Friday, March 06, 2009

Negative reviews and 20 books

Two large negative reviews this week. Michael Schiavo on Matthew Dickman, and Ron Silliman on Andrew Motion.

Negative reviews are as necessary as positive reviews. OK, that was too easy. But I think that one of the reasons poetry has fallen into a cultural black hole is that there isn’t much conversation going on around it. The fact that the Dickmans, for instance, were known before their first books were published is because of their non-poetry aspects: they are twins who write poetry. Poets and Writers, The New Yorker, wherever, you name it, they all just love stuff like that. It’s a way to talk about some poets (because they all do kind of want to talk about poets a little—poets do seem interesting in some way) without all that messy stuff of having to say anything much about the poetry. Talking about the poetry is messy and no one really knows what to say about it because contemporary poetry is all so elusive, yada yada.

If there were more of a conversation about poetry, and that conversation was something people could find some interest in, then they might start to actually talk about the poetry itself. Even if it's just the way we talk about bands.

Wouldn’t that be nice? Think of The New Yorker, the way it talks about movies and music (and fiction writers here and there). Imagine those writers knowing and reading poetry. I read a blisteringly negative review of “The Watchmen” in the current issue. It seems to me that the same thing could have been written about Matthew Dickman’s All-American Poem.

What does this have to do with the 20 books meme that went around? For one, those 20 books are still very much in Ron Silliman’s imagination. First, he was criticized for not having many women on his list, so he posted a new list of just books by woman, and then he was criticized for not having any books from before 1900 on his list, so now he has another post up in response to that. It was not a meme about what you consider the best books of all time, it was a meme about what you first found. And how do we find what we first find?

These two issues might not be related, but in my mind they are.

When I was putting my list together a few days ago, I had to sit a bit and think to myself about what my core texts actually were. The books that “made me fall in love with poetry.” I fell in love with poetry, I believe, in junior or senior year of High School, in an honors English class (the only honors class of any sort I’ve ever taken) where we read cummings and Eliot and Stevens and Bishop, among others. I was fascinated. I picked up The Caterpillar Anthology and Chief Modern Poets of England and America (I think it was called). So I started off with only contemporary (-ish) voices. And only on accident, due to wandering into the library and finding a library book sale.

When I went to college, I went as a journalism major, with a writing minor. I didn’t take courses on “the classics.” I’m still quite happy I didn’t. I’m also very happy I came to poetry at a time when the voices of women were finally being “allowed” in.

So here’s where it all links up in my mind: The first single-author book of poetry I bought with my very own money was Robert Lowell’s Selected Poems. Mid-1980s. And if it wasn’t for my own curiosity, and the fact that I’d read The Caterpillar Anthology (if you don’t know what that anthology was, just follow the link and look around!), I might well have stopped there. Robert Lowell was still the big name at the time. No one told me much about the wider world of poetry because they didn't know it themselves. It wasn't a plot. It was just that this other world, this huge world of poetry that I would come to love, wasn't able to be talked about in the way Lowell was able to be talked about, so it was ignored.

It’s really not Billy Collins’, or Mary Oliver’s, or whomever’s fault that they are so popular. They, and maybe Dickman in a few years, are the big names of our time, because they are the easiest to read and to, cringe, “understand.” OK, fine. If I were a young poet starting out today, I’d probably be ordering something from Billy Collins on amazon. The problem is that, culturally, our conversation stops there, except for brief forays into stories about poets who happen to be twins, and who were once in a Tom Cruise movie.

Exceptions are all over the place. Yes, there are reviews of new books of poetry, worthy books, in The New York Times, now and then. And yes, John Ashbery is talked about a lot suddenly, as is Rae Armantrout. These are good things. All is not doom and gloom. It’s not like there is NO conversation. It’s that I find the conversation to be thin, at the cultural level.

There will be more people at one single show by Wilco than there will who will buy any one single-author book of poetry this year. (Unless I’m wrong about that. But it’s a pretty safe bet.) More people will attend the worst bomb of a movie in history (probably not “The Watchmen” but maybe) than will purchase all books of poetry total this year. (Also, I could be wrong. I’m totally guessing here.)

Poetry is as good as the movies. (Ah, where is Frank O’Hara when I need him?) Poetry is as good as music. I believe that. If it were talked about differently in school (Imagine a class on The Beatles in high school as flat as most high school classes on poetry, what would THAT do to the possibility of anyone loving music?). Maybe if it were talked about differently in The New Yorker (or wherever), maybe then it would be talked about differently everywhere. It's all about how we value something. In what way we value it. That forms how we talk about it. Poetry and poets are valued in society, but mostly for being poets at all. Poets are valued as curiosities, and mostly the culture is interested in them then as beings, not for what they create. So today it's Twins Who Write Poetry. Tomorrow it will be some other slice of biography.

Just saying.


At 3/06/2009 10:44 AM, Blogger Matthew said...

Nice post. Thoughtful and right thinking, it seems. I also feel that a lot of how poetry is regarded (or discussed) at the cultural level has everything to do with how it is taught in schools—particularly high schools.

There are some great passionate teachers, but most make a mess of the scene by giving their students the notion that real poetry is a dead art and that you have to be brilliant to solve its riddles. That's how I felt in high school and college being force-fed classics. Some were great, but they gave me little access to the writing world. Once I discovered contemporary poetry I was floored and that gave me a way back into the canon that was genuine and useful.

We need education reform for many reasons, but as poets we should also be fighting to change how poetry is taught.

At 3/06/2009 10:51 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I agree. And the direction from which it is taught. I think the best way into poetry would be from fairly contemporary things and then work backwards, kind of like how you had to do it for yourself.

Personally, I think I'm just about ready now to tackle the Romantic poets.

As long as I don't have to write like them.

