stake into the heart of Foetry) the “other way around.”

Since Alan Cordle’s Foetry.com ceased publication and Scarriet sprang up to take its place, we like to think we have kept the flag waving above the beleaguered fort of common sense.

Robbins cannot see how his friendship with Mlinko has blinded him.  So it follows he cannot see his tribute to Mlinko is the epitome of competency.

Robbins‘ article begins with that old trope: the view from the “slush pile” from the sneering, condescending poetry editor’s perspective, as if “slush” wasn’t finally published in the editor’s magazine, anyway.

Robbins is doing something clever, though, moving from “slush” to “competency” to the apex of the imagination which is…Mlinko.

This would be funny, but Robbins, blinded by both “slush-pile”-experience professionalism and his “friendship,” is serious.  Too bad.  Robbins is best when he’s a little silly.

As he is a good critic, Robbins does give us an extra: slush pile poetry is mocked with quotes by Wyndham Lewis.

Wyndham Lewis?  If you thought Ezra Pound was a creep who wrote mediocre, Modernistic poetry, wait to you read Wyndham Lewis!

Hemingway thought Lewis the most physically repulsive human being he ever met (with Ford Madox Ford a close second) and we are not surprised.

Robbins’ Mlinko-nod to foetry, his faint damning of MFA “competency,” plus his singling out as ludicrous the same passage of Adam Fitzgerald’s (from a David Kirby review) which we found risible three weeks ago (#81) would seem to indicate Robbins is keeping his finger on the pulse of Po-Biz via Blog Scarriet.  Good for him.  Lists are currently the rage in po-biz and Scarriet’s Hot 100 series got that started.  Anyway, we are flattered.

For Robbins’ argument, a couple passages from the “crushingly banal” “Apple Slices” by Todd Boss is presented, with concessions to its sonic effects, as ‘workshop competent’:

— eaten right

off the jackknife in

moons, half-moons,

quarter-moons and

crescents —

still

summon common

summer afternoons

I spent as my dad’s

jobsite grunt…

*

so many waned and

waxed moons later,

another well-paid,

well-fed, college-

bred paper-pusher, I

wonder that I’ve never

labored harder, nor

eaten better.

And here is the Fitzgerald, which Robbins and Scarriet agree, was over-praised by the excitable David Kirby:

I was shipwrecked on an island of clouds.

The sun’s pillors bored me though, so I

set foot on a small indigo place

below orange falls and hexagonal flowers.

I was able to stay there a fortnight,

restlessly roaming the buttered air

inside tropical rock enclosures,

caves of foliage that canopied darkness.

Robbins calls these lines “unmusical and undistinguished,” but he is being kind.  These lines are clumsy, ponderous, free verse Dr. Seuss.

But now Robbins turns to his standard for greatness, Ange Mlinko:

You never hear of Ixion, tied to a revolving wheel
but it’s an axiom that, sooner or later, a hurricane’ll hit here.

For starters, Mlinko uses “axiom,” incorrectly, a philosophical term; we never say, “It’s an axiom that it rains.”  But it seems axiom’s similarity in sound to the mythical “Ixion” was too much for Mlinko to resist.

The rhetoric is wanting: the vagueness of “You never hear of…” How is this dramatically interesting?  It is not.  It’s a fact-driven idiom.  Poets need to be aware of this.  And just in terms of pure sound, “tied- to- a- revolving- wheel” is ugly, and even worse is “but- it’s- an- axiom- that,- sooner- or- later…”  The logic is not worth pursuing in prose; it’s safe to say it’s not going to do anything for poetry:  Because a hurricane will eventually arrive somewhere, it is worth noting that one never hears of Ixion. 

Robbins thinks he is praising Mlinko’s poetry.  He’s not.  He’s simply agreeing with a banal piece of logic: 1) “you never hear of Ixion” 2) Ixion symbolizes the “guests” of our “planet” who have met “their host’s hospitality” with “rapine.”  Robbins claims this is not “climate change didacticism” but this is, in fact, all he is admiring—and all one could admire in this passage.  Surely it’s not the sonic chiming of Ixion and axiom.

