Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Annals of Poetry (by David Orr)

illustration by by Michael Bierut

March 11, 2007
Annals of Poetry

The history of American poetry, like the history of America itself, is a story of ingenuity, sacrifice, hard work and sticking it to people when they least expect it. Whether it’s Ezra Pound dismissing his benefactor Amy Lowell as a “hippopoetess” or Yvor Winters accusing his friend Hart Crane of possessing flaws akin to a “public catastrophe,” you can count on the occasional bushwhacking in the land of what Horace called “the touchy tribe.”

The most recent such assault — and the most surprising in years — took the form of a 6,500-word article in The New Yorker last month by the poet Dana Goodyear, who is also a New Yorker editor. Goodyear’s subject was the Chicago-based Poetry Foundation, which received an unexpected (to put it mildly) bequest of roughly $200 million from Ruth Lilly in 2001. The article focuses on the Poetry Foundation’s president, John Barr, but Goodyear also takes on Poetry magazine, its founder Harriet Monroe, the Poetry Foundation Web site, legal proceedings relating to Lilly’s bequest, Ruth Lilly herself, the various objects collected by Ruth Lilly’s father (toy soldiers, gold coins), the price of real estate in Chicago and the stuff rich people wear at parties (a “crisp white shirt” or “coral lipstick,” apparently). It is a very long article.

It is also a slick production whose craftsmanship any critic would respect. Goodyear wants to portray the Poetry Foundation as a culturally conservative, slightly tacky enterprise led by a dilettantish, ex-Wall Street fat cat — “what people these days call a ‘businessman-poet’ ” — who’s itching to sell poems the way Frito-Lay sells Cool Ranch Doritos (and no, not by making them deeeeeelicious). So she fills her piece with references to advertising, buying and selling, and ostentatious wealth — John Barr has “a 25-acre estate in Greenwich,” the charity’s Web site has a budget of “more than a million dollars.” And she quotes many poets making critical remarks about Those People and All That Money (the poet J. D. McClatchy says the Foundation has an “aura of mediocrity”). Many readers might figure that Goodyear has done a fine thing by exposing this bunch of crisp-white-shirt-wearing yahoos.

The instinct wouldn’t necessarily be misplaced. After all, the Poetry Foundation does have big money, and some of Barr’s observations (regarding, say, the alleged careerism in M.F.A. programs) deserve a thoughtful response. But that response already has been made — for months now — on blogs, in print and in the letters section of Poetry magazine itself. (In the interest of disclosure, I’ve reviewed for Poetry.) As a result, Goodyear’s article has a strangely punitive cast — for example, only one poet, Billy Collins, is quoted saying anything remotely positive about the Poetry Foundation’s many enterprises. That’s funny, since those enterprises are hardly uniform. Indeed, many of the article’s critical voices have appeared in Poetry themselves (McLatchy shows up in the February issue); these writers presumably are making judgments about specific aspects of the foundation, not wholesale denunciations. Yet Goodyear doesn’t clarify. On the contrary, she leaves things blurry — at best. In an especially confusing decision, she includes a cutting remark by the writer Joel Brouwer about the marketing of poetry, and claims the comment was “an obvious ... reference” to the Poetry Foundation. But Brouwer, as he confirmed by e-mail, wasn’t talking about the foundation at all. Which makes sense, of course, since Brouwer is a regular contributor to Poetry, a detail Goodyear’s readers wouldn’t know.

Similarly, the article treats a range of sometimes contradictory anxieties as if they were a unified critique. Goodyear quotes “the director of a nonprofit literary group” complaining that the foundation is trying to “take credit for things that are already going on.” By this, the director means that the foundation’s efforts to popularize poetry are only continuing a process begun by the Academy of American Poets (responsible for National Poetry Month) and the Poetry Society of America (responsible for poems on the subway). It’s a reasonable point. But then Goodyear shifts to a series of comments from poets who are upset about the very popularizing the director is describing. In combination, the criticisms become incoherent. You can complain the foundation is late to the party, or you can argue that the party itself is a mistake — but you can’t do both at the same time.

More than anything, though, it’s curious that in an article that purports to deal with the future of American poetry, Goodyear says nothing about actual poems. But maybe that’s to be expected — after all, about a decade ago, The New Yorker essentially stopped covering contemporary poetry. Granted, you’ll see the occasional collection in the magazine’s Briefly Noted section, but you’d have to go back to the mid-’90s to find a full-scale review of a poet under the age of 70. And since the turn of the century, the magazine has limited its review coverage to poets who are, so to speak, dead — with one exception, Richard Wilbur, whose “Collected Poems” the magazine assessed in 2004. Wilbur is 86.

Indeed, The New Yorker now treats poetry almost exactly as Goodyear suggests the Poetry Foundation does — as a brand-enhancing commodity. Rather than actual discussions of poetry as an art, The New Yorker offers “profiles” of poets, which are distinguishable from profiles of, say, United States senators only in that the poets’ stories potentially include more references to bongs. That’s not to knock the authors of those profiles — often they’re a pleasure to read. They just have nothing to do with poetry.

And then there’s the question of the poems the magazine chooses to run. Granted, picking poems for a national publication is nearly impossible, and The New Yorker’s poetry editor, Alice Quinn, probably does it as well as anyone could. (Quinn is also liked personally, and rightly so, by many poets.) But there are two ways in which The New Yorker’s poem selection indicates the tension between reinforcing the “literariness” of the magazine’s brand and actually saying something interesting about poetry. First, The New Yorker tends to run bad poems by excellent poets. This occurs in part because the magazine has to take Big Names, but many Big Names don’t work in ways that are palatable to The New Yorker’s vast audience (in addition, many well-known poets don’t write what’s known in the poetry world as “the New Yorker poem” — basically an epiphany-centered lyric heavy on words like “water” and “light”). As a result, you get fine writers trying on a style that doesn’t suit them. The Irish poet Michael Longley writes powerful, earthy yet cerebral lines, but you wouldn’t know it from his New Yorker poem “For My Grandson”: “Did you hear the wind in the fluffy chimney?” Yes, the fluffy chimney.

The second issue with The New Yorker’s poem selection is trickier. This is what you might call “the home job”: the magazine’s widely noted fondness for the work of its own staffers and social associates. The most notorious examples were the three poems The New Yorker published by the Manhattan doyenne Brooke Astor in 1996-7 (one more than Robert Creeley managed in his whole life). Some representative lines: “I learned to take the good and bad / And smile whenever I felt sad.” Even more questionable, however, is the magazine’s preference for its own junior employees. In 2002, for instance, the poet who appeared most frequently in the magazine was the assistant to David Remnick, the editor — that assistant’s name, coincidentally, was Dana Goodyear. In fact, since 2000, Goodyear (who is 30) has appeared in the New Yorker more than Czeslaw Milosz, Jorie Graham, Derek Walcott, Wislawa Szymborska, Kay Ryan and every living American poet laureate except for W. S. Merwin. She’s already equaled Sylvia Plath’s total.

The problem with behavior like this is not that it violates some sacred duty of fairness (The New Yorker is a business, not a charity for whiny poets). The problem, to borrow a quotation from Goodyear’s article, is that this kind of thing “signals a lack of ambition and seriousness that may ultimately be fatal.” Poets may get frustrated with the Poetry Foundation; they may complain; they may disagree with certain projects. But the Poetry Foundation, however misguided or impolitic, hasn’t given up on poetry. The question is: Has The New Yorker?


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