A mess of errors
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.
Stephanie (also Steph; formerly Stephen) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice...