Temple Grandin, who has revolutionized the slaughterhouses of America, believes that it is natural for humans to eat other animals, but, in her words, “we owe them some respect.” Considering that poets are meat for critics, I think her principle ought to apply to us. I refer to David Orr’s answer to a letter in your June issue in which he repeats (with a dash more pique and a further distortion of meaning) his ad hominem remarks from an earlier review, in response to a reader’s letter in defense of honesty and uncertainty in poetry.
I must inform Orr that I injured my shoulder some time ago walking a large dog, and so am incapable of patting myself on the back. Yes, I am the case in point, and though with snarky reviews, as we all know, what you can do is suck it up; still, I think that seeing the same snark published twice entitles you to say: Enough. Silence would seem cowardice, and though I am generally cowardly—if I were the only one left conscious in an airplane, I would not take the controls and try to land it, but would fall, weeping, to my death with my fellow passengers—even so, enough of letting things go because it is unseemly to speak out on one’s own behalf.
A reader challenged Orr’s original accusation [April 2011] that you can’t say (in my poem “Back Then, We Called It ‘The War,’”) that you don’t understand the mass violence of war, because whatever you think of “our violent tendencies...you do have to understand them.” In reiterating this view, he argues that poets “are obligated to at least attempt to have some sort of relation to those behaviors.” Yet it is exactly that relationship to war and atrocity that is the subject to which the book’s title alludes, and is the concern of most of the poems in the first half of the volume—poems whose “bruised” subject matter and its treatment he found not to his taste. Taste is one thing; ignoring meaning and context is quite another.
Whether a critic likes what a poem says or not, he is obligated to read it, and not to quote out of context to deform its meaning. For instance, the “nevertheless, I do not understand” comes, not only in the larger context described above, and after “though I have looked in my own heart,/and knowing myself no better than most, and worse than many,” but also at the end of a stanza which mentions a lifetime of trying to understand—listing the many disciplines and sciences, the philosophers and writers consulted, who had a serious go at the problem of mass violence and atrocity against our own kind. Clearly, these too many, often conflicting “answers” are over-determined; their accretion of competing explanations suggest finally the inability of the subject to submit to understanding or preventive explanation. A design flaw in the species? ¿Quién sabe?
Speaking of taking lines out of context in order to disregard their sense, I suppose that if the little girl at the end of the poem were not standing in the rubble our air strike had made of her home—the context Orr neglected to mention—she might not have had such a hopeless urge toward reconstruction. In critiquing her gesture, while ignoring the context of ruin, he says: “More likely, that little girl is picking up stones in order to peg them at her brother. Kids are mean.” This is beyond irrelevance; it is parody.