Reviewing the Review: April 2 2006

You know what annoys me? Lines like this, from David Orr’s cover article about poet Elizabeth Bishop in today’s New York Times Book Review:

“… nothing matches the impact of a great artist, and in the second half of the 20th century, no American artist in any medium was greater than Bishop.”

No artist in any medium? Maybe on Poetry Planet, but not here on earth, where 99 out of 100 people have never heard of Elizabeth Bishop. Hey David, how about Stanley Kubrick, Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, John Coltrane, Miguel Pinero, Jack Kerouac, Marlon Brando, J. D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut, Tennessee Williams, David Lynch, Bruce Springsteen, Charles M. Schulz, Dr. Dre? In fact, none of these would win the prize either, because the artist with the greatest impact would probably be one who helped to invent a completely original medium, which means the future will eventually award the trophy to Chuck Berry or Lucille Ball. But I’ve got news for David Orr: Elizabeth Bishop is a wonderful poet, but she’s not on the 20th Century’s shortlist.

In fact, even among the poets Allen Ginsberg has had a greater impact on modern culture (how many punk bands have ever invited Elizabeth Bishop onstage to do a verse?). Orr justifies his weird pronouncement with this explanation:

“What matters is that she left behind a body of work that teaches us, as Italo Calvino once said of literature generally, a method subtle and flexible enough to be the same thing as an absence of any method whatever.”

That’s fine, but she’s no Lucille Ball. Other than this glaring occlusion of logic, though, Orr’s review of Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke Box: Collected Poems, Drafts and Fragments by Elizabeth Bishop is a respectable piece of work, and when he’s not engaging in hyperbole his enthusiasm for the poet is refreshing. I hope the prominently-placed rave helps call attention to this worthy new book with it’s excellent (and Ginsberg-ian) title.

There’s more off-putting pomposity at work, though, in Corey Powell’s review of Programming the Universe: A Quantum Computer Scientist Takes on the Cosmos by Seth Lloyd. Lloyd is proposing a new model of the universe as an information transformation engine, sort of, and the purpose of this book is to free our minds from limiting metaphors of existence so we can adopt a better one, in which the cosmos, the universe and everything are compared to a giant computer.

Nice start, and I am even nodding my head in eager anticipation until the critic drops the news that the model of a computer they are basing this on is a so-called “quantum computer” which in fact does not exist anywhere in the real world (although some theoretical prototypes have been built at research laboratories) and bears little resemblance to the actual devices we know as computers. I work as a technology consultant, and I can spot a bait-and-switch when I see one. It seems like a bunch of double-talk to me. Maybe Seth Lloyd’s book has something valid to say, but little of it survives Corey Powell’s airy and insubstantial attempt at explanation.

I had a better time with David Gates’ review of Apex Hides The Hurt, a new satire by Colson Whitehead about a naming consultant (“Apex” is a name this character came up with for a new band-aid). Gates lays out the underlying racial messages that inform this book’s Coupland-esque spin on ultra-modern society, and it all sounds intriguing enough for my to-read list.

Finally, April 1 has brought big news for the many Sam Tanenhaus watchers of the blogosphere, who have long found fault with this Book Review editor’s generally questionable performance record: apparently changes are in store.

13 Responses

  1. Simmer Down NowAlthough I
    Simmer Down Now

    Although I agree that David Orr is generally a gasbag, I would take Elizabeth Bishop over Stanley Kubrick, Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, John Coltrane, Miguel Pinero, Jack Kerouac, Marlon Brando, J. D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut, Tennessee Williams, David Lynch, Bruce Springsteen, Charles M. Schulz, Dr. Dre anyday. Any day.

    She may not be as recognized or have had a greater “impact” on the common public as some, but she was a masterful artist and her poems do have a quality and deftness about them that is rare. Unfortunately, in your apoplectic fit due to David Orr’s usual melodrama you severely shortchange Bishop with the simplistic logic of “she’s no Ginsberg”. Of course she’s not — and thank God for that. I’m all for a rabid thrashing of the NYTBR and especially David Orr, but I think this one might have missed its intended target.

  2. I bet Ginsberg did one thing
    I bet Ginsberg did one thing better than Elizabeth Bishop.

  3. Well, fair enough … but in
    Well, fair enough … but in defense of my raging outburst I want to point out that Orr is talking not about worthiness but about impact. Regardless of how good a poet Elizabeth Bishop is (and we all like her stuff) … I know that if I took a poll of the next twenty people I talked to today maybe one would know her name. How can that add up to great impact?