Since rhyme fell from grace among the modernist sophisticates, assonance and alliteration have rushed in to fill the vacuum in all sorts of horrible, excessive and stupid ways.

Here is Robbins explaining to us what hurricanes are:

Mlinko is often delightful: “You never hear of Ixion, tied to a revolving wheel, / but it’s an axiom that, sooner or later, a hurricane’ll hit here.” But there’s more here than a Rube Goldberg spillage of phonemes modifying one another, irresistible as such sonics are. Contrast the insubstantiality of Fitzgerald’s cloud islands with the sense Mlinko packs into this couplet: the story of Ixion, bound to a spinning wheel by Zeus for betraying a guest, reveals an axiom, a self-evident premise, which in this case is that the weather, in its cycles and revolutions, will always, eventually, manifest itself as a revolving wheel of air, which a hurricane is. And hurricanes arrive ever more frequently, deadly to human life and its built environment: in a reversal of the myth, the revolving planet binds its guests, who have met their host’s hospitality with rapine. A little parable of climate change, then, with none of the didacticism you’d expect.

So here is one of the better critics writing today (a published poet, as well), Michael Robbins, and after dismissing “slush” and “competency,” holds up for apotheosis, “sooner or later, a hurricane’ll hit here.”

This is one more example of how bad the world of poetry has become.

And this is why Mark Edmundson was right to attack contemporary poetry.  It has become so bad that any attack is good, by default.  And we mean this seriously.  Something is wrong: that’s where we have to start.  The inarticulate nonsense proffered by professor Edmundson still trumps every weak defense, and they are all weak, by default.   They are weak, first of all, because they are making so much of Edmundson’s ludicrous piece in the first place.  Secondly, they are weak because they are anxious to show Edmundson is wrong, but in a manner that is even more deluded.  Edmundson wants poetry to be socially and politically relevant and the poets cry, “It is!”  But social and political relevance isn’t poetry.

We only raise this matter because Robbins, satisfied that Mlinko is the standard, finishes up his piece with a diatribe against Edmundson.  Robbins: “Edmundson cites not a single contemporary poet under the age of 59. Think about that for a second.”  But unfortunately that says more about the sorry state of American poetry than it does about Edmundson.  You see what we mean?   The Edmundson of omissions and lapses is truer than Robbins on Mlinko.

Edmundson triumphs without trying.  That’s how bad it is.

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IS POETRY BECOMING STUPID AND RACIST?

What to make of this recent article in The Atlantic, which finds that any critique of contemporary Letters is, by definition, an attack by an angry white male?

Joel Breuklander in The Atlantic takes eleven writers—Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, Verlyn Klinkenborg, J. Robert Lennon, Lee Siegel, Philip Roth, Ted Genoways, George Steiner, Frank Kermode, Alvin Kernan, and Mark  Edmundson—and with a few quotes and great deal of innuendo, finds them all guilty of 1) literary criticism and 2) being straight, male and white.

Merely using random quotes out of context, the author of this brief Atlantic piece, titled “Literature Is Dead (According to Straight White Guys, At Least),” beats the old theme of eroding white male privilege, yet in none of his examples do any of the accused white male authors say literature is dead or dying because there’s not enough straight white males writing it.

In fact, not one shred of actual racist or sexist content is unearthed by The Atlantic.  The charge of racism and sexism against white males is made simply because examples found of “Literature is dead or dying” critiques are written by white males.  So The Atlantic is either racist or stupid.  We’re going to be nice, and say stupid.  Here’s what a stupid person “wracking their brain” sounds like:

Surely there are a decent number of straight white men in the world of literature who aren’t doom-and-gloom pessimists about its future. But despite wracking my brain and looking through online media and academic archives, I could find no female or non-white writers who have made comparable statements, none who have similarly contributed to this literary despair.

The Atlantic’s ire is focused on the author of the recent controversial Harper’s essay, Mark Edmundson, the villain who is guilty of wanting the poet to speak for everyone.  Joel Breuklander is so irate at this notion that he loses all perspective and claims that Edmundson’s wish is somehow “factually untrue:”

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.

