Thursday, February 15, 2007

I, Too, Dislike It

[posted by Callimachus]

Throwing down the gauntlet

Poems are written only with other poets in mind, and therefore do not sell. (Two thousand copies is the industry standard.) [ John Barr, a former Wall Street executive and the president of the Poetry Foundation] 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.”

That this man now has power over "Poetry" magazine, which is the "Edinburgh Review" of modern American poetry -- WaPo, NYT, LA Times all rolled into one, for you journalism types, with "Newsweek" and "Time" thrown in for good measure. What's better (or worse), he's backed by a huge warchest put up by an eccentric poetry-writing dowager hieress ("[Her] poems are formal, sighing, adorned with exclamation points, and often poignant in their wish for simple things ....").

Needless to say, the American poets who enjoy the power of the M.F.A. program and who zealously guard the snobbish obscurity of their craft, are appalled:

Barr’s essay loosed a cascade of criticism from poets and teachers already wary of the foundation’s agenda: “horrifying,” “anti-intellectual,” “anti-education” were some of the responses I heard. ... A forthcoming piece, by Steve Evans, in The Baffler, a leftist Chicago magazine, asserts, “Through men like Dana Gioia, John Barr, and Ted Kooser, Karl Rove’s battle-tested blend of unapologetic economic elitism and reactionary cultural populism is now being marketed in the far-off reaches of the poetry world.” In a footnote, Evans identifies Barr as a Republican Party contributor, an assertion that Barr, who sees his job at the foundation as having nothing to do with politics, told me he would rather not discuss.

So now they're fighting about the money. Whether it will "ruin" them or not. Which seems to me like the owners of a wagon wheel shop feuding over whether to accept a free computer. Is there really any place for poetry in such a nation as the United States? What would Lord Byron be doing here today, were he alive? Pope? Keats? Shakespeare?