Saturday, June 29, 2013

SLATE's Katy Waldman also objects to the Mark Edmundson HARPER'S article.

The above article is by SLATE assistant editor Katy Waldman.

Here are the first two paragraphs:
Hi, Mark Edmundson, you big-time poetry troll. I am not sure where to start with you. You took to Harper’s this month to denounce contemporary American poets. You upbraided them for their “inwardness and evasion,” their “blander, more circumscribed mode,” and claimed that they cast “unambitious spells.” You scolded them for playing “small-time games” with “low stakes,” timidly avoiding the words “we” and “our,” neglecting pop culture, and refusing to offer up a “comprehensive vision,” a “full-scale map of experience” encompassing politics, childhood, love, death, society, and nature. You scorched them in aggregate and you scorched them individually: W.S. Merwin is “oblique, equivocal, painfully self-questioning.” John Ashbery “says little.” Of Anne Carson: “The title of a recent profile in the New York Times, ‘The Inscrutable Brilliance of Anne Carson,’ has it half right.” Jorie Graham is “portentous,” Paul Muldoon “opaque.” As for Adrienne Rich, “the gift for artful expression is not hers.” You go after Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Charles Simic, Frank Bidart, Robert Pinsky, and Robert Hass, even the late James Merrill, all of whom deserve pages and pages of defense (and are likely getting it: I don’t even want to think about the contents of your inbox right now, Mark). Yes, your screed was a passionate piece of writing, dripping with erudition. You quoted great poets down through history: Dante, Milton, Emerson, Wordsworth, Yeats, Frost, Plath, Lowell. You did exactly what you want today’s poets to do, which is make a sweeping, fervent argument about something that matters. Unfortunately, you are completely out of your mind.

Even after poring over your 6,000-word essay, I’m still not exactly sure which themes you believe are appropriate for poetry—good verse apparently has to illuminate the world post-9/11, or describe the decline of the human race, or something. (At one point you praise Lowell for “looking at the world as though from outer space, like a graying weary seer, and pronouncing judgment.” Not exactly the clearest marching orders.) But I do know for sure that today’s poets are hardly limiting themselves to hermetic introspection (not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Nor are they avoiding overtly political content. A relatively recent New York Review of Books is lying on my desk. Let me open it up to the first poem I see: “Green Absinthe,” by Frederick Seidel, which contains the lines: “Bashar al-Assad (may his tribe increase!)/ Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace, / And saw, within the moonlight in his room, / The dead about to lead him to his doom.” Nope, not political at all. And farther down, an icy deployment of the same prophetic “we” you argue has gone extinct: “Something is coming more than we know how./ More than we know how. An asteroid. Soon.” You complain that poets these days only want to write about their own thought processes. I suppose you’re not interested in Sharon Olds on assisted suicide or Paul Muldoon on Obama or James Merrill on World War I or Natasha Tretheway on colonialism in the Americas. I suppose you don’t care that Louise Gluck’s latest book, A Village Life, is all about crafting a communal voice, capturing that strange collective pulse small towns know. So many lyrics out there bypass the personal, or use it to leapfrog into the abstract, that I’m unsure if you’re joking when you say that poets have given up on grand claims in order to cocoon themselves in lilting idiosyncrasy. Of course, you do admit that there’s no end of poetry being written and published out there: one can’t generalize about it all,” before, um, generalizing about all of it.

And here's the final paragraph:
But, you cry, “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world!” [W.H.] Auden’s tart rejoinder was that “Poetry makes nothing happen.” (“It is a way of happening,” he adds, “a mouth.”) Auden wanted to steer the art away from truth-claims and toward something more flexuous and subtle—a mode, not a message. For Auden, poetry unfolded in hypotheticals, in half-truths and possibilities, toggling between feeling and thought. You may find this subjunctive space wishy-washy and esoteric, but, in it, anything can occur. That is how poets become reformers and activists. That is how change starts. But if it’s not enough for you, if you are still intent on the “legislators of the world,” then put down the anthology and turn on C-SPAN, you crazy person.


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