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.