Monday, April 03, 2006

Jonathan's perfectly reasonable outrage at the condescension of the New York Times aside, I find the latest article on the new Elizabeth Bishop book to be even sillier, designed from the first sentence to make "the insular world of poetry" look trivial. (I don't much like their new format, either—and what happened to the "Washington" section?) It's a textbook example of ill-informed and parochial cultural reporting, which makes me feel doubt about all the other subjects they cover—if their knowledge of the poetry world is so shallow, can we expect them to know much more about theater and televsion (much less world events)? It's not about poetry, or even about Elizabeth Bishop, but about a perceived catfight between Helen Vendler and Alice Quinn, as though Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton had had a public spat. The director of the Academy of American Poets, Tree Swenson, apparently "had a difficult time finding a poet willing to talk to a reporter about the contretemps," because we are all apparently afraid of saying something critical about Alice Quinn. If you are willing to go on record as being so critical, you are ipso facto not really a part of the article's "insular poetry world," in which it's inconceivable that being published in The New Yorker wouldnot be your highest and most precious aspiration. So the poetry world described in the article is inhabited solely by middle-aged white folks: Vendler, Quinn, and Swenson, with a peanut gallery consisting of Frank Bidart, J.D. McClatchy, and Billy Collins. (The gendering of this is odd: with the apparent exception of Bishop, in this world men write the poetry and women fight over the scraps.) The article's supposed actual point—whether it's right or wrong to posthumously publish the work of a notably reticent poet—is just a figleaf for a sociological sketch designed to make poetry seem petty and pointless.

When I was a sophomore at Vassar I took a writing workshop taught by Eamon Grennan, and he showed us the "One Art" drafts in the archives there: dozens and dozens of pages went into getting that single villanelle exactly right. I was duly impressed by the spectacle of Bishop's perfectionism—but nowadays, though I still believe in the importance of craft and rewriting, I'm suspicious of what I see as the cultural authorities' attempts to put poetry out of reach of the living. What is the message to be absorbed: that Bishop worked hard and sweated and so should/can you; or that poetry is sister to perfection, classical, and therefore beyond the limits of living writers? The murmur over the fitness of publishing Bishop's leftovers is akin in spirit to David Orr's casual declaration that Bishop was the greatest American artist of the second half of the 20th century: this woman was not a living writer participating in a yet-living tradition, but a canonized and untouchable saint. So I suppose I'm more glad about the publication of Edgar Allan Poe & the Jukebox than not. Let the poetry breathe. If by so doing we transgress against Bishop's wishes, that's regrettable—but I'd like to think that her notion of the "One Art" had little or nothing to do with the art of embalming.


Henry Gould said...

Actually, the review was designed as a verbal pump to allow poet-bloggers to release excess spleen.

shanna said...

i like ms. bishop lots, and have read her every published word more than once. but that particular sentence was OTT and surely was so by design. button pushing. we're all toys.

as with practically every poetry-related article (and really every nongenre fiction-related piece too) in the nytbr, i'd already heard of and made up my mind about whether or not to read this particular book, which means as an actual review it's not of much use to me, from which dully recurring circumstance i can only assume i am not the nytbr's target audience.

i'm walking around with a target on my chest! blogs hit it better.

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