Letter from Poetry Magazine

Letter to the Editor

by Nick Demske

Dear Editor,

I don’t share the shock and awe your recent letters to the editor express at Michael Robbins’s mortalizing review of Robert Hass. What shocks me is the defensive reactions that followed. The letters were exclusively outraged by this criticism of Hass. Is that not shocking to anyone other than me? I’ll even say that most of their arguments were sound. Even the ones that devolve to “We like Hass,” “Hass is cool,” etc. I don’t disagree. But neither, really, did Robbins, from my reading of his review. So what prompted the outrage?

Jonathan Blake discredits the review as a pissing contest. I’d say Blake’s right on the money. But I would also like to suggest that this is exactly why it should be celebrated. More piss, I say, less art. So much of the literary criticism I encounter suggests the tradition is quietly going extinct. With this review, on the other hand, I feel Robbins is treating Hass to more honor than any of the letters trying to champion him. Robbins is willing to acknowledge more readings of Hass than the one that has dominated poetic discourse for so long. While he admits many passages merit praise, he also allows that perhaps even those same passages can make for overwhelming nausea. It doesn’t seem to me that any of the letter writers are willing to allow for this. And, in that way, I feel they undercut Hass’s work. Which is rich and complex. Not simple.

Igor Webb’s observation that the hypercritical review Robbins has published is parallel to the long-ago lauding of Hass by Stanley Kunitz gets to the heart of the matter. The same exact lines, two very different reactions. Imagine that. Poetry that offers itself to more than one interpretation.

racine, wisconsin

Originally Published: February 1, 2011

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This prose originally appeared in the February 2011 issue of Poetry magazine

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