Reviewing the Review: February 22 2009

This weekend’s New York Times Book Review features a big essay by David Orr on greatness in poetry which posits that once John Ashbery is gone there may not be a great poet alive, and may never be one again.

Now, I bristle at the idea that John Ashbery is a great poet (and also at Orr’s unquestioning assumption that Elizabeth Bishop, Orr’s obvious #1 fave, was a great poet). As far as I can see, there hasn’t been an undeniably great poet since T. S. Eliot. I’m not even sure about William Carlos Williams (though he wrote a great poem, by which I mean the long one, not the short one) or about Allen Ginsberg (though he was certainly a great something). Write “The Waste Land” and I’ll call you great — a few pretty poems doesn’t necessarily cut it.

But of course this article is designed to make readers bristle, and Orr does a pretty good job of stirring up the soup, even though I think the NYTBR’s sharpest poetry critic William Logan (who gets a surprising side-swipe from Orr here) would have written a more authoritative piece. Orr is on shaky ground when he contrasts poetry with golf (Orr really has terrible luck with sports metaphors) in trying to depict poetry’s ethereal High Art purity, because many areas of poetry are completely unconcerned with ethereal perfection. Take the slam scene, for instance, which is all about entertaining customers in nightclubs. Poetry? Yeah. Perfection? Never. Or take the growing field of poetry therapy, in which practitioners search out work that will be significant to their patients, with no concern for greatness or perfection. Orr mistakes one segment of contemporary poetry — the award-coveting academic journal scene — for all of it.

At least Orr takes on a big name, Czeslaw Milosz, quoting some clumsy lines to prove that Milosz is not a great poet. But this approach can backfire. I know for a fact that John Ashbery has written some bad lines, though I guess Elizabeth Bishop probably never has.

It’s a lively piece and a welcome one, and Orr is especially good on the ironies inherent in this kind of exercise, remarking correctly that “when we talk about poetic greatness, we’re talking about style and persona, even when (or maybe, especially when) we think we aren’t.”

Speaking of pointless exercises, I wish the NYTBR had given Walter Kirn a tougher assignment than beating up David Denby, author of the attention-hungry and “controversial” (they wish) Snark: A Polemic in Seven Fits, which argues that today’s special brand of internet-fed sarcasm is ruining everything. Of course Walter Kirn tears this dumb book to pieces, but it’s a waste of Kirn’s talents. Couldn’t we have invited him to take on Roberto Bolano instead? I am particularly revolted, anyway, to learn from this review that Denby’s book includes cute chapter titles like A Brief, Highly Intermittent History of Snark, Part 2, in which the author brings his search almost to the present era, celebrating and deploring certain publications and exposing the snarky tendencies of a famous author. My god.

Previous critics have remarked that David Denby’s Snark polemic resembles a book called For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today by a young man named Jedediah Purdy that also caused a pretend sensation in 1999. I’m sure it’s no accident — this is an anti-snark theme issue — that Jedediah Purdy shows up in this issue with a review of Beyond the Revolution: A History of American Thought From Paine to Pragmatism by William H. Goetzmann. This is a provocative book attempting to make some new connections between American history and American philosophy, and Purdy, now a professor at Duke and Yale, obviously knows this field. His muscular piece manages to tie together Oliver Cromwell, Henry David Thoreau and Barack Obama in a few quick paragraphs, and Purdy doesn’t even forget to review the book at hand. Well done.

There’s one truly moving fiction review in today’s issue: Roxana Robinson on Joan London’s The Good Parents, which seems to operate at the same intense pitch as Robinson’s own piercing novels about beautiful families in tragedies. This praise-filled article brought to me some of the power of Roxana Robinson’s own writing, and even though I think she ought to temper her superlatives — one should not use the terms “shimmering”, “rippling” and “glimmering” in a single glowing review, for fear of too much light — I am very glad to read this review on a weekend morning, I look forward to reading Joan London’s book, and I hope Roxana Robinson will show up in these pages again.

39 Responses

  1. Bukowski voted for Donovan
    Bukowski voted for Donovan Leitch when everyone else voted for Bob Dylan. Bukowski said if everybody’s standing over here go stand over there. Just “stirring up the soup,” perhaps.

