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OF POETRY AND A-HOLES

By Wanda Coleman

In recent history, some insulting moron called films the poetry of our era—deaf to the thousands of poets who raise their voices daily, hoping America, and perhaps the world, will hear. The chilling, if not complete silencing, of contemporary American poetry at peak bloom is an awful thing to watch. Educational factors are too numerous to mention; however, the insistence by the mainstream that poetry sell, the death of independent bookstores, book reviews, and the overall throes of a publishing world that must revamp or die, is brutally ugly. Current economic crises are drying up funds for artists in general, poets and poetry specifically, even journalists, as “little” publications go under and poetry festivals are cancelled—laureates, the NEA, and the best efforts of arts councils aside. No surprise. It began in the late 1980s with declarations by major newspapers that poetry would no longer be reviewed and, ironically, corresponds to the birth, growth and ascension of The Internet—not that poems of all quality, schools and tastes, can’t be accessed in cyberspace. Some of that thrives. But immediate and unfettered doc.com democracy has also meant that anyone, with enough chutzpah, money, and site hits, may affect or direct literary currents—those of poetry, fiction and any other writing with or without the authority that comes with genuine knowledge and commitment. Any ignoramous can become a literary honcho without having earned the chops. In this kind of arena artistic integrity will get you nowhere.

Comments (24)

  • On January 22, 2009 at 1:19 pm Reb Livingston wrote:

    Yes, I too miss those days when it was a handful of people comprising of similar class, ethnic, gender backgrounds, trained at the same few schools, with all the proper connections, controlled the discussion and critical reception of poetry. That was when privilege really meant something. Now that the Internet came along and gave every asshole their opinion, poetry is simply destroyed!
    It must be so demeaning for the poets with the genuine knowledge and committment to have to share their views via the dirty, unwashed internet. I can only imagine.

  • On January 22, 2009 at 6:32 pm michael robbins wrote:

    Yes, Wanda, what on earth are you talking about?

  • On January 22, 2009 at 8:18 pm Manny Cartola wrote:

    I dunno about this either.
    While I do agree with certain aspects of this stance (not necessarily the tone), I do think there is another side to this argument (if you can’t figure it out then you should quit writing for recognition). Poets shouldn’t be worried, nor should they whine about not being heard or read.
    Most importantly, why feel “entitled?” Why beg for “recognition?” (see Adam Kirsch’s indefensable Randist views on art… views that Poetry regrettably published)
    Some times you have to trade your laurels for thorns.
    -Manny

  • On January 22, 2009 at 11:43 pm Rich Villar wrote:

    @ Reb: “Yes, I too miss those days when it was a handful of people comprising of similar class, ethnic, gender backgrounds, trained at the same few schools, with all the proper connections, controlled the discussion and critical reception of poetry.”
    Wait, those days are gone?
    *snort*
    @ Wanda, I think you might be right about the glut of blog-critics and pointy-heads, but how much do you think “the old boy network” still affects what gets seen and what doesn’t, particularly given this ever-tightening capitalist economy?
    @ Manny: I don’t think Wanda’s talking about “recognition” so much as she’s talking about access. As for me, sorry man, I want an audience. Being published won’t validate me as a poet, but neither will staying UNpublished. I have plenty to say, and I think my poems should be read by millions. I don’t apologize for wanting people to read my work, and no poet should. Should we wring our hands at the state of poetry today? Maybe, maybe not, but why stand idle and let it die because we wish to preserve our integrity as writers?

  • On January 23, 2009 at 10:34 am James Benton wrote:

    What are you talking about? There is more poetry being published today than even the most voracious reader can hope to read. Some of it is even quite good. Print and on-line journals abound, Poetry reading groups, while small, persist in communities of all sizes, We’re cranking out MFA’s faster than McDonalds burgers. The trouble with poetry today is not that there is too little of it. The plain sad truth is that much of it is incomprehensible and lacking in any hint of craft. Too many poets, think that whatever self-indulgent, weepy non-sequitur happens to spill out of their heads is gold, and while such writing must be written, it should not necessarily be published.

  • On January 23, 2009 at 10:55 am Reb Livingston wrote:

    Rich, you’re absolutely right, there’s a long way to go and the answer isn’t less voices and outlets. What I don’t understand is how any poet would want to move back towards the direction of authority and a “genuine” kind of thinking towards poetry. I don’t understand how a poet would want to move one teeny inch back towards that.
    And when do uniformed assholes only have voice on the internet? I regularly read reviews and commentary in The New York Times, Poetry and many other “legitimate” print publications that make me weep. Hell, I can’t even get to the grocery store without coming across at least one uninformed asshole. Uninformed assholes are not exclusive to and had pulpits long before the internet.

