Negative reviews and 20 books
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.