Reviewing the Review: Nov. 13, 2005

David Orr tackles the popularization of poetry in today’s New York Times Book Review, outlining a controversy that’s been brewing between Garrison Keillor and several traditionalists. Keillor has published two anthologies of homespun-flavored poetry selections, enraging the academic, critical and publishing communities by committing the unspeakable crime of selling tons of books. It’s nice to begin a weekend morning with a David Orr column on poetry. I even like it that he dismisses Charles Bukowski and Raymond Carver as “soggy tough guy” poets — I think he’s completely wrong, but at least we’ve got something to argue about.

Why is it that the Book Review is always either excellent or terrible, with little in-between? The last two issues were dead on arrival, but this one springs to life with one vivid, clever piece after another. Somehow, each week’s critics seem to feed off each other’s energy, or lack thereof (perhaps through the magic of synchronicity, or maybe they just email drafts to each other).

There were so many well-written pieces today, I’m going to keep my mouth shut and just offer a few samples:

David Leavitt on the new Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature:

“… literature is not, as it is sometimes regarded today, a kind of immense vitamin, good for us if difficult to get down. It must also have a wild and vital flavor — of giant peaches, green eggs and ham, the gingerbread from which witches construct their houses.”

Sam Swope on Carl Hiassen’s young-adult novel about an environmental crime in Florida, Flush:

“Every now and then Hiassen stops the action to admire the turtles or the sky or the water, and in these moments you feel how much he cares about the natural world, but he never lets outrage get in the way of a good story. Or maybe he’s just found a way to channel his anger and at the same time inspire some youngster to action, for he sneaks an important message into this book that with any luck the censors won’t notice: sometimes breaking the law is the right thing to do.”

Daniel “Lemony” Handler on two illustrated children’s books, Whatever by William Bee and Terrific by Jon Agee:

“If you’re looking for moral lessons, you might check the latest finger-wagger by the pop star or the talk show host, with smarmy redunant artwork to match. William Bee and Jon Agee tackle their themes with smarts and surprise rather than an eye for what they might teach people shorter than themselves, traits that mark great work.”

Charles McGrath, former editor of the Book Review, on Mother’s Milk, a Waughian comedy of British manners:

“You can’t help liking these people, even as you realize that if they met you in real life they’d cut you dead.”

Wonkette Ana Marie Cox on A Time To Run, a work of fiction about a supreme court nomination battle by outspoken California Senator Barbara Boxer:

“… the Ellen we follow to this somewhat cynical end is blandly eaarnest, selfless, honorable, humble, caring and resolute. She is perhaps exactly what Democrats want in a candidate, though pretty much the opposite of what you want in a novel’s protaganist.”

8 Responses

  1. Prairie Car CompanionWhen I’m
    Prairie Car Companion

    When I’m driving, I scan back & forth between music stations and NPR. Anytime Garrison Keillor comes on the radio, I listen to his show. If anyone has never “sold out” it would be Keillor.

  2. Well now …Smug cleverness,
    Well now …

    Smug cleverness, David Orr “on” poetry, cliches parading about and words used as thickets to disguise the absence of any real importance — everything I hate about the New York Times … all in one bite. But personally, I prefer reading your writing on the *** over the real thing any day.

  3. Living here in Minnesota, and
    Living here in Minnesota, and having listened to Keillor for a while now, a question comes to the surface…

    What would Keillor have to do, in anyone’s opinion, to “sell out?”

  4. I guess, package some generic
    I guess, package some generic fruit preserves from New York City in quaint mason jars and pass it off as a home-made recipe at the local Cracker Barrel store.

  5. Caryn, can you expound a bit
    Caryn, can you expound a bit on this post? What do you find important in the world of words? Do you not find Orr’s topic of “what is good poetry” an interesting one? And finally…

    What is the ***?

    Hope you are well.

  6. What is the ***?An eternal
    What is the ***?

    An eternal question, really. It could be any one of the following:

    DNM (which, of course, stands for Dy-No-Mite!!! — related to TNT, but totally different, you understand)

    Among others. It could also stand for NYT. Perhaps.

  7. But I still don’t understand.
    But I still don’t understand. Is there a reason for using *** instead of NYT?

    What the deuce are you talking about?

  8. KeillorI was pleased when I

    I was pleased when I came across Orr’s piece about Keillor. Like a good Minnesotan I was listening to Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac in the car while driving home from work a while back. He wrapped it up with a poem about cows. It was simplistic, slobbery, without a sparkle of inspiration. I winced, pulled onto my street, and headed straight for the Internet. I found the show’s website and promptly asked who chooses the poems for the show and what criteria are used in doing so. I received a vague reply discouraging any further discussion on the subject.

    I have found that over half of the closing poems on that show make me shake my head in disbelief and dismay that they were chosen, and it seems his choice for written collections fall in line. It was good to see my so called “elitism” vindicated by at least one other human. Orr’s line about the purpose of poetry and scotch was gold.

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