  • On January 23, 2009 at 11:05 am Doodle wrote:

    You know what they say about assholes – they’re like opinions… everybody has one.
    The point is that blogs make opinions seem even more ubiquitous than print does. That’s controversial?

  • On January 23, 2009 at 12:28 pm Javier Huerta wrote:

    Reb,
    I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to include
    “Hell, I can’t even get to the grocery store without coming across at least one uninformed asshole.”
    in my American Copia poem, aka, “Today I’m going to the grocery store.”

  • On January 23, 2009 at 12:46 pm NEG wrote:

    Wanda,
    I agree with you!
    Yes, the internet is a democratizing, pluralistic tool, but it doesn’t negate the need for real editorship, and far too many websites featuring poetry reviews are embarrassingly emblematic of such a need. Open mics are great, wonderful, empowering. I’m glad they exist. I just don’t ever want to sit through one. Why should what happens on the web be any different? Well, here it’s all about appearance, the ease with which one might slip a mask of authenticity and make authoritative facial expressions. I think I hate the internet, but I keep looking at it. I think I hate masks as well. I even hate authenticity, but I hate the putting on airs of it even more.

  • On January 23, 2009 at 1:41 pm Tom Harr wrote:

    NEG: it’s strange that you hate masks but don’t spell out your name… and link to a “college humor” video. I know, it’s all for appearances’s sake.

  • On January 23, 2009 at 3:10 pm Reb Livingston wrote:

    NEG, that’s interesting, because I have a very hazy memory (cause I was drunk and behaved inappropriately, like a true asshole, but putting that fact aside for a moment) of approaching you at a reading a couple years back with a complaint regarding a poorly considered review that appeared in a well distributed print publication carrying a certain level of authority. My complaint (which may not have even been clear considering my state) was that review failed to demonstrate a basic understanding of the subject matter and I questioned whether you actually read the book, because the review was bizarre, made no mention of the central theme and put an overweighted emphasis on one poem at the beginning of the book. Now I put this up here, not to dredge up past dissatisfaction with an old review and at risk of exposing my assholey side to even more people, but as an anecdote demonstrating uniformed, poorly considered and written reviews and commentary are everywhere, often very close to home. Also, that one review hardly destroyed the reception of the book or that particularly poet — mostly because there were so many other venues for it to be reviewed and discussed, both in print and online. If it was one of the few shows in town, that might have been another story. People write and say dopey things, sometimes its painful and hurtful and then poetry moves on.
    I truly am sorry for my behavior, that was a bad night and a worse year.
    Best,
    Reb, Authentic Genuine Ass-poet
    p.s. Javier, all my lines are yours.

  • On January 23, 2009 at 5:33 pm NEG wrote:

    Reb,
    Here’s what I wrote:
    “…Also known for her fierce disavowal of gender roles, Amelia Earhart, who infamously, and indeed prophetically, referred to her marriage in 1931 to George Putnam as a “partnership” with “dual-control,” is the spectral subject of Rebecca Loudon’s Navigate, Amelia Earhart’s Letters Home (No Tell Books). Occasionally, the affected faux-naiveté of Earhart’s epistolary voice in these poems rings somewhat false, because as a public speaker she was fiercely articulate and rhetorically engaging. Perhaps the point is to enact the private side of an unequivocally public figure. Loudon’s Earhart is constructed via letters to her sister, navigator, mother, father, husband, and aviation instructor, among others, which are interspersed with fragments titled “From the missing diary.” These fragments take the form of tellingly, non-domestic grocery lists, dreams, and repetitious yet kinetic prose à la a sort of Stein-lite, which, when combined with the letters, perform a poetic rescue and recapitulation of one side of Earhart and her famous disappearance.”
    By definition, a review is subjective. If I’ve mischaracterized the book it’s because such a mischaracterization represents the truth of my experience of the work, which was informed by several readings before writing a word, as well as several hours of study of Earnart’s own writings. This is to say I was being generous in my review, both in the effort I dedicated to such a limited word count, and in the extreme tempering of my own evaluative take on it. I stand by it, and so did my editor.

  • On January 23, 2009 at 6:57 pm Desmond Swords wrote:

    I wonder what it is Wanda, that afects the direction of literary curents, I really do. Is it the eloquence of the critical language, for example, which makes the shoppers buy? And if it is, do they use words like asshole and insulting morons to describe other human beings who dare contravene our made up criteria for what constitutes excellence in the poetic act and arts Wanda?
    This really is like shooting fish in a barrel, as you seem distressed to the point of appearing uncouth, ranting away at the unfairness of people you think unworthy of expression, getting in an the jag of jangling about something so spiritually complex and intellectually challenging as genuine Poetry. The incredibly pure poo ah tray only a right minded few who know best; myself and those who, after very careful consideration, I decide are fit to blather and serve the cause of keeping all state guerdon and subsidies in the control of who I say should get them. Jackals round the well it is Wanda, rail on dearest spacer, breathe your best, go gal, you too can be head of the imperial mindset.

  • On January 23, 2009 at 10:31 pm Reb Livingston wrote:

    NEG, I’m aware of the what the review said and it wasn’t my intent to debate the review with you — but to point out that I and others close to the book found it lacking its grasp of the subject and style, despite the authority the publication carried, your selection by an editor to write those reviews and the ensuing editorial process on such reviews. I’m not saying your review was wrong per say, because as you said it was your experience and reaction to the book. What I’m saying is that mediums like the internet that allow many a place to express and share to a broad audience, those who would never be selected by “legitimate’ book reviews to write reviews, that value far outweighs the inevitable unevenness and assholitude that is guaranteed whenever more than 3 people participate. I’m also saying that “legitimate” outlets, the ones with authority and genuine knowledge, don’t meet the needs of all, in my view, they don’t meet the needs of many.
    I mentioned my shabby, undignified behavior in my response because I think it’s only fair to show that what we all do here is rather thankless, especially by one another and I’ve been guilty of doing that too. Just as I find Coleman’s sweeping, unsubstantiated remarks to be a thankless dismissal towards the hundreds, possibly thousand of poets who use the medium to support, discuss and promote poetry. There are unlimited places and ways where one can “earn her chops.”

  • On January 24, 2009 at 6:53 am Lilac Cotton wrote:

    Write what you want to be remembered by…and then be patient.

  • On January 24, 2009 at 9:40 am Henry Gould wrote:

    Lilac Cotton hit the nail on the head.
    *
    Wanda writes : “In this kind of arena artistic integrity will get you nowhere. ”
    Actually, the power to displace (or misplace) the desire to “get somewhere” is the beginning of artistic integrity.
    I think there’s more to be said for poetry as renunciation than for poetry as self-assertion. (See T.S. Eliot on this.)
    Music is a power. “The lion sleeps on its paws. / It can kill a man.” (Wallace Stevens)
    Poetry is the personal made psychic – a transference. It’s not the ego – it’s an inquiry into the ego. A shriving of the ego.
    Poetry has its own way of the cross. Every poem is an epitaph. Every epitaph is a reminder – a memento mori.
    John Berryman is buried in Resurrection Cemetery.

  • On January 24, 2009 at 3:00 pm Quincy R. Lehr wrote:

    What an odd post, and my reaction to it is the typical one. For better or worse, we are living in a period when fewer newspapers are reviewing poetry, and, for that matter, fewer small-press journals are reviewing much of it, either. For better or worse, a great number of poetry books sell through direct sales (often, though hardly exclusively, at readings) and through internet “buzz.” Some, perhaps, most of what gets promoted will be downright bad or not to one’s taste. Same thing with open mics–of which I have sat through more than a few.
    But there are times at an open mic where one hears something that is downright spectacular–and it happens more often than one would think–and one has to ask one’s self, “Why isn’t the po-biz all over this?” And when one asks the author, one often gets a familiar litany of tales of form rejections and unanswered e-mails, or, at times, a disgruntled bewilderment over the whole thing. Cliquishness is probably an inevitability, particularly with MFA programs as prominent as they are in the U.S., but the poor sod trying to make his or her way in the biz often hopes for a degree of porousness that, too often, simply is not there. At their best, the phenomena the above blog post decries allow for a degree of second-guessing the taste-makers and even, to a degree, supplanting them. They also allow for groups, perhaps even movements, to coalesce somewhere besides a faculty or grad student lounge. And if this takes place on bulletin boards, in Monday night open readings in bars, or upstart online or print journals, so be it.
    Of course, much of what one sees IS genuinely terrible. But hearing some bad poems and digesting some ill-considered opinions is part of the drill if you want to see what’s really going on. And at an open mic, say, the listener, unless the sort of dickhead who walks out of a reading after doing his or her bit, HAS to give each reader a chance. You’re there anyway and have already ordered that pint.
    And finally, having read reviews both on blogs and in established journals, the blogs tend to simply fall down in a somewhat different manner. The number of careerist, vague, talk-about-the-book-but-not-really-before-moving-onto-the-other-four being-considered-in-the-allotted-800-words-or-so reviews is actually higher in the established print journals by my reckoning. If there is an excessive profusion of poetry out there, perhaps it might be incumbent on the “taste-makers” to consider that this might have something to do with them and not merely be the product of a few amateurish assholes with airs.
    (And for what it’s worth, I’m reasonably well-published, all things considered, so I don’t think what’s above constitutes sour grapes.)
    Quincy

