I write here as someone with two special angles of vision on the poetry world. One comes from twenty-odd years as an editor—and three as sole editor—of the durable West Coast all-poetry magazine Blue Unicorn. This job entails constantly sampling, and choosing from, a hefty stream of submitted verse. The second is a lifetime of immersion in the critical ideas and teaching methods of Lawrence Hart, mentor of the so-called Activist Group of poets, and my father, who died in 1996. For a quarter century now I have been documenting, applying, and I hope extending these methods.[Read more…] about Who is this guy and why is he talking?
A funny thing happened when people reacted to my post reacting to reaction to Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem “The Hill We Climb.” They very much wanted to share their thoughts, but (with one exception) not to give their names. Most identities below are disguised.
Beth wrote: “I think Amanda Gorman is a lovely, poised, passionate young lady. Not a poet. I am afraid to say this to anyone else because it would be taken as racist and sexist. Maybe that is why others are mum.”
Catherine wrote: “Bravo! Hallelujah! Your blog was a breath of fresh air in a very smoky literary climate. If I’m just a bit over the top, you’ll excuse me—I’ve been grumbling about the Gorman poem (earnest, clichéd prose separated into lines) and Poetry magazine for a while. It’s wonderful to read someone who assures me I’m not alone in my judgments. “
Catherine continued: “The irony is that poets are the ones most likely to share progressive views . . . The idea of opening up the ranks of people who get published to include under-represented minorities makes all great sense and yes, the fact that the canon is largely peopled by white men is undeniable. That observable truth is what has driven what I believe to be an over-reaction to publish the marginalized groups, regardless of the quality of the work. Oh my, I think this is maybe a phase we need to go through until things start to right themselves.”
Donna wrote: “My shyness about public comment on other poets stems from not wanting to cause pain, I suppose. I liked young Amanda as a person and as a representative of the future, but felt sorry that she was tasked with such a heavy public role so young.” Donna went on to note (as did critic William Logan) that none of the earlier inaugural poems (six to date) has been anything special.
Estelle wrote: “I was very excited about Gorman . . . I think she entranced on many levels that clouded my (& so many others’) ability for closer critical response to the actual poem. It’s challenging to critique it without throwing shade on such a bright hopeful moment but I think it is necessary, especially for her. She has gotten so much attention, so much praise at such a young age, that it may undermine her ability to mature as a poet.”
I was grateful but embarrassed to hear from Fiona, who alerted me to a notable critique I had missed clean. (Points off here for inadequate homework.) “Amanda Gorman Was Let Down by a Terrible Poem,” wrote Melanie McDonagh (caricature) in the July 21 issue of the British magazine The Spectator. I think McDonagh spends too much time faulting Gorman on logic (not so relevant to poetry), but applaud her conclusion: “You could just about get away with declaiming all this at a rally . . . but as poetry?”
Of course an inauguration is akin to a rally, and some who disliked “The Hill We Climb” have kept quiet on the grounds that written-to-order work like this needn’t be taken seriously. Some sat on their critical hands because of Gorman’s youth. And some, certainly, swallowed their thoughts for fear of being tarred with the racist brush.
The people who made high claims for “The Hill We Climb,” of course, were held back by nothing at all.
I am glad that somebody with a platform has finally ventured a criticism of Amanda Gorman’s oration at Joe Biden’s inauguration, presented as a poem and rapturously received. It’s about time that this heartfelt effort by an impressive young woman was taken seriously enough to be questioned on its merits. But I am sad about where the critique has appeared, and where it has not.
The excellent William Logan, not surprisingly, was the one to take on The Hill We Climb. After acknowledging that any inaugural poet has an almost impossible task, he pulls no punches: “Her poem was a sorry affair, composed of stock metaphors and dreary banalities . . . ” I reluctantly agree. I have heard similar reactions many times in private, but this is the first public statement of them that I have seen.
A healthy debate should ensue. Outrage in some quarters. But so far there’s no sign of it. The trouble is that Logan’s piece, part of a review of several books, appeared in The New Criterion, a distinctly right-wing journal easily overlooked or discounted by those not at home in that part of the current political spectrum.
Founded in 1982 by New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer, The New Criterion exhibits a split personality. It pairs valuable, subtle critical responses to the arts with harangues on the wider political and social scene; the latter assume the reader’s agreement and argue mainly through scorn. The serious pieces are the bait that makes me subscribe; I skim the rest, looking for a genuinely stimulating challenge to my own views. For, politically, I am more in tune with Amanda Gorman than I am with the Criterion editors in their combat mode.