The Atlantic says the desire for the poet to speak to all races is racist.  The poet, according to The Atlantic, can only use “we” when speaking to their group.

We have now arrived at the Great anti-Racist Racist Ideal: Universality is racist.

Feeling confused?  Feeling like no matter what you say, you are racist?  Welcome to the club.

Joel Breuklander trots out the example of Richard Blanco’s Inauguration Poem and then points an accusing finger at Edmundson:

Does Blanco, who is gay and Latino, even count for Edmundson?

Yes, Mr. Breuklander, obviously, Richard Blanco, the poet, doesn’t count for Mr. Edmundson, because he is gay and Latino.  There is no escape for Mr. Edmundson.  He is obviously guilty!

And horrors!  Edmundson “ignores the entirety” of a poet’s work—and that poet is a woman!  Whenever someone makes a negative comment about a poet we like, we can always satisfy ourselves by saying the malicious critic is “ignoring” the “entirety of the work” which looms over whatever the point happens to be.  In this case the point is “sex as a major subject of poetry,” and Breuklander “proves” his point by selecting from the “entirety” of Carson’s work one quote–-which dismisses sex as a subject!   “Sex is a substitute…”

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?

Maybe it’s just that Edmunson doesn’t like the hyped-up Carson’s poetry.   Should this be a source of outrage?

For Breuklander, accusing someone of racism without evidence is fine, but not being wowed by someone’s poetry is a crime against humanity.

Breuklander hasn’t considered that literature’s “decline” hurts everyone, not just white people.

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.

We quote The Atlantic a final time—note the illogical leap here: somehow it is racist to accuse contemporary literature of “technical narrowness,” being “boring,” or being “professionalized.”

I’ve suspected for a while that these essays, as a category, might somehow be rooted in declining privilege: Literature has never been a majority interest in America, so I’ve wondered if these writers might be projecting some kind of status insecurity onto literature. Still, until recently I’d never thought to look at the identities of the authors before. And I certainly never thought I’d discover that every last author whose work I had read on the subject would be a white male—or that all but one was straight.

Take The New York Times’ Verlyn Klinkenborg, who recently wrote that a “technical narrowness” is responsible for the “decline and fall of the English major.” A few months prior, J. Robert Lennon derided contemporary literary fiction as “fucking boring” in Salon. Before that, Lee Siegel informed us that today’s fiction is “irrelevant” because it is too professionalized, and because nonfiction got quite good.

We don’t know if Seth Abramson is safe, or not.   In a very recent piece in the Huff Post, he dismisses Edmundson’s “jeremiad” as “poorly researched.”

“Poorly researched” in this case means that Edmundson did not read the “entirety” of every poet’s work now writing in the United States.

But then Abramson—a white person!!—risks a “Literature is Dead or Dying” critique of contemporary literature:

American literary study and discourse has, regrettably, devolved since Epstein’s and Goia’s direct assaults on the state of poetry a quarter of a century ago.  According to a recent article in The New York Times, in 1991 Yale University graduated 165 English majors; it graduated 62 in 2013…

What?  No mention that Joseph Epstein (Who Killed Poetry?) and Dana Gioia (Can Poetry Matter?) are white?

But wait, perhaps Abramson is safe, because he claims that literature is not really dying at all:

Yet the recent history of literary study in the U.S. isn’t nearly as grim if we consider the evolution of creative writing, an English department specialization that from 1971 to 2003 grew by 908 percent—that’s not a typo—if we measure the discipline by how many terminal-degree graduate programs are devoted to its study.  The effect of this unprecedented growth is that in 2013 there are aproximately 250 terminal-degree graduate creative writing programs in the United States. In 1991, when Gioia wrote of his concern about the future of American poetry, there were but fifty such programs (and half of these had, at that point, graduated five or fewer classes of poets).

Welcome to the Program Era, where literature is dead, but everybody is writing it.