    Ashbery has been quite an ambitious poet, which has made him, at times, accident prone. Liz Bishop tends to play it rather safe, being prosy. Yes, Eliot’s ambitious, hard to beat Wasteland. I like Jim Carroll’s Living At the Movies.

  2. Ferlinghetti thought Ginsberg
    Ferlinghetti thought Ginsberg had “an interesting mind.” But considered him crazy.

    Robert Bly didn’t like Walt Whitman’s poetry. Whitman’s lines were too long, like a top-heavy beast that couldn’t survive in the wilds. Ginsberg didn’t agree w/ Bly.

    I consider Bly a solid critic/sociologist but not the best poet.

    According to Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg became less crazy as time went on. His art saved him.

  3. dlt.
    The Wasteland isn’t

    The Wasteland isn’t poetry, its dreary Cartesian nonsense.
    Eiot’s, whimpering miserablenes personified, therefore he thinks the worlds miserable ,or should be.
    It will be April soon, the worlds full of flowers, dont we just love it.
    Apart from that Eliot and his two dreary cohorts Ezra Pound and the Scottish literary charlatan Hugh MacdDiarmuid were giving comfort to Hitler and Mussolini while the rest of us had parents and relatives who were dying to get rid of them.

    Incidentally you write better poetry than Eliot.

  4. Bishop is so safe, she’s
    Bishop is so safe, she’s dull. I can’t get through her niceness. But she’s dull enough to make it to the New Yorker’s Best Poet and High Tea Society Poetry Piffles. They meet regularly and have crumpets. Bukowski read there but had to bring his own gin. I have been invited to read there but David Remnick doesn’t like me and he’s the Crumpet in Chief. There are two kinds of people who attend these sublime literary gatherings in the Hamptons. Great people who have money and great poets who don’t. The rest of us are rarely invited. Motoko Rich claims we don’t exist. What she really means is we don’t matter. She serves the tea. How gay. I am sorely temped to crash the party disguised as Ntozake Shange. Safe poets are so tasteful. The rest of us can’t even afford marijuana. Well, not the god kind. I cook mine in crumpets and am not allowed anywhere near the Hamptons. Alice Quinn lives there and she knew Bishop well. All of these great people with their great poets lists give me hives. We were up late last night smoking dope, having sex, drinking cheap beer, and writing poetry. And you think I’m kidding. Hmmm…

    I never kid.

    Tim Barrus, Amsterdam

  5. The Waste Land was
    The Waste Land was inaccessible to me, and the epitome of a classic, viz., a work everyone knows but never read. I bought it from a Berkeley bookstore and no one ever explained the attraction to me.

    The Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die works as a concept album and should be held up as one of the 20th century’s great works of poetry. A Coney Island of the Mind also works as a complete body, infinitely more accessible and readable than The Waste Land. I wish I could hear it read to jazz.

  6. Pound was a whackjob for
    Pound was a whackjob for sure, was even put away. But he’s definately no formalist, no commercial artist, which is pretty much what passes for art these days. You can say that his work, like the music of the Doors, came from a personal place.

    TS Eliot was no free jazzer. But the Wasteland is about soul/lack of soul.

  7. The Wasteland must be a self
    The Wasteland must be a self portrait then.
    (There is even a dispute about Eliot’s authorship of said piece.)

  8. I consider Yusef Komunyakaa
    I consider Yusef Komunyakaa to be a great poet and he is still alive and a prof.. There are others I’m sure he just came to mind first.

  9. I guess, like most of the
    I guess, like most of the NYTBR, one might say “who gives a fat flying fuck?” If something’s alive – like poetry – in the world, in the street, in the internet lit zines, then who cares if somebody who doesn’t realize that says – it’s dead? Like Barrus said, just a buncha dumfucks being dumb.

    I just listened for 2 hours to Tony O’Neill on the Rob and Jack radio show Try it. That’s the good stuff. Read Justin Hyde, Jason Hardung, and others at Lit Up Magazine.

    Now, there’s nothing wrong with The Waste Land. It was a paradigm, for 1922. But to say that this is a measuring stick for contemporary poetry – is to say you don’t get what living breathing art is. Nothing personal, but is like going to a mountain village and seeing folks whooping and hollering at a hoedown; and saying “tsk, tsk, that’s not opera.” To which they respond “no, this is people coming together and celebrating life, come be a part of it, or stand in the corner saying tsk, tsk.”

