Yesterday evening at Harvard, David Orr, Srikanth Reddy and Rebecca Wolff presented a poem chosen for its contemporary character and talked criticism for 90 minutes.  The panelists were advertised as poet-critics; Wolff, however, admitted to being a poet-publisher: every other word she said was Fence.   

Orr read a variation of a villanelle.  He liked its movement, pointed out a flaw, or two.

For his “contemporary” poem, Reddy interestingly chose one that lacked contemporary signposts; it took place in a forest, but seemed contemporary.  Probably because it was incoherent.

Wolff read part of a Fence poem (natch) with racy language that she said pleased her because it “perversely repels any influence or imitation.”   Double whammy! It’s perversely perverse!

Orr joked into his sleeve at one point that “contemporary” = “sucks.”   Those present were not quite Zeitgeist-ready to laugh, but sadly, to the vast majority, this is true.

Wolff said in terms of poems trying to be new these days, “the stakes are so low,” not only because no one reads poetry anymore, but because “so much else is going on.”  When asked by the Poetry Society of America host (a pleasant man who kept using “irony” incorrectly) when there had been a time when so much else was not going on, Rebecca Wolff did not know what to say.

The question arose among the panel: is there any contemporary poetry that’s changing poetry now?  Shrugs all round.

There was a Foetry moment.

When the issue of “professionalism “came up, the host, who invited all the panelists, said he sent a poem to Fence; he trusted Rebecca, his friend, would feel OK about rejecting it. 

Reddy: “Well, did she publish your poem?” 

Host: “Yes, but I sent poems to my friend at Verse and he rejected them.”

 Reddy: “Ah, and he’s not here, is he?”


But there was an 800 pound gorilla in the room. The poems read by the panel were not criticized.

The panel’s critics were not being critical.  (To be fair, David Orr, who can be a sharp critic, made a half-hearted effort, but he must have sensed, with the yawns that greeted the poems, and the ‘be nice, say nothing’ atmosphere pervading the room, the gambit would have been useless.)

Say what you will about him, here’s the importance of Simon Cowell, the famous judge of “American Idol.”  The T.V. show may be trash, Cowell may be a jerk and he may not always be correct, but he really, really cares whether a singer’s performance is good or not.  He’s a passionate judge. 

The audience was small last night, and nearly half left before the event was over.   Had Simon Cowell been in that audience, I can hear him saying to the panel in that nasty voice of his:  But you’re not being critics.

I don’t see how art can thrive in the public square without Cowell’s kind of passion.  

Correct judgment is not the issue.  Well, it is, but only ideally; first you need passion for correct judgment.  You need to want to know what is good and, when you think you know what is good, be honest and say it, so others can hear you.  In contemporary poetry this seems to be almost wholly absent.

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