I Am Big. It's the Pictures That Got Small

for those wonderful people out there in the dark

27 February 2007

On the Monied Muse

A couple of weeks ago, The New Yorker published an article by Dana Goodyear, "The Monied Muse." It covers the after-effects of Ruth Lilly's bequest of $200 million to Poetry magazine, focusing especially on John Barr, the executive of the Poetry Foundation which administers the money.

Barr is a cultural conservative, and in the article, he articulates arguments against contemporary poetry that are echoed by the likes of Billy Collins, Dana Gioia, and Christian Wiman, criticisms that are more than 30 years old, actually, and they are getting threadworn. Goodyear quotes from Barr early in her essay, and this more or less sums up his various arguments against contemporary poetry:

In the essay, Barr declared, “American poetry is ready for something new because our poets have been writing in the same way for a long time now. There is fatigue, something stagnant about the poetry being written today.” Poetry, largely absent from public life—from classrooms, bookstores, newspapers, mainstream media—“has a morale problem,” he said; it is in “a bad mood.” Poems are written only with other poets in mind, and therefore do not sell. (Two thousand copies is the industry standard.) He argued that the effect of M.F.A. programs, increasingly prevalent since the nineteen-seventies, has been “to increase the abundance of poetry, but to limit its variety. The result is a poetry that is neither robust, resonant, nor—and I stress this quality—entertaining.” In a section titled “Live Broadly, Write Boldly,” he urged poets to do as Hemingway did, and seek experience outside the academy—take a safari, go marlin fishing, run with the bulls. “The human mind is a marketplace, especially when it comes to selecting one’s entertainment,” he wrote. “If you look at drama in Shakespeare’s day, or the novel in the last century, or the movie today, it suggests that an art enters its golden age when it is addressed to and energized by the general audiences of its time.”

Charge #1: Poets have been writing in the same way for a long time now. So John Ashbery writes just like Adrienne Rich who writes just like Denise Duhamel who writes just like Vikram Seth who writes just like Yusef Komunyakaa who writes just like Louise Gluck who writes just like Kevin Young who writes just like Dean Young who writes just like Eavan Boland who writes just like Janet Holmes who writes just like Mark Doty who writes just like Thylias Moss? There's no difference in the aesthetic or philosophical assumptions between LANGUAGE poetry, New Formalism, Cave Canem, Expansionist, neo-Lyricist, Cowboy, Spoken Word poetry?

Charge #2: Contemporary poetry, thanks to M.F.A. programs, is no longer robust or entertaining. Evidently all the ills of contemporary poetry is due to the burgeoning growth of M.F.A. programs--this is a charge that has been around even before I attended Indiana in 1981. This is one of the most tiresome arguments of the cultural conservative critics. I would argue that M.F.A. programs have decentered poetry in the United States, and for good and ill, that's about the extent of thier effect. There has always been really bad poetry, both within and without the academy. More distressing is this idea of poetry as entertainment (this is the Billy Collins phenomenon), that it needs to be in the marketplace, holding some central ground in our culture. Even with an infusion of $200 million, even with the stewardship of John Barr and Dana Gioia at the NEA, poetry will and must remain on the margins of our culture. The great remedy imagined by Barr and Gioia is to set up a National Poetry Recitation Bee, something akin to the National Spelling Bee. Now that's entertainment, and that's certainly going to revolutionize poetry in the United States. Why not an American Idol competition for American poetry?

Charge #3: Academic poets need to get out in the "real" world. What's hilarious in these charges is that you have men like Gioia and Barr proclaiming some kind of access to the general audience when they have been going to Harvard and Stanford, being CEO's of large corporations, and they lecture M.F.A. programs for somehow being disconnected or irrelevant to the general culture. So they tell me to be like Hemmingway (damn, imagine the poetry Emily Dickinson could have written if she had killed a tiger or traded shots with Gertrude Stein). Gee whiz, because I am an "academic poet," I am locked away in my garret: no, I couldn't possibly have a family, and no, I couldn't have run with the bulls, and no, I couldn't have trapped and released bears, and no, I couldn't have worked as a grocery clerk, and no, I never have to go to the State Pen to visit my brother, and no, I have never stood in line for unemployment compensation, and no, I couldn't have explored the Lilly Museum in Indianapolis on acid, and no, I couldn't have a 401k plan, and no, I couldn't be a fan of Boise State Football, and no, I couldn't drive a 12-year-old pick-up truck without air conditioning, and no, I couldn't be a rock climber, and no, I couldn't have gone on week long hiking excursions in the Idaho wilderness, because I spent three years of my life chasing an M.F.A. degree taught by other folks with M.F.A. degrees.

Charge #4: The "Golden Age" of an artform is when it is addressed to and is energized by the general audience of its age. Usually, when one speaks of poetry with this argument, they'll talk about the WWI soldiers carrying books of poetry in their knapsacks (I have yet to see any kind of sociologically-based statistical analysis of this phenomenon, by the way). Or, one will point to Robert Frost as the exemplar of the National Poet. I argue that poetry occupies both a central and energetic place in our culture (check out the thousands of web sites and blogs dedicated to poetry, check out all the poetic responses to 9/11 in small town newspapers, etc.) and on the edges of culture. In Shakespeare's lifetime, what was the percentage of people in England who actually saw one of his plays, had ever read one of his poems? Poetry is alive not because it's popular, but because it has been relevant, remains relevant, at the times we need it most.