At 3/06/2009 11:25 AM, Blogger Justin Evans said...


Did you have a chance to go through the paper I sent to you? Anything useful in that?

At 3/06/2009 11:35 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Justin! Of course!

I printed it off and then forgot all about it. I'm going to find it tonight.

At 3/06/2009 1:46 PM, Blogger Andrew Shields said...

"Poetry is as good as the movies. ... Poetry is as good as music."

You've put your finger on something there. A lot of people think those two things are not true!

And I would add that poetry is as good as fiction, too.

At 3/06/2009 2:49 PM, Blogger knott said...

the same old whine—

in the class system of the arts, poets are the proles the slaves——but are poets ever going to DO something about their subjection? will they ever rise up in rebellion like other oppressed minorities have done?


At 3/06/2009 2:55 PM, Blogger knott said...

you're going to be butting your head against this same wall all your life

until you end up as bitter as me

At 3/06/2009 3:31 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I promise to butt my head up against this as long as I can. I hope that the other things in my life that are wonderful will be enough to keep me from being too bitter. Though I already admit to bitter moments.

Mostly on Tuesdays.

At 3/06/2009 11:58 PM, Blogger Andrew Shields said...

For me it's not Tuesdays but Thursdays at about 9:45 p.m. that are the problem.

At 3/07/2009 7:25 PM, Anonymous Ali W. said...

I recently got roped into a conversation in which a bunch of academics (history types) were talking about poetry--Seamus Heaney to be exact--and how no one had ever heard of him. So, the Irish guy at the table who had been championing Heaney, said, "Ali, you know who he is, right?" And I said, "Of course." (Thanks to Fowler's British Modern Poetry class that I loved with all my heart). So, the next day, I emailed all these people "Digging," thinking, cool, they'll read a really awesome contemporary poem and see how great it is, how it just works for so many reasons. And they made fun of it. For being homoerotic. Which it isn't. Lorien was heavily involved. I've tried to be a good sport, but crap. These are the a bunch of PhDs who can't even appreciate a good poem when it hits them in the head. I'm still bitter, obviously. So, all that being said, I'm with you. I could talk about poems I love all day long. Poetry is as important as music; hadn't ever really thought about that, though.

At 3/08/2009 7:23 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Yeah, I’ve been trying to understand the way that dynamic works. It seems in academics one often finds a, while not arrogance really, a certain willingness to dismiss or rail against the arts (poetry gets it really hard, probably as it uses language, and academics have a certain feeling of ownership over language and how it should work). Or at the very least to be a very unwilling audience. It’s a version of “If I can’t get anything from it immediately then there’s nothing to get, because I’m very smart and this is only words, anyone could do that.” If Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney fails to chart then who will?

And then on the other side, poetry is often dismissed by non-academics who have only dim memories of high school, where they saw poetry as a secret code for which only certain people had decoder rings.

It’s a wonder anyone likes it at all.

In other news, are you dragging that big family of yours to KC anytime soon? It would be nice to see you. We could drag our big family down there.

At 3/08/2009 7:28 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Thursdays are usually an early night for me. By 9:45 I'm dreaming of all our beautiful souls eating lovely chocolate poems.

At 3/08/2009 8:41 AM, Blogger Justin Evans said...


I disagree with the premise in general. I AM one of those history types, and I know who Seamus Heaney is. I also know who W.S. Merwins is, H.D., Joy Harjo, and Pablo Neruda.

How many 'poet types' know who Dennis Kearney was? Go ahead and look him up. My own thesis advisor in History didn't know much about him until he read my paper.

Here are a few easy ones:

Who was John of Gaunt?
Who was J.W. Milam?
When was the War of Jenkin's Ear?
Which U.S. President ordered what became the Trail of Tears?

Remember, if you have to look any of these up in order to answer the question, then you should understand why I will be bitter, right?

Poets may know what the Heisenberg Effect is, but how many 'poet types' know about the Schrodinger variable, or the Schrodinger Experiment? Who were Neils Bohr and Max Planck, and what was the basis for each of their Nobel Prizes?

My point is quite simple. Just because somebody doesn't know a person or about an idea within a different field does not make them un-informed. You may want to ask yourself why you are bitter. Are you bitter because they didn't know something you thought to be very basic, or are you upset because they did not appreciate a poet and poem you enjoyed and took to heart?

While you are thinking about that, what the heck is a gerund? I have known 'English teacher types' who can't give me the answer to that question.

At 3/08/2009 8:58 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Justin, I think you're missing a bit of Ali's point. Yes, we don't all know all there is out there. We don't even know what each of us thinks are the most important events and people in the areas of our main interest, but what I took Ali to be saying is the way the people in question were talking, not their lack of knowledge.

It's one thing to not know who Schrodinger was, it's another to make fun of his cat, when you're told. It's more the cheap shots that I think she's reacting to.

At 3/08/2009 6:36 PM, Anonymous Ali said...

Deriding a poem I like after I took the time to email it to friends hurts my feelings. I'm married to a history guy, so I'm not the enemy. I'm an editor, not an English teacher. Deriding, as used above, is a gerund--a verb acting as a noun in a sentence.

Gosh, haven't read your blog in a while, and now I've gotten into all this.

Maybe KC in May; we'd love to see you.

At 3/09/2009 4:26 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Well, you should give them one of my poems next time then, they're all homoerotic. Except for the gay ones, they're really about nature vs. society.

And puppies.

At 3/09/2009 7:59 AM, Anonymous Ali said...

I mostly like your ones about gay puppies. :)

I just read your latest book, by the way. Loaned to me by Kate's babysitter, Laura Larson (remember her?)

The poem I liked best was "There Is No Mercy in Heaven." That one was a sock-knocker-off-of (that's a Jude-esque construction).


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