And now Abramson rises to the occasion, quoting the aged poet John Ashbery:

As the nation’s most critically acclaimed poet, John Ashbery, once detailed in an interview with The Paris Review, what first awakened him to the joys of poetry was seeing that “poetry wasn’t just something lifeless in an ancient museum, but must have grown out of the lives of the people who wrote it.”  Ashbery, still a working poet today, is exactly right: If we want the nation’s youngest readers to take up an interest in poetry, we must introduce them to more working poets and fewer academics, and indeed make exposure to working poets in real-time mandatory precursor to the reading of contemporary American poetry.

So here is Abramson, who evidently thinks there is something magical about the phrase “working poet,” selecting for a rare specimen of wisdom an utterance from “the nation’s most critically acclaimed poet” and what is this wisdom?

If something that someone has written is in a museum, an “ancient” museum, (!) it is “lifeless” and has not “grown out of the lives of the people who wrote it.”

This is absolute rubbish.  Can it be “the nation’s most critically acclaimed poet” in the U.S. actually believes this piece of stupidity?

Surely poetry is not afflicted with the racism The Atlantic has “discovered”—and stupidity like this from John Ashbery as well?

HERE WE GO AGAIN: SCARRIET’S POETRY HOT 100!!

Dark Messy Tower

1. Mark Edmundson Current Lightning Rod of Outrage

2. David Lehman BAP Editor now TV star: PBS’ Jewish Broadway

3. Rita Dove She knows Dunbar is better than Oppen

4. Matthew Hollis Profoundly researched Edward Thomas bio

5. Paul Hoover Status quo post-modern anthologist, at Norton

6. Don Share Wins coveted Poetry magazine Editorship

7. Sharon Olds Gets her Pulitzer

8. Michael Robbins The smartest guy writing on contemporary poetry now–see Hoover review

9. Marjorie Perloff Still everyone’s favorite Take-No-Prisoners Dame Avant-Garde

10. Natasha Trethewey Another Round as Laureate

11. Ron Silliman The Avant-garde King

12. Tony Hoagland The Billy Collins of Controversy

13. Billy Collins The real Billy Collins

14. Kenneth Goldsmith Court Jester of Talked-About

15. Terrance Hayes The black man’s Black Man’s Poet?

16. William Logan Favorite Bitch Critic

17. Avis Shivani Second Favorite Bitch Critic

18. John Ashbery Distinguished and Sorrowful Loon

19. Stephen Burt P.C. Throne at Harvard

20. Robert Hass  West Coast Establishment Poet

21. Harold Bloom Reminds us ours is an Age of Criticism, not Poetry

22. Helen Vendler She, in the same stultifying manner, reminds us of this, too.

23. Dana Gioia  Sane and Optimistic Beacon?

24. Bill Knott An On-line Bulldog of Poignant Common Sense

25. Franz Wright Honest Common Sense with darker tones

26. Henry Gould Another Reasonable Poet’s Voice on the blogosphere

27. Anne Carson The female academic poet we are supposed to take seriously

28. Seth Abramson Will give you a thousand reasons why MFA Poetry is great

29. Ben Mazer Poet of the Poetry! poetry! More Poetry! School who is actually good

30. Larry Witham Author, Picasso and the Chess Player (2013), exposes Modern Art/Poetry cliques

31. Mary Oliver Sells, but under Critical assault

32. Annie Finch The new, smarter Mary Oliver?

33. Robert Pinsky Consensus seems to be he had the best run as Poet Laureate

34. Mark McGurl His book, The Program Era, has quietly had an impact

35. Seamus Heaney Yeats in a minor key

36. W.S. Merwin Against Oil Spills but Ink Spill his writing method

37. George Bilgere Do we need another Billy Collins?

38. Cate Marvin VIDA will change nothing

39. Philip Nikolayev Best living translator?

40. Garrison Keillor As mainstream poetry lover, he deserves credit

41. Frank Bidart Poetry as LIFE RUBBED RAW

42. Jorie Graham The more striving to be relevant, the more she seems to fade

43. Alan Cordle Strange, how this librarian changed poetry with Foetry.com

44. Janet Holmes Ahsahta editor and MFA prof works the po-biz system like no one else

45. Paul Muldoon How easy it is to become a parody of oneself!

46. Cole Swensen Some theories always seem to be missing something

47. Matthew Dickman Was reviewed by William Logan. And lived

48. James Tate For some reason it depressed us to learn he was not a laugh riot in person.

49. Geoffrey Hill His poetry is more important than you are

50. Derek Walcott A great poet, but great poets don’t exist anymore

51. Charles Bernstein A bad poet, but bad poets don’t exist anymore, either

52. Kay Ryan Emily Dickinson she’s not. Maybe Marianne Moore when she’s slightly boring?

53. Laura Kasischke She’s published 8 novels. One became a movie starring Uma Thurman. Who the hell does she think she is?

