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A mess of errors

By Stephen Burt

I’ve been trying to figure out whether to say something about the depressing flap around the Poetry Society of America, John Hollander, the Frost medal, and the resignations of directors, partly in response to Rigoberto’s salvo a couple of days ago. I have nothing particularly original to contribute (not here and now anyway) to the very hard big questions about how historically white, rich institutions should address legacies of inequity and racism. I don’t know whether the PSA has done enough, nor do I know enough details about its programming even to judge what “enough” might mean, for that particular organization. Such arguments aren’t likely to end soon.
What I do know is that this story has been badly and inaccurately reported. More below the fold.


What’s so bad about the reportage? Well, the British article on the controversy incorporates odd errors and questionable decisions, some of them taken from dodgy parts of the shorter NY Times piece: since almost everything in the blogosphere on the mess comes from one of those two pieces, the errors, like Rumor in Chaucer, fly around unchecked.
Some of the errors are harmless in themselves, but suggest fast writing and not much fact-checking: Carolyn [sic] Kaiser? Maxine [sic] Cummins?
Some of the errors are problems of context caused by unfamiliarity with the material referenced: everyone supposedly knows that Robert Penn Warren was racist because his early poem “Pondy Woods” is spoken, in part, by a buzzard who uses the N-word; nobody seems to know that he wrote this book too– he may have been once, but he wasn’t later in life, an oblivious subscriber to Southern myths. How many other white literary writers would even have tried to write such a book, at that time? (“Pondy Woods,” by the way, is a pretty bad, and dated-sounding, poem: it might be remembered for Sterling Brown’s neat rejoinder.)
Some of the problems are not errors of fact, but matters of, well, bizarre journalistic decision: the next time I’m unhappy with any decision made by any organization to which I belong, I’m going to phone a reporter and compare that decision to Watergate, Teapot Dome and the Tet Offensive, demanding that I be identified only as “an [organization] insider.” I’ll have as much credibility as whoever compared John Hollander’s intemperate, ugly remarks on a radio program to Gunter Grass’ membership in the SS, a comparison that found its way from the Times story into the British national dailies and then into the papers that reprinted either story. Why run this sort of inflammatory claim?
And why not read the pieces from which you’ve been repeating phrase-long quotes? Hollander (whom I knew at Yale; I found him thoughtful and helpful) is accused of having said two racist things. One was ugly and depressing– and impromptu, on the radio, rather than considered and then put in print– but not necessarily racist: if Hollander doesn’t think there are very many truly good poets of any colors right now, then he doesn’t think there are many truly good nonwhite ones. I certainly see why you might find that comment offensive, though it seems a slim reed on which to hang a case for ostracism.
But the other comment, in context, wasn’t racist at all. Hollander actually wrote, in 2001, in the course of telling everybody to read Jay Wright,this:
“His poetry gives evidence of a bookish and extremely thoughtful life while encountering the forms and rituals of cultures without literatures — West African, Mexican and Central American — as well as the writers — Augustine, Goethe, Rilke, David Hume, Hugh MacDiarmid — whose traces we find allusively placed throughout his work. Wright’s poetic mythmaking derives as much from a purely American sort of engagement with major late Romantic poetry as it has to do with anthropologically framed story, song and ritual.”
If you read that paragraph fast and inattentively, and if you haven’t ever read Jay Wright, it sounds like Hollander is saying that Mexicans and West Africans have no literature today.
But that’s not what he’s saying at all. Rather, he’s noting– as Nathaniel Mackey has also noted, and in fact as everyone who writes about Jay Wright has had to note– that Wright uses symbols and ideas from particular pre-modern cultures, oral cultures, whose art forms were not written down, cultures located in what is now Mexico, in West Africa and in Central America. These cultures’ orature (not literature, because not in writing), these cultures’ “story, song and ritual,” can’t be ignored if you want to see what Wright does.
That’s pretty clearly what Hollander meant, and it’s depressing to see the misconstrued quotation floating around without a fix attached. Does anyone seriously think John Hollander doesn’t respect, or doesn’t know about, Octavio Paz? Did Times reporter Motoko Rich? Did Rich’s editor?
I wish I didn’t feel obligated to raise such questions– but I haven’t seen anyone else do it. It’s not a story that reflects well on the Poetry Society, so far, but the biggest shadow, so far, falls on the people who have tried to report it.

Comments (6)

  • On October 2, 2007 at 9:48 am Alicia (A.E.) wrote:

    I’ve taken a sort of master class with Hollander at Sewannee, and he was a marvellous teacher–erudite and interesting–and very warm and kind in person. I can see him making complex remarks that could be misconstrued–I don’t know what happened on the radio show. The resignations though don’t seem to have been so much about Hollander’s winning the prize per se, as about the tenor of the discourse and the e-mails. It sounds a mess. The wider issues of Rigoberto’s post still seem relevant. But it is certainly depressing that so little good journalism went into such a charged topic–thanks for your clarifications.