  10. I just love “The Waste Land”
    I just love “The Waste Land” because it gets my brain cells working. And T. S. Eliot’s lines have a strange magnetic pull, like no other poet I’ve ever read.

  11. Gallus Rages.
    (You never

    Gallus Rages.
    (You never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns when they all came down and did tricks for you. – Bob Dylan.)
    Inside empty coats of clobberin’ commas
    Outside foolish jackets bereft of emperors
    Shirty phrasers scratch their broken pause
    Waiting for boots till clogs won’t have ‘em.
    There’s no silver buckler on the tongue
    Nor shoes upon a bare poetic feat
    Just a beltin’ brace of undressed piety
    Spun by puritan reeds in garish rags of misery.
    Such are the days and endless ways
    When art transcends barbaric science
    And everything is just a pretty pass:
    As the philistines that we see
    Behind the pharisees that we can’t
    Exchange their knowing looks
    Where the rich in camel coats
    Are caravanned off to heaven
    Whilst the poor in righteous threads
    Are shot to blazing hell
    Through the eye of a needle.
    By their garments we shall know them
    Sojourning with the truth of words
    Wrapped in a fortune of sorrowful robes
    The poet should always write in close
    And slowly melt the iron forgers
    Poundin’ out their riveting lines
    An hammerin’ in their anvilled prose
    On a vacant barren waste land
    Of rubble without applause.

  12. Grayson, you crack me up with
    Grayson, you crack me up with your Dumbo Books of Brooklyn book review. I’ll keep reading your important work.

    The Wasteland? I like it!

  13. I think Wichita Vortex Sutra
    I think Wichita Vortex Sutra was the last thing of any real note in American poetry, as a poem that not only was great in its form, but had a presence of any sort. What is a good poem worth if it hardly gets noticed? Future generations I hope will probably read it more than Howl. But then again, Eliot probably wanted us to be talking of the Four Quartets and not The Waste Land. Maybe a case for J.A. can be made for Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, but after that, yes things have been stagnant, especially in J.A.’s output. His style has affected way too many student poems I had to read as an undergrad. Of course in the late 19th century it was pretty much the same situation, then something comes along and kicks the whole scene in the rear when no one is looking.

  14. As for undeniably great poets
    As for undeniably great poets since T.S. Eliot, I agree there aren’t a lot. I would make an argument for Stevens, Frost, O’Hara, Plath, and Larkin off the top of my head, though.

    I could probably back down from many of these, but Wallace Stevens’ work is undeniably great. Levi, I believe one finds in his lines the same immediacy and magnetic quality that you find in Eliot’s. There’s also the top-notch use of imagery and absolute distinctiveness of style. Whatever the criteria are, Stevens meets them.

  15. Hasn’t anyone noticed that
    Hasn’t anyone noticed that Rock’n’Roll has multitude of great poets and poetry.

  16. Wallace Stevens has style,
    Wallace Stevens has style, for sure, but I’d rather listen to Sunday Morning, the Velvet Underground. Regarding the fist fight he had w/ Hemmingway, did Stevens try to hit him back?

    Frank O’Hara’s quite easy to follow. I like his Gregory Corso poem.

  17. Duncan — yes, absolutely.
    Duncan — yes, absolutely. If we’re opening the “great” contest up to songwriters, then I can easily think of a couple of great poets since T. S. Eliot, starting with you-know-who (and if you’ve spent much time around LitKicks, you know who you-know-who is).

  18. If we’re thinking
    If we’re thinking universally of the word, I think 2pac is the greatest writer of this century. Ya ya, opinions like assholes…but 2pac reached and inspired and touched and was able to connect with more people around the globe through his words than…anybody I can certainly think of. That’s a true testament to greatness, I think.

    Mr. Asher, thank you for posting up NYT articles, saves me from the dirty work of reading these funny arguments!

  19. Spanish art, Irish
    Spanish art, Irish literature, and American music are the three great cultural achievements of the 20th century. The best of that renascent trinity may very well be American music – and the best of that delight may be what we call Rock’n’Roll.
    T.S.Eliot is as dry and lifeless as the dust that consumed him; a middle class scribbler of the Cartesian type. His main contribution to literature was destructive and useless. The other writers mentioned are as inviting as weak tea and a cucumber sandwich at the Hamptons. Where is the Satisfaction in such a wilting feast of mediocrities?
    We continue to be force-fed these literary drips while Bob Dylan, Chuck Berry, Bob Marley, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, David Bowie and a host of other, less considered geniuses provide a feast of music and lyrical sweetness not seen or heard since the ‘glory days’ of Shelley, Keats and Burns. The way they never get mentioned in any literary context is criminally philistine Just what exactly is the literary status of Rock’n’Roll in the pantheon of literary greatnesses? After all, it is The literature of our times for millions of souls.