But why should criticism be sectioned off in this way? Why no debate about Gorman’s work and its reception in, say, in The New York Review of Books? Are we so imprisoned by our politics that only an almost fringe publication will carry a negative assessment of a newsworthy piece of work?
As a liberal and environmentalist, I’m distressed to note that my political tribe has an awful weakness for weak poetry—or at least an ingrained habit of judging art of all kinds by content, origin, and social utility, not by style.
Poets come in all political shades. Strong political poetry has been written, though it is tricky to pull off. But poetry should not—it simply does not—belong to any side in the ongoing culture wars.
PS. At least one more voice, distinctly not a right-wing one, has been raised in gentle dissent about the choice of Amanda Gorman as inaugural poet. Ishmael Reed, the renowned Black satirist, thinks a more seasoned Black literary figure ought to have had that honor.
The question comes up. If you don’t care for the bulk of the poems you read today, what do you admire? And don’t go back seventy years. What do you like that’s reasonably new?
Sitting down to answer this question, I kind of surprised myself. I like a lot. It may be a tiny percentage of what I read, but a minuscule fraction of a deluge is still a lot of water. And as a magazine editor—the Spring issue of Blue Unicorn just went into the mail—I take much more pleasure in saying Yes than No.
It is indeed a question of what I like, not who. “There are no great poets, only great poems,” Lawrence Hart liked to remark. Nobody hits the mark all the time. But as Ezra Pound wrote a century ago, “If a man write six good lines he is immortal—isn’t that worth trying for?” That man, these days, is rather more likely to be a woman, but the principle holds.
While I tend to like underdogs more than the regular denizens of Poetry, The New Yorker, and the like, there are exceptions. The glaring one is Kay Ryan, recent poet laureate, whose compact constructions have earned her about every recognition you can think of. If I could, I’d add another. Then there is Nobelist Louise Glück; I will not forget, for instance, her late “The Arboretum” (encountered in The New York Review of Books).
But there are total surprises. I had never heard of Gabrielle Calvocoressi before I read her haunting narrative of pollution, “The Death of Towns,” in Literary Imagination. Of the Brit Miles Larmour, before I saw his family drama “The corncrake, alive and cupped” in the UK publication Orbis. Of the Californian David de Leeuw before I heard him evoke an alpine landscape in an almost empty café in Berkeley. Of Tom Laichas, author of tellingly displaced Biblical parallels, until his work popped up in the inbox of Blue Unicorn. I was barely aware of the Frenchman Benoît Conort till I saw him at BU in translations by Kim Cushman: a successor to Yves Bonnefoy? I won’t mention, this time, poets who are or have been students of mine.
To even begin naming people is to leave dozens out, and what can a reader make of a string of names and titles? So what kinds of poetry am I responding to?
One of my weaknesses is for formal work. When ably handled, rhyme and meter greet me like old friends. Writers like Mary Jane Salter, Susan McLean, and Dan Campion wield these tools with the seeming effortlessness that shows how hard they work. (The deliberate torture of form can be lots of fun, too. Mere sloppiness, never.)
Without form, as Galway Kinnell said, “the responsibility for the poem [lies] wholly on speech itself.” Word by word, the language must do more—make us see, make us feel, sometimes (no lecturing, please) make us think. None of this happens without an element of daring that, in contemporary verse, is rare. I am always alert for signs of the itch to get beyond first thoughts and easily-come-by words. As an editor, I’ll take a somewhat rough piece with some standout lines over a smoother one that makes fewer demands.
If I did an annual anthology—a fantasized Poems John Hart Likes Quite a Bit—it wouldn’t have the heft of the influential Best American Poetry series, which logged 268 pages in 2020. But it wouldn’t be a chapbook, either.
The March 2021 issue of Poetry magazine arrived. I sat right down with it, on the principle that onerous duties should be tended to right away.
If you’re following the field you have to read Poetry, of course. With its handsome packaging, lavish endowment, and century’s worth of accumulated prestige, it enjoys an unequaled authority. Its associated Poetry Foundation website, open to all, is a wonderful resource. An ongoing collaboration with the PBS NewsHour connects prominent voices in the field to millions of viewers.
What’s not to like? Well, for me, the lion’s share of the verse that is being printed.
