There's a golf course called The Bully Pulpit. Who knew?
This, by Terrance Hayes, from the book Poets on Poetry, reminds me:
I am walking the streets of an industrial northeastern city with a great writer. She is a year younger than my mother . . . . I have given a reading at her university and now on our way to dinner, she is telling me, in her way, what she thought of it: “The poems are not for you, they’re for your readers,” she says. “Forget that navel gazing, ain’t-I-clever shit people like Ashbery write,” she says, her high-heel boot wounding the sidewalk. When I say, “I like some of Ashbery’s stuff,” she snaps: “Quote some lines of your favorite poem!” I can’t and she says that’s the first sign of bullshit in the midst.
We reach the restaurant. Our talk will have to end and to end it I ask what I believe will settle the dispute:
“Do you believe the poem is an animal or a machine?”
“It’s a machine,” she says, without even having to think about it. “A thing finely wrought in language.”
“That means you think a perfect poem can be written? You believe there’s such a thing as a perfect poem?”
“That wrought finely enough, everyone, anyone will recognize its beauty?”
“Yes, my father had a sixth-grade education. I write poems he can read. I write them slowly, labor over them, because Hell, if you’re not playing with the big dogs, the ones who have written the perfect works, what play at all?”
This is far and away the dumbest exchange I’ve ever heard recounted of two poets talking on the way to a restaurant. I don’t even know where to start, it’s so absurd. I’m talking about the unnamed great writer mostly, as Hayes was a guest. What is he to do? Tell her she’s a fool? We’re taught to be polite. I’m polite. At least I try to be. I’m picturing myself in this position. What would I do? But still I feel hayes could have done better than to say “it’s during this conversation that I know/decide we’ll be true friends.”
So first, her assumptions of what “people like Ashbery” write is without foundation. It’s her version that says Ashbery writes “that navel gazing, ain’t-I-clever shit.” Say what you will against Ashbery’s poetry, navel-gazing it isn’t. And I also don’t see any of that pretention necessary for the “ain’t I clever” accusation. I understand some people don’t like Ashbery’s poetry, but really, if you don’t like it you at least can have a real reason. What wonderful, elucidating classes she must teach, if this is an example of her reading ability. And then she just compounds the worthlessness of her position: When I say, “I like some of Ashbery’s stuff,” she snaps: “Quote some lines of your favorite poem!” I can’t and she says that’s the first sign of bullshit in the midst.
OK, there’s very little Ashbery I could quote, probably a paraphrase of a sentence or two, but no direct quotes. Not that Ashbery’s poetry is unquotable, but because I just don’t memorize poetry. I bet it’s that way with a lot of poets. If she were to ask me to quote everything I could quote, I could stumble through Stevens’s “Emperor of Ice Cream,” Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow,” and e.e. cummings’s “Buffalo Bill’s.” And only those three, because I’ve been teaching them for two decades. I couldn’t recite any of my own poems either, for that matter.
“Bullshit in the midst.” What a stupid thing to say. If you can’t quote it, you don’t like it, she’s saying. Well, thank you for letting me know what I do and don’t like. Any more pronouncements you’d like to make? And then, yes, she has. And this is the part where Hayes doesn’t come off all that well. Sure, I understand him not making a stand in the above exchange. He’s a guest. He’s being polite. But to then ask if she thinks poetry is an animal or a machine. Seriously? Do poets really talk this way on the way to dinner? But then again, I’ve never understood such party games. Is poetry a caboose or a windmill? Is poetry a hammer or a grapefruit? But her answer is telling: “[M]y father had a sixth-grade education. I write poems he can read. I write them slowly, labor over them, because Hell, if you’re not playing with the big dogs, the ones who have written the perfect works, what play at all?”
So what does the sixth-grade education have to do with it? Why is that a badge of honor? And why is it better than saying something like “[M]y father had a twelfth-grade education. I write poems he can read.” Or “[M]y father had a PhD in physics. I write poems he can read.” How about “[M]y father had a dog named skippy. I write poems he can read.” This anti-intellectual strain in America—in higher education in America, in fact—is the real bullshit. If a person can read, that person can read. This idea that Ted Kooser’s secretary (Kooser said almost this very thing about his secretary once, which felt both anti-intellectual and sexist) or this poet’s father have some elemental humanness that makes them poet heroes for writing down to is worse than condescending, it’s deformed.
She writes slowly. Why is writing slowly a badge of honor? Who’s to say that’s how the big dogs write? Maybe the big dogs write/wrote naked on the balcony drunk. This emulation of “the big dogs” is pathological. And what are the perfect works anyway? Are there perfect works? Do we agree on them? If we don’t agree they’re perfect, are they?
So yeah, the things this poet said to Hayes enrage me. It enrages me because this poet is a teacher. It continually shocks me that some teachers, often creative writers, are allowed to bully in this way and not be called on it. I’ve hated bullies all my life, and here comes another, with absurd arguments and pronouncements. Another colorful character.
“The poems are not for you, they’re for your readers.” Really? Does that mean the author can’t read her/his poems? Are artists saints then? Martyrs? Or is it short-order cooks? Bah. If You're a teacher, please don't be this teacher. If you're a student, please don't let your teachers be this teacher.
Somebody save us.
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