  20. Of course the kiddies like
    Of course the kiddies like rap. KRS-1 was pretty good–is he still around?

  21. Yes, KRS-One is still around
    Yes, KRS-One is still around … and I always cite Biggie as hiphop’s best poet (and Jay-Z as hiphop’s best storyteller). As for my #1 lyricist poet, Bill’s guess was pretty interesting but I was thinking of Bob Dylan. Lou Reed, John Lennon, Robert Hunter, Chuck Berry, Bruce Springsteen and David Bowie have had their moments too.

  22. Ray Davies. Jim Morrison. Ed
    Ray Davies. Jim Morrison. Ed Sanders/Tuli Kupferberg. Iggy Pop. Mick Jagger. Phil Ochs. John Cale–

  23. I’m down with some of those
    I’m down with some of those choices, dlt. Don’t know how I forgot Ray Davies and Patti.

  24. Eric Burdon. Jimi Hendrix.
    Eric Burdon. Jimi Hendrix. Chrissie Hynde. Frank Zappa. Richard Hell. Smokey Robinson. Marvin Gaye. James Brown. Mark E Smith–

  25. The first Guns & Roses album:
    The first Guns & Roses album: Appetite For Destruction. Lyricist: Axl Rose, I guess.

  26. Patti, Bob et al ,that’s it,
    Patti, Bob et al ,that’s it, that’s literature.
    What’s a cucumber sandwich compared to that summers day. Rock’n’Roll looks like another, another Eden.
    Which undertaker said literature died when its last preferred corpse elapsed.
    Shooting corpses might be fun’ but it is no substitute for living art.

  27. Glasgow’s finest Alex
    Glasgow’s finest Alex Harvey,headlined in Hamburg circa 1961, small outfit called Silver Beatles last on the bill.
    Little Richard same gig,those were the nativity days.
    Jeff Beck stole the silver and became the Lone Ranger.

  28. Keith Moon, who he, the
    Keith Moon, who he, the greatest dead drummer in the universe, very avant garde beat poet.

  29. They should have asked
    They should have asked litkicks the same question and just recorded this e-convo…MUCH more interesting to read. cheers!

  30. Apologies for the double
    Apologies for the double post, but I’d like to add Thom Yorke into this on going list. Amiri Baraka was one of the best poets to get at “over all presentation” and I would be surprised if he is not a rap fan. I digress, Thom Yorke hits certain notes, and has a hand in over all writing of the songs as well.

  31. Lorca’s Poet In New York.
    Lorca’s Poet In New York. Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen. All of Rimbaud. Borges’ In Praise of Darkness.

  32. Poetry’s so funny that way.
    Poetry’s so funny that way. You can say, ‘Hey, man, that guy drives a truck like pure poetry!’ It infiltrates things. It seems to be able to live inside other pursuits. Novel writing can’t really exist inside a painting. Poetry can find a home almost anywhere.

    I read Ashbery and can’t remember a single line or phrase. Ever. But I am left with a sharp sense of how his mind works. A strange connectivity between things that I find in no one else’s work. I want to figure it out but I can never get to the bottom of it. I think that must be greatness.

    Bob Dylan You Know Who is not a poet. I doubt he likes poets very much. If I were a poet, I think I’d avoid him at parties. I think he beats poets up. I suspect he is what he says he is: a song and dance man. And no one makes me feel more poetic than he does, but he is not a poet.

    Duncan Brown, I love your Gallus Rages comment! I keep rereading it.

