Letter to the Editor
It is my usual policy to ignore attacks on my work, as such things don't deserve the additional attention of a response, but since in her comprehensively ignorant review of The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries ("Bad Habits," January 2005), which I edited and introduced, Danielle Chapman attacks the work of many poets whom I admire, and furthermore seeks to dismiss an entire mode of writing, I have decided to make an exception.
Chapman's lack of a grasp of something as basic as the connotations of analogy (not to mention her fundamental lack of seriousness) is apparent in her comparison of reading the anthology to watching someone masturbate, an experience for which many people gladly and repeatedly pay large amounts of money. If reading the anthology is indeed analogous to such an experience (I am assuming that the person being so watched is attractive), that is high praise indeed, and I expect soon to be quite wealthy from the proceeds.
But humor aside (and Chapman's lame attempts at humor are best left to the wayside), Chapman's analogy does raise the question of pleasure in the experience of reading poetry. Unfortunately, it does not occur to her that pleasure is exactly that—a question, and not a given. Wallace Stevens wrote of the supreme fiction that "It Must Give Pleasure," but wisely did not define the nature of such pleasure, because such things cannot and should not be delimited in advance: "To sing jubilas at exact, accustomed times,... // This is a facile exercise." It is these accustomed jubilations that Chapman seems to expect of poetry. The pleasure of being shaken out of one's complacencies is one whose possibility she apparently has never considered.
Indeed, consideration—in the sense of thinking through a question whose answer one has not determined in advance, of experiencing something without having already decided upon one's response— is exactly what is missing from Chapman's review. For example, she makes a great deal of the notion that in the poems contained in this anthology "thought masters feeling," and asserts that "philosophy, not poetry, is the vehicle for abstract thought," thus repeating the notion shared by my students that poets shouldn't think. Apparently, reviewers of poetry shouldn't think either. In my introduction I argue against this simplistic dichotomy between emotion and intellect, as did T.S. Eliot in his famous essay "The Metaphysical Poets," in which he writes that for a poet like Donne a thought was an experience. The work of many poets included exemplifies their refusal to be hemmed in by such facile binaries, and their awareness that the personal and the intellectual are not contradictory: as Stevens writes, "it was not a choice/Between excluding things." Chapman, however, seems to have noticed none of this. She simply takes such an opposition of thought and feeling (one that I for one find untrue to my own experience) for granted, seeing no need even to argue for it: a sign of sloppy reading and of sloppy thinking. Eliot wrote that the poet should be as intelligent as possible; the same should go for reviewers and critics of poetry.
Poet and editor Reginald Shepherd was born in New York City in 1963 and grew up in the Bronx. He earned a BA from Bennington College and studied at Brown University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His first collection, Some Are Drowning (1994), won the Associated Writing Program’s Award in...