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Jordan Davis’s ‘Whine List’ About Poetryland

By Harriet Staff

Yeah read it! Jordan Davis interrogates/unsuffocates/courts controversy/dislikes Conceptualism/gives “Poetryland” its negative due at Best American Poetry. He also invites participation, asking “What are your (generalized, no names please) complaints about Poetryland?” (Comments are open.) (He doesn’t even touch the party reading scene.) You see, here’s Davis’s problem:

The Glut. Too many books. Thousands each year. As Yogi Berra said (about a restaurant), “No one goes there nowadays, it’s too crowded.” You would think we could count on basic Economics to work this one out on its own. Maybe it will.

How did we get to this state of thousands of books of poems each year? Print-on-demand, the proliferation of MFAs, tenure, and the internet are yada yada answers. The cold true question is, who doesn’t want to bring out a book? And tell me in advance which books we can do without. Yours?

Probably. An excerpt of the “whine list”:

Nepotism and cronyism. Tough one to defend, but let’s reframe the question. You go read every book published this year and choose the five best, or read every poem in every magazine and find a bunch you want to show other people. Let me know if there are no friends, acquaintances, teachers, or friends of teachers on your lists. I predict also that a large proportion of your choices will be by people you’ve never met. Give that one time, too. Stick around long enough and if you’re lucky you might get to be friends with some writers you admire that you didn’t happen to go to school with.

Prizes have gotten much better about blocking obvious abuses, but they’re still lotteries. As Robert Lowell once said in an acceptance speech, one likes to think that books that win prizes are reasonable choices among several reasonable choices. Think what you will about the repetition of the word reasonable, it’s a statement rich with meaning.

Projects / concepts. Here is my concept, or project: I want to write poems that can be re-read indefinitely by people who read a lot and therefore have calibrated their patience and impatience. All other conceptual writing projects are bunk, as is my concept / project. It comes down to which kind of fool you want to be — Blake (“If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise”) or Emerson (“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”) — which is to say, which one you understand better, wisdom or hobgoblins.

The Internet. This one is valid.

Number one or nothing. The intellectual rationale for income disparity is a tournament mentality: everyone agrees to let the winner take all because everyone believes they have a chance to win. I don’t believe it, but I don’t think number one has it so great either. And why does number one keep changing? Better to keep your head down and find some friends you trust to confirm when adrenaline is coming through.

Airburgers. See also, “The Nothing,” “The Silence,” “White Noise.” Any two readers are likely to have dramatically different senses of when this complaint might apply, but in my experience nine out of ten readers will make it: some poems say so much nothing it prompts the reader to wonder a) why did someone want to publish this and b) why did someone else agree to do it?

Make, to quote the commander in chief, no mistake: everyone who writes is entitled to commit empty text from time to time. But check it before you send it out! Revise. Please. Vladimir Mayakovsky and David Byrne wrote some of their best work by replacing the empty counters with better phrases.

Anthony Madrid’s method for detecting the hollow spots sounds sound — to memorize one’s poems and recite them until every phrase passes the sniff test.

Holier-than-everyone. I’ll go in depth about this complaint tomorrow.

Read it all here.

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Posted in Poetry News on Monday, November 12th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.