  33. Screwed up with that damned
    Screwed up with that damned html bunkum again. Here’s the intended version:

    Well, it appears poetic greatness is reserved for the academics—at least in the U.S. context; all others need not apply. Apparently, it’s a similar story in the U.K.—or at least in England, where the dark side of Leavisitism seems to still hover. (Ian Hamilton was still trashing the innovative ’60s ‘Mersey poets’ right up until his death in 2001; check out what was probably his final interview in the January, 2002 issue of the London Review of Books.) In Wales and Scotland, Celtic patriotism, Cymric and Gaelic conservation, and devotion to secessionist causes tend to be increasingly major factors in determining literary worthiness and immortality. Similarly, ‘greatness’ in the Canadian context, I would argue, depends on how loud one can rant and rave about how much better Canada is than its neighbour to the south. (Compromising your artistic integrity by sucking up to the federal and provincial arts councils doesn’t hurt either [been there, done that, didn’t like the salty taste it left in my mouth].

    Reading David Orr’s essay, I was struck by how much the ‘Greatness Jury’ (in the U.S. context and elsewhere) resembles the assessors associated with trashy entertainment awards like the Oscars, the Grammys and the Junos. In other words, the jury is strictly dedicated to a particular school and/or poetic form—in the case of the U.S. jury, there’s very little room for beatniks, slammers, and workers in foreign or antiquated closed forms. Just like it’s highly doubtful that a band such as Eric’s Trip or a director like John Waters is going to be taking home any major trophies anytime soon, poets from outside the predominant school and/or form are left…well, outside. Two of the greatest poets of the past 35 years have been haiku poets (i.e., haijins) Raymond Roseliep (d. 1983) of the U.S. and Elizabeth St. Jacques of Canada. Tell me, when was the last time you heard one of those referred to as “one of the great ones” by the U.S. or Canadian literary establishment? Perception: haiku and similar Asian poetic forms aren’t really poetry. Reality: this is the sort of fabricated actuality with which many of us bards must contend. (For more on the North American poetry mainstream’s treatment of us haiku poets, check out my essay ‘Dial 5-7-5 for Classicism: In Defense of the Seventeen-Syllable Haiku’ in the June, 2007 edition of Jane Reichhold’s Lynx at

    To those who don’t wish to play sycophant to the academic school of free verse (or whatever the clique and/or verse form is the standard for pursuing ‘greatness’ in one’s country of one’s own time), but would still like a shot at greatness or ‘literary immortality’, I would well advise them to work in multiple verse forms and compile as many ‘firsts’ and ‘onlys’ to their credit as possible. When one publishes numerous poems of various forms, he or she is in better shape to be remembered notably in some particular context, regardless of which form comes and goes in and out of style well past one’s lifetime. When he or she is the first poet to, say, be a purveyor of poetry in some new medium, or the only poet from one’s country to be included in some seminal anthology or another, he or she at least stands the chance of being remembered as an innovator, a one-of-a-kind, or the founder of some school or genre in a particular country or some other context. At least this is the ‘recipe for success’ that I’ve been following since I started out all those years ago, and I’ve earned myself a modest degree of acclaim and notoriety before even turning 40.

    Of course, one can always start singing and learn how to play the guitar. That seems to be another recipe for poetic greatness in this contemporary context. Tell me, Levi, can you play a Hammond organ with accompanying bass keyboard…?

  34. Here here, Watkins! Or is it
    Here here, Watkins! Or is it Hear, hear? You know, what they yell in Parliament when they agree heartily with someone.

    For the record, I think that you and Jay “jota” Mejia are both great poets.

  35. This is what I think about
    This is what I think about poetry:

    Our Young Poets Had Better Be Strong
    by Richard Redhawk (1983)

    The trees grow tired
    of churning out little magazines
    full of young poets
    desperate to be reborn in print;
    the trees are weary
    like the poems of the old poets
    who refuse to see that a world
    will not heal the sickness in their hearts
    nor end the sorrow of the days
    which comes each morning
    the moment they awaken.

    Very soon the trees will give out
    and our young poets had better be strong then
    because they will be the first to go.
    Only the oldest and weariest ones
    will be in print then;
    they will lack the nobility of spirit
    to be still
    as the last trees groan
    and smash their faces against the Earth.
    Only the old and weary poets will
    refuse to see
    that the last poem on the printed page

    will not shade them from the heat
    nor stand tall enough to catch the wind.
    Then the young ones will have to relearn
    singing their songs to soothe a handful
    huddled together for warmth and courage;
    they will have to be satisfied
    that once in a great while
    there will be a song so fine
    it will be repeated for a thousand years
    before it fades away;
    our young poets had better be strong then.

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