I read each issue carefully. I read many poems twice and some out loud. I read in the hope of pleasure, which of course sometimes I get. I read as an editor—would I print this? I read as a student of the scene—what do these poems and essays tell me about trends and preoccupations in the poetry world today? I guard against rejecting something just because it is unfamiliar.
That’s just the problem with March 2021 Poetry: far too much of the language in it is absolutely familiar. Predictable. Lazy. Sentimental. Off the shelf in some poetic dollar store.
The first piece, Jennifer Woodson’s “Weight,” sets the tone. “When I was a kid,” it begins, “there was this song that played on the radio all the time.” The song ( “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” as sung by The Hollies) mentions “a long and winding road.” Musing on recent political and cultural troubles, the poet picks up the theme. “And still—ahead of us, the road keeps winding into a place we cannot yet see.”
A poem, or an editorial? I had to check twice to see that it was in fact billed as a poem.
And so it goes through 80 more pages, the linguistic level often dropping to that of a Hallmark card. A red-crowned crane is “wondrous white.” Nathalie Handal tells us: “I’d like to be a poem, to reach your heart and stay.” Michael Simms, teaching a daughter to swim, says: “Watching you I grew stronger—/your courage washed away my fear.” In the issue’s final piece, Margarita Engle instructs us: “Children and poetry were born to love each other”—and yes, this too is part of something published as a poem.
There is a certain amount of labored wit. Chen Chen writes, “One day you will create an online personality quiz that also freshens the breath.” Linda Sue Park has a stanza: “Walk./Bike./Walk some more./Recycle.” And then: “(See what I did there, bike—recycle?)” Even this tiny foray into play with words, it seems, requires a self-deprecating elbow-nudge.
Reviews are supposed to be balanced. I did nod at a very few lines by Chen, by Kara Jackson, by Mahogany L. Browne. Elizabeth Acevedo is at least doing something different from most of the rest. But this reader can bend over backwards no farther than that.
As I worked my way through the issue, a complaint made by New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl in an exhibit critique looped around in my brain: “It seems that we’ll never be permitted to graduate from the university of the obvious.”
Certainly not in Poetry magazine, March 2021.
Poets and their cheerleaders—often other poets—don’t like to admit it, but what we call poetry often makes hard reading, in one of several ways.
Poet and essayist Elisa Gabbert has touched on this fact in the New York Review of Books (March 26, 2020). In a piece titled “New Theories of Boredom”—billed as a poem, which it certainly is not—she makes some shrewd remarks.
Gabbert draws a line between language that discourages us because it is banal and language that discourages us because it is difficult. “It’s almost like there should be different words for “boring because simple” and “boring because complex,” she says.
She goes on, “You could also call “boring because complex” interesting boring (boring in an interesting way) or slow-interesting (interesting, but at a pace that sometimes resembles boredom).”
She concludes, “To state the obvious, all good poetry is slow-interesting.”
Is this true? Surely not quite. There is such a thing as a poem that speaks to the reader instantly and continues to speak for years, decades—sometimes centuries—after.
But there are many also that appeal once and then are through with you; and there are many that take some time to make their case—but then stick with you forever.
William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge had this argument two hundred years ago and more. Wordsworth wrote in his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads of 1798: “The Poet writes under one restriction only, namely, the necessity of giving immediate pleasure to a human Being . . . .”
Coleridge wasn’t so sure about that word “immediate.” In his brilliant if rambling Biographia Literaria, he declares that it is “not the poem which we have read, but that to which we return, with the greatest pleasure, [that] possesses the genuine power, and claims the name of essential poetry . . .”
The first half of the twentieth century in poetry tended to follow Coleridge, producing a lot of “slow-interesting” poems. Lawrence Hart’s “Activist” poets worked on similar lines. Poets who studied with him, and later with me, have developed many styles, but certainly these, when successful, also tend toward the “slow-interesting.”
One widespread attitude in the current poetry world is dislike of the “slow-interesting.” Many reviewers—and editors—feel that to pose any obstacle to immediate understanding is to show off, to demonstrate contempt for the reader. And many poets whose gift tends to lead them off the accessible track don’t dare to diverge too far, for fear of being judged “obscure.”
One very eminent poet and teacher, criticizing a student writer for pretentiousness, barked: “I heard better language coming over on the bus this morning.” I find this unlikely. “Boring because simple” would cover a lot of the language heard on the typical bus.