  4. Well, I’m not sure that
    Well, I’m not sure that “impact” is a definitive term relating to the next 20 people you speak to. By that logic, the next 20 people you speak to should also be able to determine the world’s priorities, the next Oscar winners and what you have for dinner. I know you’re thrashing around to defend your frothing, but I think it only results in more of what I pointed out in the first place. Tsk, tsk.

  5. Firecracker, I might have to
    Firecracker, I might have to go with Levi on this one. Can you point out how Bishop has had an impact? Is it one of those things where other people write like her but none of us realize where it came from? I’m sorry to say, I’m not very familiar with Elizabeth Bishop.

  6. Well, Bill, I’m not an expert
    Well, Bill, I’m not an expert like David Orr on these matters, and I’m certainly not up for saying Elizabeth Bishop is the new president of the universe, however I’m not willing to discount her accomplishments, influence and mastery because David Orr is willing to gush about her (and rightfully so). That said, I think it does point to more what you said, in that her influence or “impact” isn’t something like a meteor crashing into the landscape of culture, but more like a constant low pressure bearing down on sediment, waiting quietly, intensely with words and vivid, raw imagery to, in time, withstand the falling away of lesser things and remain a precious gem. How’s that?

    Now go read some damn Bishop…

  7. planetary significance?Let’s
    planetary significance?

    Let’s be honest – today, art doesn’t impact anything much. From 1950-2000, art didn’t impact anything much. TV was the big thing, but it didn’t change anything significantly other than people became more isolated in their homes, instead of going out to the cinema. Music, theater, cinema affect a relatively small number of people; realize… there’re 6 billion of us. I’ve never read the Quotations of Chairman Mao; and the Chinese revolution came and went without much real impact. Like us older folk woulda thought the Vietnam War was supposed to be the last of its kind; but now we gots another one. Art couldn’t stop that. Can’t feed Africa! Won’t stop nuclear proliferation or global planet killing. Who have us 6 billion ever heard of – Bush, Bin Laden, Kennedy, the Beatles? Americans think what happens here means something to them; gosh, I suppose Paraguayans and Tibetans think the same thing! The greatest societal impact in America and the Muslim world, is from religion; not art. And as my boy Lennon said – a working class hero is something to be.

  8. Hmmmm . . .Well, that raises
    Hmmmm . . .

    Well, that raises a point. I’m assuming that this thread is discussing the impact of poetry in the context of literature, or to expand on that – media – moreso than in the context of world history or world events. Am I right about that part of it?

  9. Greatest artistI have to go
    Greatest artist

    I have to go along with you on this one, Levi. I’m one of those who never heard of Elizabeth Bishop before yesterday. I, too, was appalled when I read the opening sentences of the review — a review of a collection of her poetry that she herself didn’t deem worthy of publication during her lifetime.

    Apparently, all one needs to do to become the greatest-second-half-of-the-20th-century-American-artist-in-any-medium is to be a gay, female, alcoholic, expatriated, orphaned writer of 90 or so published poems. Shades of Sylvia Plath, who only had to marry a fellow poet and commit suicide to almost reach the same plateau. Give me a break, poetry people.

  10. Appalled? Tough crowd around
    Appalled? Tough crowd around here. I’ll give you the bit about the collection, I’m not sure how I feel about publication of stuff that she herself didn’t feel was publishable. But that’s why God invented the shredder.

    About the rest of the stuff, I don’t know … sounds like a plan to me.

  11. she IS pretty damn good . .
    she IS pretty damn good . . .

    Well, FC, I took your suggestion and read some poems by Elizabeth Bishop. She may actually be as important as Levi’s favorite TV red-head.

    To my surprise, I remembered two of these poems from a high school class. I remember the teacher explaining that a Sandpiper is a type of bird. Here is that poem:


    The roaring alongside he takes for granted,
    and that every so often the world is bound to shake.
    He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
    in a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake.

    The beach hisses like fat. On his left, a sheet
    of interrupting water comes and goes
    and glazes over his dark and brittle feet.
    He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.

    –Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them
    where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
    rapidly backwards and downwards. As he runs,
    he stares at the dragging grains.

    The world is a mist. And then the world is
    minute and vast and clear. The tide
    is higher or lower. He couldn’t tell you which.
    His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied,

    looking for something, something, something.
    Poor bird, he is obsessed!
    The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray
    mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.

    I was also surprised to learn that Bishop received so many awards!

    The other poem is a bit longer, but it can be found here.

  12. Now, see, Bill — have I ever
    Now, see, Bill — have I ever steered you wrong before?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What We're Up To ...

Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!