  • On January 25, 2009 at 12:46 pm NEG wrote:

    Just to be clear, I do not believe there is such a thing as “an excessive profusion of poetry.”
    I believe in plurality. I believe in service and community. I believe in the need for an aesthetic largesse. I believe in the gift, in gift economies. I also believe in lexicography and invisible ink.
    I’m a staunch advocate for the rhizomatic unfettering and problematizing of the ways in which whatever distant and remote institutions, organizations, and constellations of power, prestige, and cultural capital perpetuate themselves. What I detest is the replication of such modes and models by those who proclaim their actions and intentions as being contrarian and somehow more authentic. The internet creates an aura of legitimacy for those intent on shouting the loudest. That they’re simply yelling over and over their own name is the problem.
    Let me put it baldly, I do not believe in site counters.

  • On February 10, 2009 at 9:31 am Fred Glienna wrote:

    Rich Villar appears to agree with Wanda Coleman, at the very time that he begins by asking her, “What are you talking about? There is more poetry being published than ever before…”
    He goes to conclude: “The trouble with poetry today is not that there is too little of it. The plain sad truth is that much of it is incomprehensible and lacking in any hint of craft. Too many poets, think that whatever self-indulgent, weepy non-sequitur happens to spill out of their heads is gold, and while such writing must be written, it should not necessarily be published.”
    THAT IS THE VERY HEART OF COLEMAN’S INFLAMMATORY COMMENT. Too many people arrange a paragraph of observations, often without imagery, into poetic shape, and call it a poem. It generally isn’t.
    My Kudoes to Coleman for hewing to some sort of poetic standard.

  • On February 10, 2009 at 4:18 pm Rich Villar wrote:

    Hey Fred…slow ur roll! :-)
    While I do agree with Ms. Coleman, the rest of the comments you cite aren’t mine. They belong to James Benton…though of course, I’d lay much of that sentiment at the feet of Donald Hall’s POETRY AND AMBITION. McPoetry, y’all!

  • On February 16, 2009 at 10:57 am Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    La de da.
    And life goes on.

  • On February 16, 2009 at 7:47 pm Edgar wrote:

    Galatea Resurrects (http://galatearesurrection11.blogspot.com/) is a poetry review journal that uses blog format. Eileen Tabios is its hard-working editor. But the journal has had some guest editors before. I like most of its reviews. But however imperfect this journal is, it’s a space where people can review poetry books that might otherwise not be reviewed elsewhere. This is one of those journals that is not associated with any academic or non-profit institution. And because of this, many could potentially and/or easily dismiss this journal as just another journal with reviews written by those that fits in Coleman’s category as: “Any ignoramous can become a literary honcho without having earned the chops.”
    In many ways though, the reviewers or contributors themselves sort of dismiss this journal as some convenient ‘poetry hangout’ in their peripheral vision, a sort of rest-stop to more serious things they could participate in on-line; I say this because many or most of its contributors almost never mention in their on-line author bios that they’ve written or contributed something to this journal. This sleight-of-hand dismissal, no doubt, says something about perceptions regarding both the journal and its editor. And so one asks: is this journal legitimate enough to be a poetry review journal? I think this space deserves a look. Many online journals do feature poetry reviews. But this is the only one that concentrates on poetry reviews.

  • On February 16, 2009 at 8:28 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    I have been advised that my reply, above, was somewhat curt, if not rude. I apologize. Please allow me to clarify:
    What, pray tell, could possibly be more ironic than a debate on an internet poetry site about the validity of poetry on internet poetry sites?
    A tempest in a blogspot.

  • On February 23, 2009 at 7:18 pm Glenn Ingersoll wrote:

    Why does one quote “insulting morons”? It’s not like there aren’t plenty of them saying all sorts of cruel and criminal things.


Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, January 22nd, 2009 by Wanda Coleman.