In the end, I feel a little dirty giving John Barr this attention (he's the kind of loathsome individual who reckons that any kind of attention given his way is a sign of his importance). But the only reason for the attention given to him is not the force of his ideas, and certainly not for his own poetry, but because of that big wad of money in his back pocket.

17 February 2007

On the War in Iraq

It's close to the end of the fourth year since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. And it's hard not to hear something of Auden's line about this being a low, dishonest decade.

During the recent "debates" in the U.S. House and Senate, I was rather troubled by some of the refrains about "having known then what we know now," with fingers pointed at the failed intelligence reports. The trouble is that many of us knew then that the intelligence reports were suspect, and those stories were being published before the war, first by Knight Ridder, and later The Washington Post--not every reporter was following the lead of that neo-con cheerleader, Judith Miller. During that winter of 2002-03, many of us anti-war protesters simply believed that it was highly unlikely that with all the UN inspection regiments, the international sanctions, and the no-fly zones that Hussein would've been able to develop a significant bio- or chemical-weapons arsenal. We also knew that he did not use any such weapsons during the first Gulf War, when he had some military capabilities. It wasn't that we were happy with Hussein's dictatorship, but we also knew that he was essentially neutered. Given Iraq's sad history, some of us knew that the American forces would not be seen as liberators, but as an unwanted occupation army. Some of us also remembered the National Defense Council (the neo-con "advisory" committee to the Department of Defense) had long been jonsing for the United States to take out Hussein and to establish military bases there so that we could get out of Saudia Arabia. Some of us knew that this was a hollow call for war.

I bring all this up not to boast, but to direct you to the Poets Against the War web site. There, you can find expression after expression by poets before the war commenced, all of whom articulated this sense of dread before this grave, terrible folly. There, you can also find a poem I posted as well. I don't think any of the participants genuinely believed poetry could affect a change of heart in the Executive Office or could give a backbone implant to Congress, but that we could provide a record that many of us did indeed understand that this excursion was an act of vanity, greed, or opportunism. Many of us knew better, then.

The way I see it now is that Congress gave up its authority four years ago, the American media was caught up in the war fever, the American public was not sated by the military victory in Afghanistan, and thus the President had leave to deploy the troops in Iraq. I cannot think of one more wrong-headed and foolish decision in American foreign policy. And the noise this weekend in the Capitol is only that, so much noise.

Of course, by the time we leave Iraq--perhaps after this "surge" will be reported as a success--it will be a hopeless mess, having cost the U.S. treasury of at least 3100 dead, tens of thousands wounded, and close to a trillion dollars (not for Katrina, not for Afghanistan, not for Israel and Palestine, not for Darfur, not for Social Security, not for education, not for health care, not for . . . .). And of Iraq, with hundreds of thousands dead, millions as refugees, a decimated infrastructure, a partioned government, and a generation born of sectarian bloodshed? Yes, that's a recipe for a nascent democracy.

07 February 2007

Is It So Wrong to Kind of Admire Lisa Nowak?

Bill Merwin

Okay, so the recent story at my home institution has been about the resignation of the university president, as he was having an affair with a faculty member. Now, it's no secret that I wasn't exactly the biggest fan of Bill Merwin (and I really could care less about his extracurricular activity), but it truly was a sad set of circumstances. The public humiliation and the personal tragedy are painful enough.

Of course, the really strange part of the story was how he chose to reveal this episode, before what amounted to a press conference, before some 300 staff, faculty, and students. I did not attend. There was so much theater to it, almost a staged tragedy, but it certainly had more Oprah than Othello to it. Here was a public confessional, entirely scripted to follow a vaguely Christian model (repentance, but a vow to seek counseling), but which was obviously overlayed with damage management scripture: own up to wrong, protect the board, and give no room for furture action. It was breathtaking as a spectacle.

And now the case of Lisa Marie Nowak, the astronaut-on-a-mission who was arrested on attempted murder charges (there's absolutely no subtlety to Florida) in Orlando in her attempt to confront a perceived rival in her affections for Major Nelson--we do remember that Jeannie did have an evil twin. For anyone who's read Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff, it is hardly surprising to read about an astronaut packing a bb gun, some rubber tubing, a steel mallet, a couple of wigs, mace, and NASA-issued Depends and drive some 900 miles to deliver an ass-whooping to a romantic rival. Of course, everyone loves that detail about the diapers. Here was a test pilot, probably factoring to the minute of getting to the Orlando International Airport, traveling at no more than 5 miles per hour above the speed limit, and then calculating she'd have no time for rest stops.

What a model of determination, but more importantly, how did she manage to feed that anger, as she would be driving through Mobile, through that beautiful stretch of woods west of Tallahassee, and then through that awful strangulation of interstates and motels in Orlando, how she didn't just say "fuck it," and take the off ramp to Cedar Key or Wakulla Springs? And so I came across the Lisa Nowak Interview with the Ladies Home Journal, surely the first time I've actually visited the LHJ web site. There, she talks about applying six times for admission into the test pilot training program. Talk about having the right stuff. Now that's the kind of woman I want to have accompanying Bruce Willis to blow up an incoming asteroid.

The latest word is that NASA is now re-evaluating its own psychological review of astronauts. Is it possible, I wonder, to neuter these adrenaline-dependent fly-boys and fly-girls and still have them so driven to be gonzo academics and test pilots, to be self-proclaimed "robo-chicks"? Is there no room for Ripley?