54. Louise Gluck X-Acto!

55. Rae Armantrout “Quick, before you die, describe the exact shade of this hotel carpet.”

56. Heather McHugh “A coward and a coda share a word.”

57. D.A. Powell “Of course a child. What else might you have lost.”

58. Peter Gizzi Take your lyric and heave

59. Marilyn Chin Shy Iowa student went on to write an iconic 20th century poem: How I Got That Name

60. Eileen Myles Interprets Perloff’s avant-gardism as mourning

61. Lyn Hejinian As I sd to my friend, because I am always blah blah blah

62. Nikki Finney Civil Rights is always hot

63. K. Silem Mohammad This Flarfist Poet composes purely Anagram versions of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Fie on it.

64. Meg Kearney Lectured in public by Franz Wright. Still standing.

65. Noah Eli Gordon Teaches at Boulder, published by Ahsahta

66. Peter Campion A poet, a critic and a scholar!

67. Simon Ortiz Second wave of the Native American Renaissance

68. Maya Angelou She continues to travel the world

69. Lyn Lifshin “Barbie watches TV alone, naked” For real?

70. Ange Mlinko Born in ’69 in Philly, writes for The Nation

71. Jim Behrle They also serve who only write bad poetry

72. Elizabeth Alexander She read in front of all those people

73. Dorothea Lasky The Witchy Romantic School

74. Virgina Bell The poet. Do not confuse with burlesque dancer

75. Fanny Howe Wreaks havoc out of Boston

76. Erin Belieu Available for VIDA interviews

77. Ariana Reines Another member of the witchy romantic school

78. Jed Rasula Old Left poetry critic

79. John Hennessy “Too bad I felt confined by public space/despite her kinky talk, black net and lace”

80. Timothy Donnelly “Driver, please. Let’s slow things down. I can’t endure/the speed you favor, here where the air’s electric”

81. Clive James His translation, in quatrains, of Dante’s Divine Comedy, published this year

82. Danielle Pafunda “We didn’t go anywhere, we went wrong/in our own backyard. We didn’t have a yard,/but we went wrong in the bedroom”

83. Michael Dickman Matthew is better, right?

84. Kit Robinson “Get it first/but first get it right/in the same way it was”

85. Dan Beachy Quick “My wife found the key I hid beneath the fern./My pens she did not touch. She did not touch/The hundred pages I left blank to fill other days”

86. Ilya Kaminsky Teaches at San Diego State, won Yinchuan International Poetry Prize

87. Robert Archambeau Son of a potter, this blog-present poet and critic protested Billy Collins’ appointment to the Poet Laureateship

88. Kent Johnson Best known as a translator

89. Frederick Seidel An extroverted Philip Larkin?

90. David Orr Poetry columnist for New York Times wrote on Foetry.com

91. Richard Wilbur Oldest Rhymer and Moliere translator

92. Kevin Young Finalist in Criticism for National Book Critics Circle

93. Carolyn Forche Human rights activist born in 1950

94. Carol Muske Dukes Former California Laureate writes about poetry for LA Times

95. William Kulik Writes paragraph poems for the masses

96. Daniel Nester The sad awakening of the MFA student to the bullshit

97. Alexandra Petri Began 2013 by calling poetry “obsolete” in Wash Post

98. John Deming Poet, told Petri, “We teach your kids.”

99. C. Dale Young “Medical students then, we had yet to learn/when we could or could not cure”

100. Clayton Eshleman Sometimes the avant-garde is just boring

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.

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