  • On October 2, 2007 at 1:57 pm Rigoberto wrote:

    Steve, thank you for this response. I have since received other clarifications about the goings-on at the PSA board meetings, but no one has stepped forward to make an official statement, so it’s difficult to post anything that was communicated to me in confidence. But for me, ithe issue is less about John Hollander, and more about Mr. Louis-Dreyfus, and the type of leadership placed in these positions that forgets we now live in 2007. And the scale (and color) of the resignations is sending out a clear message to the community at large, whether or not these board members meant to. PSA has remained silent so far, and though a few efforts at damage control have already been made (like placing two other poets of color on the board) it’s going to take a lot more than gestures to remedy this scandal. And it is scandalous. And embarrassing. So maybe a lesson will come from this. I suspect, for example, that the next board president will be a little wiser, reflecting, no doubt, PSA’s new-found wisdom.

  • On October 2, 2007 at 1:57 pm Oscar Bermeo wrote:

    Mr. Burt,
    Thank you for bringing these points to light but there wouldn’t be a need to question the reporting in the first place if the Poetry Society of America, in the opinion of the departing members, lived up to its mission of fostering and promoting poetry in the United States.
    As to the question of “how historically white, rich” (literary) “institutions should address legacies of inequity and racism;” the answer is not in looking back but in devising new strategies to present poetry that challenges and inspires a culturally diverse literary audience.

  • On October 2, 2007 at 9:46 pm Rich Villar wrote:

    I actually don’t think the reporting was that bad. I mean, we got the gist of it: Louis-Dreyfus basically accuses Mosley of being a McCarthyist, the other board members resigned in protest. That’s what happened, right? Right? I mean, as Rigoberto says, in the absence of any positive statement from the PSA, it’s hard to gauge.
    I echo the previous posters in saying that the issue is not that John Hollander is a racist. (Although I have to say, a straight reading of the quote Mr. Burt posted doesn’t let Hollander off the hook, not to mention the quotes attributed to him about nonwhite writers.) Rather, my problem is with the fact that Mr. Louis-Dreyfus was willing to insult Walter Mosley with the McCarthyist remark. He doesn’t have to agree with Mosley’s stance, but he damn sure better respect his right to make it, especially as the board President of an entity daring to call itself “of America.”
    That said…I mean, jeez, since we’re all here and gathered around the fire and such…I actually think that organizations such as the Poetry Society of America, the Poetry Foundation, the Academy of American Poets, some sectors of academia, the majority of MFA programs around the country, etc, etc, etc, could use a nice healthy dose of self-examination, and that includes looking back at where, quite frankly, they’ve fallen woefully short in the diversity department in the past AND the present. And it shouldn’t stop there. What about other institutions? The structures behind literary criticism and publishing? How do perceptions about race and liberalism affect one’s critical language about literature? i.e. The way we view what kind of poetry is “good,” “bad,” “cliche,” etc.
    One last thing: THIS is the conversation that writers of color across the board have been having with themselves for quite a long long time now. We need to have this wider conversation, and we need minds open enough to listen and respond positively. I’m quite sure that the more conservative and reactionary sectors would prefer we turn off the spigot and turn to more pedestrian matters, but the fact is, this conversation is here to stay. I, for one, am in for the long haul.
    By the way: SUGGESTION FOR FUTURE POETRY FOUNDATION BLOGGER: Amiri Baraka.

  • On October 3, 2007 at 8:20 am Danielle Chapman wrote:

    Regardless of the main point of the article (the meltdown of Louis-Dreyfus and others) I’m grateful to Steve for pointing out the irresponsibility of the reporting–which I think is indisputable, especially in regard to Hollander. It sets him up as the lightning rod at the center of this dispute and allows the reader to believe that he IS, without any shadow of a doubt, racist. There’s even a quote from Louis-Dreyfus (his supposed defender) comparing him to Ezra Pound (the notorious anti-Semite). If I hadn’t read Steve’s post, I would have assumed (along with the reporter, apparently) that the racism claim was true, as the truncated quote from Hollander in the article is, in fact, shocking. Meanwhile, in context, it’s smart and sensitive. Just imagine being Hollander and having that one (mis) quote follow you around your whole life, when it may be totally foreign to your own way of thinking.
    Doesn’t this amount to some sort of slander? And what does it say about the journalistic establishment, when an article like this foments the culture wars in such a haphazard and automatic way?

  • On October 3, 2007 at 2:05 pm Jennifer Lewin wrote:

    I’m glad Steve wrote what he did above, and I think his interpretations of Hollander’s words correct. It’s atrocious that the reporter wouldn’t go back to the original article in her OWN paper and try to make sense of the remark. And to think that a group of poets sitting around giving out awards wouldn’t have the intellectual or artistic curiosity to figure out what he meant (in the Jay Wright review) is pretty scary, too. If not us, then who?
    I’ve seen a lot of bloggers discuss the story and their comments as well as others’ cause me seriously to doubt that they’ve ever read a word of Hollander’s writings.
    Ultimately, yes, it’s a question of the media’s irresponsibility. Just the other day the French newspapers decided to boycott an ad campaign featuring an anorexic model, only to print the ads for free in the articles about it.


Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, October 1st, 2007 by Stephen Burt.