Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Nabobs and Their Gewgaws

  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.
La la la


At 9/29/2011 1:08 PM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

I think Hays could have easily countered her "if you can't quote it it's bullshit" line of bullshit reasoning by asking her to cite examples of the bullshit in Ashbery's poetry. It's not an unreasonable expectation to have, if we're going to have such insane rubrics to measure what is good and bad.

At 9/29/2011 1:58 PM, Blogger Justin Evans said...

poetry is a candle.

poetry is a grizzly bear, nom nom nom.

poetry is a baboon's great red ass.

poetry is a sprinkler in my front yard.

poetry is Cthulu.

poetry is the great I Am.

poetry is a snowball's chance in hell.

poetry is my navel.

At 9/29/2011 2:01 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I’ve read some criticism of Ashbery’s poetry that, though I disagree with it, is valid. This isn’t that kind of criticism. Of course, she’s just walking around and talking, but even so, it’s one thing to have such attitudes, another to trot them out in public as if they were assumed.

She might be able to quote Ashbery though, you never know. She’s talking smack. Showing up a younger poet. Maybe she’s different in the classroom.

At 9/29/2011 2:01 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Indeed. Poetry is hail damage.

At 9/29/2011 3:11 PM, Blogger adams24 said...

Any idea who this poet is? It sounds like her dress-sense is rather on! The machine/animal point I assume just alludes to WCW. That question, for me, was TH's attempt--and not a bad-one--at questioning some of her assumptions/trying to identify them. None of the prior I hope suggests I buy her argument; I don't except for the pro-ambition, and old-school ambition at that, stance. I really wld believe it rad to see someone try and out Petrarch Petrarch!

John, I love how pissed your tone is: this is I think as angry as I've seen you get and I dig it.

At 9/29/2011 4:30 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

posted many times on my blog and elsewhere that it's scandalous that Ashbery hasn't long since already gotten the Nobel (not to mention other poets who also deserve it——make your own list, i posted mine), and it's sad (and boring by this late date) to see/read of those who simplistically use his name as a nominalist target to focus their kicks against the pricks at,

but really, Hayes should have named her——without knowing who the specific individual behind that attitude is, she becomes for rhetorical purposes a strawperp too easy to set up and blow down——

targets and ciphers——reduce your argument to shorthand . . .

let's see: great writer/industrial northeastern city/year younger than his mother/her university/high-heel boots/esthetic opposite Ashbery's: hmm, who is that? Newark, Pittsburgh, industrial northeastern city with an University— is New York an industrial city? . . .

I taught "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" in my Modern Poetry seminar for about 15 years along with other works of his, and while he's hardly my favorite poet,

At 9/29/2011 4:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember someone in the NYTBR claiming that Longfellow is superior to Ashbery because people can recite some Longfellow lines, but no one can remember any Ashbery lines. I thought, "What a crock of shit!" Lines by Ashbery swim up unbidden in my mind every day. "Hasn't the sky? How much longer will I be able to inhabit the divine sepulcher of life, my great love? Ask a hog what is happening. Go on, ask him. These things...that you are going to have--Are you paid specially for them? My wife thinks I'm in Oslo--Oslo, France, that is." I could go on and on. I could recite some stanzas and perhaps even some poems in their entirety. Ashbery is a good poet. His language is memorable.


At 9/29/2011 6:18 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

The top authors in the running for the 2011 Nobel Prize in literature are, according to Ladbrokes:

1. Adonis – 4/1 odds

2. Thomas Tranströmer – 9/2 odds

3. Péter Nádas – 10/1 odds

4-5. Assia Djebar and Thomas Pynchon – tied at 12/1 odds

6. Ko Un – 14/1 odds

7-8. Haruki Murakami and Les Murray – tied at 16/1 odds

9. Mircea Cartarescu – 20/1 odds

10-17. Antonio Lobo Antunes, John Banville, Don Delillo, Cormac McCarthy, Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth, K. Satchidanandan, and Colm Toibin – tied at 25/1 odds


those are all wonderful writers, yes, but why not Ashbery? he should have won it back in the 1990s——and he's not even on the list this year? it's ridiculous . . . well, they didn't give it to Auden or Stevens either.


