Responding to Poetry Drivel In The New York Times
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/26/09
A few days ago my wife forwarded me on this link to an essay that appeared in the February 19th, 2009 New York Times edition. It was written by mediocre poetry critic David Orr, who, five years ago, in a piece about the best websites online, delivered this snarky assessment of Cosmoetica; obviously forced to include it by his editors:
Cosmoetica (www.cosmoetica.com): As a poet, Dan Schneider is, by his own humble admission, ''better than Walt Whitman.'' In between writing the poems that will make him immortal, however -- and he's apparently got more than 10,000 of them -- Schneider has found time to offer a few helpful criticisms regarding his fellow poets and reviewers. If you were looking for someone willing to call T. S. Eliot ''1 of the most grossly overrated writers in the history of the world, & the English language,'' Schneider is your man. His site includes similarly jolly commentary on a large number of contemporary writers.
I’d always suspected Orr had never read a single poem on my site, lest he could not write the pointless and bloated three page long essay called On Poetry: The Great(ness) Game.
Here are some choice snippets that reveal Orr is totally clueless about the art he claims to love.
In October, John Ashbery became the first poet to have an edition of his works released by the Library of America in his own lifetime. That honor says a number of things about the state of contemporary poetry — some good, some not so good — but perhaps the most important and disturbing question it raises is this: What will we do when Ashbery and his generation are gone? Because for the first time since the early 19th century, American poetry may be about to run out of greatness….
Greatness is — and indeed, has always been — a tangle of occasionally incompatible concepts, most of which depend upon placing the burden of “greatness” on different parts of the artistic process. Does being “great” simply mean writing poems that are “great”? If so, how many? Or does “greatness” mean having a sufficiently “great” project? If you have such a project, can you be “great” while writing poems that are only “good” (and maybe even a little “boring”)? Is being a “great” poet the same as being a “major” poet? Are “great” poets necessarily “serious” poets? These are all good questions to which nobody has had very convincing answers.
Still, however blurry “greatness” may be, it’s clear that segments of the poetry world have been fretting over its potential loss since at least 1983. That’s the year in which an essay by Donald Hall, the United States poet laureate from 2006 to 2007, appeared in The Kenyon Review bearing the title “Poetry and Ambition.” Hall got right to the point: “It seems to me that contemporary American poetry is afflicted by modesty of ambition — a modesty, alas, genuine . . . if sometimes accompanied by vast pretense.” What poets should be trying to do, according to Hall, was “to make words that live forever” and “to be as good as Dante.” They probably would fail, of course, but even so, “the only way we are likely to be any good is to try to be as great as the best.” Pretty strong stuff — and one wonders how many plays Shakespeare would have managed to write had he subjected every line to the merciless scrutiny Hall recommends….
A list of “great” poets will look quite a bit different from a list of “perfect” poets, which may have almost no overlap with a list of “spectacular” poets, which in turn may be completely different from a list of “sublime” poets. When we talk about poetic greatness, we’re talking about style and persona, even when (or maybe, especially when) we think we aren’t….
What, then, do we assume greatness looks like? There is no one true answer to that question, no neat test or rule, since our unconscious assumptions are by nature unsystematic and occasionally contradictory. Generally speaking, though, the style we have in mind tends to be grand, sober, sweeping — unapologetically authoritative and often overtly rhetorical. It’s less likely to involve words like “canary” and “sniffle” and “widget” and more likely to involve words like “nation” and “soul” and “language.”….
This last paragraph truly reveals the depth of Orr’s obliviousness- or the fact that he’s never read poets like Emily Dickinson, Hazel Hall, e.e. cummings, nor William Carlos Williams. Simply unreal. He has absolutely no clue about the highest forms of the highest form of art.
Here is a beaut of an example of the utter spinelessness that infects most literary criticism:
Which brings us to the point I mentioned earlier about the structure of the poetry world. Greatness isn’t simply a matter of potentially confusing concepts; it’s also a practical question about who gets to decide what about whom. Our assumptions about poetic greatness are therefore linked to the reputation-making structures of the poetry world — and changes in those structures can have peculiar effects on our thinking. For most of the 20th century, the poetry world resembled a country club. One had to know the right people; one had to study with the right mentors. The system began to change after the G.I. Bill was introduced (making a university-level poetic education possible for more people), and that change accelerated in the 1970s, as creative writing programs began to flourish. In 1975, there were 80 such programs; by 1992, there were more than 500, and the accumulated weight of all these credentialed poets began to put increasing pressure on poetry’s old system of personal relationships and behind-the-scenes logrolling. It would be a mistake to call today’s poetry world a transparent democracy (that whirring you hear is the sound of logs still busily being rolled), but it’s more democratic than it used to be — and far more middle class. It’s more of a guild now than a country club. This change has brought with it certain virtues, like greater professionalism and courtesy. One could argue that it also made the poetry world more receptive to writers like Bishop, whose style is less hoity-toity than, say, Eliot’s. But the poetry world has also acquired new vices, most notably a tedious careerism that encourages poets to publish early and often (the Donald Hall essay I mentioned earlier is largely a criticism of this very tendency)….
Now, get this upcoming bit of hubris. I’ve just pointed out that, by his own definition, Orr has no clue as to what constitutes greatness, But, not the collective ‘we’ he wields till the end of the piece:
When we lose sight of greatness, we cease being hard on ourselves and on one another; we begin to think of real criticism as being “mean” rather than as evidence of poetry’s health; we stop assuming that poems should be interesting to other people and begin thinking of them as being obliged only to interest our friends — and finally, not even that. Perhaps most disturbing, we stop making demands on the few artists capable of practicing the art at its highest levels. Instead, we cling to the ground in those artists’ shadows — John Ashbery’s is enormous at this point — and talk about how rich the darkness is and how lovely it is to be a mushroom. This doesn’t help anyone. What we should be doing is asking why a poet as gifted as Ashbery has written so many poems that are boring or repetitive (or both), because such questions will allow us to better understand the poems he has written that are moving and funny and beautiful. Such questions might even allow other poets — especially younger poets — to find their own ways of writing poems that are moving and funny and beautiful. Which for those of us who read them, for those of us who believe in them, would be a very great thing indeed.
Upon Jess’s urging, I wrote a less than 500 word rebuttal to the piece that, if the Times had any real spine for debate, they would have run unedited. Naturally, they did not. Incidentally, I also forwarded the piece to Orr, at this email: email@example.com. Here is its text:
In short, for those of you reading this in the future, and wondering why the newspaper business failed in the early 21st Century, this is why- an ignorance of excellence (I should have been getting paid by the Times, not some willfully ignorant hack) and a condescension towards the masses- that they are not smart enough to see through such.
Let me end this gloomy episode on a humorous note. Here is a piece of doggerel from the pen of Orr, the man who presumes to write poetry reviews when he knows naught of greatness, and can write garbage like this, a masterpiece called The Train, which ends:
….I was struck by lightning.
The strangest thing
Wasn't the flash of my hair
Catching on fire,
But the way people pretended
Nothing had happened.
For me, it was real enough.
But it seemed as if
The others saw this as nothing
But a way of happening,
A way to get from one place
To another place,
But not a place itself.
So, ignored, I burned to death.
Later, someone sat in my seat
And my ashes ruined his suit.
And for those of you wondering why poetry died in the early part of the 21st Century, read no further.
Return to Bylines