With the publication of Poets & Writers’ “Fifty of the Most Inspiring Authors in the World” this past February, the little sphere of literary publications reached its nadir.
Well, its interior nadir: poetry, especially, has been an embarrassing sidebar in high-circulation magazines like the New Yorker for years; when Entertainment Weekly began naming ‘It’ poets, we felt the special sting of inclusion by afterthought there, as well. Even if EW had included an ‘It’ poet in good faith, that association had its own disturbing question attached: had poetry become part of Hollywood’s commercial currency?
Not quite. Poetry’s moments of vogue have remained spare; ‘It’ poets have not passed their laurels down in the long term; popular poetics never did grab a forceful audience. This makes the pandering, cursory quality of Poets & Writers list all the more sad.
P&W announces a list of authors that are “[f]earless, inventive, persistent, beautiful, or just plain badass.” Delivering on all the import that introduction promises, Poets & Writers’ staff drum up real descriptive plaudits—reproduced here in full—ranging from, in the case of Lucia Perillo:
Stares down multiple sclerosis and laughs in its face. Plus, anyone who has the guts to title a book of poems Inseminating the Elephant has our vote.
and, for novelist Thomas Pynchon:
He’s like Proust. We could live our whole lives and never read Gravity’s Rainbow . . . and still be inspired by it.
and for poet Frederick Seidel:
Sure he’s filthy rich, but the man knows how to spend his money. He owns four Ducati motorcycles and he writes poems about them (probably while wearing a suit).
P&W’s first recommendation of Toni Morrison is that she remains “a portrait of strength and beauty”; Anne Carson, that she “bend[s] genres like silly straws.” And what, we wonder, could be more ‘badass’ about possession of Mr. Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses than potential arrest by Muslim authorities?
Make no mistake. Lionizing writers for something other than their imaginative heft, intelligence, and belief in literature’s numinous mission is not simply the concern of “literary snobs,” as P&W (an industry magazine) makes claim. A list like this, that masks its shallowness with a kind of ironic hipster verve, portends more, for a reader, than those coy quips it hides behind: namely, that a break is being made from important, invested literature. That poetry, specifically, is near a state of prostration.
This ‘state’ is not the result of some shortage of talent—though the definition of talent is seriously denuded in poetry circles: lineation is ‘pitched,’ phrases ‘clever.’ These days, a good amount of poetry criticism is no better than workshop talk. Indeed, concern over socio-economic background, sexuality, race, gender—all real points of concern, to be sure—have made the critical eye impotent; just as Nabokov’s presentation of “broad-minded” Jean and John Farlow addresses how comical a relativist bent can become, so the clear avoidance of merit-talk in verse has become comic. Those who prefer to speak about authorial virtue in terms of Ducati motorcycles are far more emboldened than those who, for example, would balk at the fatuousness of such an assertion—the fear of being marked ‘elitist’ has cowed many people who care about poetry into paleness.
Discussing the causes of this ideological shift is beyond the aims of this short essay, though it’s clear middling aesthetics haven’t helped. The more pressing goal—for both poets and those who care about poetry—is to reestablish the value of vision in verse. Contrary to the sentiments in Poets & Writers, talent, grace, and fine clothing are not substitutes for vision.
The trappings of postmodernism have made the very analysis of vision unduly complicated. As the poet Stephanie Adams-Santos has said (and as the list in question illustrates), “Highbrow is now the extreme lowbrow”—clichéd terms are mixed with a vague tonal reflexivity to suggest depth. Gore, vulgarity, and sexuality are proxies for the sublime. The gestural manages a kingly mien, and one vacuous text follows the next. To a careful eye, these are very, very lean times.
None of the broad assertions I’m making are maverick. Indeed, several commentators on P&W’s original post maintain similar pause about the list’s methodology. As far as criticism goes, being a best-selling author is no indictment, sure; nor is being strong and beautiful; nor is bending genres; nor is being “filthy rich.” I would assert, however, that none of these descriptions have a whit to do with being inspirational—inspirational—that, moreover, something hurts in verse when it finds itself subject to judgment via such vapid, commercialized cachets. In a similar vein, let’s get things nice and sparkling clear: to say one has been “inspired” by Proust or Pynchon without having read him is the province of cocktail parties. Period.
Phases in the history of art are nothing new. In terms of English poetry, the Romantics, for example, gave way to the Victorians; Tennyson, following the brief interjection of the Georgians, to the Modernists; then, more or less (depending on one’s interest in the Beats), Postmodernism. I wonder if now isn’t the time to cap that hanging open-end spot for Postmodernism’s terminus. Let’s say ‘1980-2010.’ When art is recommended to us by virtue of one-liners—when we bite down on that hook—what indicators are wanting? How should we presume?
For, in contrast to the smoothing boom tone of publishers and much of the academy, not anything can be poetry: there, I said it. Not anyone can be a poet, nor a painter, nor a botanist, nor a firefighter—there. The problem is not that verse with ironic hipster verve exists, but that it exists unchallenged, without even the sense that a more priestly—rarefied, substantive—group of poets are at work; the problem is that light verse is in unchallenged high profile. Let’s remember, friends, what sort of oversight must be extant when Seamus Heaney is snubbed on a list of living inspirational writers.
The truly lowest of low points on P&W’s list of “Fifty of the Most Inspirational Writers in the World” came with the entry for Elizabeth Alexander, who read a poem at Barack Obama’s inauguration. It states: “There was too much chatter about the quality of the poem. What matters is that she was up there reading it—a poem!—on the biggest and most inspiring stage in recent history.” Yes, of course, what more than ‘chatter’ could exist about a poem’s quality, especially when Ms. Alexander’s dress could be looked at, or her building legacy, or her aplomb? Poetry should be happy as postscript, perhaps.
Perhaps not. With no gall, I’ll assert that verse ought to have a permanence not hireling to passing fancy, “recent history” or no. Poetry should deliver more than some consistent darling wink. Now let’s begin to put the best of ourselves to work towards that end, again.