At 9/29/2011 6:21 PM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

Poetry is clearly the caboose.

I once had a somewhat heated exchange with a guy in Colorado who said he wrote poetry his car mechanic would understand. I told him that if I were his mechanic, I'd feel fucking insulted.

Like you, I have very little poetry memorized. The only poems I can think of that I have ever had memorized are "Ozymandias," Larkin's "This Be the Verse," Stevens' "Anecdote of the Jar," and Wright's "Autumn Begins in Martin's Ferry, Ohio." Oh, and probably "Buffalo Bill's." I frequently make slight misquotes even of passages I love. I find this indicative of nothing but how my own memory works.

At 9/29/2011 10:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Caboose. I mean, seriously. Wasn't this settled back in the '70s?

The use of quoteability as some kind of measure reminds me the claim that Mozart a superior melodist to Bach, because he wrote more memorable tunes.

I'd agree that M's tunes are more memorable, but I also find them more boring. The interest in Bach's lines is often in their slow, meandering development and long phrases. Good for sustained interest, less so for catchiness.

Who can hum some late Ornette Coleman?


At 9/30/2011 4:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmm hmmmmmmmmm hm hm screeeech hmHMM screechSSCROOOOTCH huouhuuooyHMMhumhuuum hmscrecchhuum

There you go.

word verification: ramen


At 9/30/2011 5:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it has a lot to do with where a person gets their info from, how and where they derive their knowledge base. Curious thing this anti-intellectual strain, because it seems to be there irrespective of a person's politics, aesthetics, etc. (Like you've said many times, John--false dichotomies, false binaries.) Perhaps it's some kind of irrational fear/envy of expertise. Especially when that expertise involves some intellectual book learnin' instead of just doin' it (again, the false dichotomy between thinking and feeling, or action experience and reflective thought). It's a a mistrust and sometimes a downright rejection of anybody who actually took the time and effort to study what they're talking about. An anti-elitist stance which itself can be elitist. You know, some want a leader they can sit down and have a beer with, not some Ivy Leaguer, who, Lord knows, must be a pretentious snob who never really worked a day in his or her life. Maybe it's the exhalation of the "bottom up" perspective, the genuine salt of the earth, working class, think from the gut wisdom over all else. Not to say a person like that can't have an active mind, which seems to be what is implied by claiming "the best art can be understood by a sixth grader" or something like that. Like the grizzled Quint in the movie Jaws calling out the trust-fund college boy Hooper, questioning his seamanship: "You've been countin' money all yer life!" (And who got eaten by the shark and who didn't?) If I'm on the mark with this, then what I'm describing surely has its place, but when it's used as ammo to divide and conquer it clearly becomes absurd.

Chris D.

At 9/30/2011 5:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, that's a dreary exchange. Not sure why Hayes would re-create it. Hope dinner was better, but to be fair, I can't think of too many things that can turn south so fast as writers discussing poetry. You address the more inane segments of the quoted text very well, John, and make some excellent points. The contrarian in me says poetry is a windmill and a hammer, or maybe a windhammer.

My great uncles could recite poems like you wouldn't believe, but there's was a different time. I've got the first two lines of Ashbery's 'Composition' down, but beside that just a few lines from Shel Silverstein or a passage from 'The Cat in the Hat' come to mind. I don't worry too much about it.

And the guys writing for their mechanics are probably paying them $200 for an oil change. So maybe it all kind of works out. Best,


At 9/30/2011 6:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The idea that you should get poems by heart (and that a good poem is a get-by-heartable one)is related to traditional ideas about prosody. Once I sat next to Derek Walcott at a party. (Too awestricken to speak and probably getting tipsy, as usual at that time.) A young woman was introduced to him as a fledgling poet. "Recite something," Walcott demanded. "I--I can't," the woman said, nonplussed and annoyed. Walcott slouched into bored indifference. People like X.J. Kennedy and Richard Tillinghast, both of whom write in traditional forms, think it's important to get poems by heart. Tom Clark has a story about meeting Frost. When Frost heard that Clark was into Pound, he said, "I'll bet you can't recite one poem by him!" Clark then recited "In a Station of the Metro." "Hah!" said Frost.

The truth is, we're questioning or denying an idea that most poets probably took for granted just a few decades ago. Plath and Hughes used to recite Shakespeare to each other; Hughes would begin a recitation and then challenge Plath to finish it. I read somewhere--was it in a Franz Wright interview?--that James Wright could recite whole passages of Tristram Shandy. Poets used to do that. It was good for them, and it would be good for contemporaries.


At 9/30/2011 7:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hope I wasn't questioning recitation. Or implying that it is not good for us. The recitation of poetry that I was noting about my great uncles was taught in schools in the early 1900s; it was largely bold and lyrical narrative, rhyme driven, Robert Service stuff, The Cremation of Sam McGee is one I remember Uncle Jim always belted out at family reunions, and the like ... Casey at the Bat was part of the show, too, etc.

For some reason, I don't think it would have been as easy for him to trot out something from River & Mountains though, which doesn't diminish for one moment, in my opinion, the value of Ashbery. Or for that matter, Robert Service.


At 9/30/2011 7:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

River(s) and Mountains, my mistake. See some other boo boos in my replies this morning, which I'm not going to take the time to fix here, life moving too fast these days or being too short as has been always, another part of the problem, maybe.


At 9/30/2011 7:56 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...


Except that memorization is skill completely apart from being a good critic or a good poet. You know what every reader remembers? The experience of reading the poets and poems they love. That is what keeps them engaged.

I don't think it's that hard to draw a parallel between this attitude and the one-size-fits all "teach to the test" style of education that so many schools have fallen victim to.

At 9/30/2011 8:03 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I laughed a little at myself while writing this, about how furious I was/am about it.


I’m glad he didn’t name her. If he had, then her poetry would have been part of the conversation, and I’m happier leaving the art out of it and just deal with her inane ideas about what other artists should be doing. It’s fine with me if she believes whatever she believes, but when she turns and says others should do it too, that really gets under my skin.


Indeed, the elitism of the anti-elites. Again, she can compose whatever she wants for whomever she wants, it might even be great poetry, but when she starts demanding others do as she does, then it time to dance. Or whatever the rumble fish say these days.


It’s fine to memorize things, true, very true. But it’s also not necessary. It’s just something one can do, not what one must do. Call it a healthy habit. But there are other healthy habits as well.


And that’s my reaction to memorizing as well. Or it’s been my experience. Something someone can trot out to impress the family. It can be impressive, but it’s not necessary to exploring the art.

Funny, just a few days ago there was the opposite conversation going on here in the comment stream of a post, where the question was about improvisation, and I think it was Mingus that was brought up as someone who hit a guy in the face once for playing something that seemed memorized. I thought that was equally wrong.

Art is big. There are a lot of ways in, and lot of things to do while in it, and a lot of ways we can fail it.

At 9/30/2011 8:06 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Ha! "No Poet Left Behind." Now, finally, we can have standardized tests! Now we'll objectively know who's good.

Save us.

At 9/30/2011 8:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Art is big John, indeed.

I recall trying to explain in overly definitive and laborious terms -- and seemingly intelligently -- some thrust of meaning I felt behind a Jackson Pollock painting we were looking at to my granddaughter Amena a couple years ago(Amena is a remarkable photographer today but was then a ten or eleven year old kid who was beginning to show some interest in art).

He liked to scribble, didn't he, she said.


At 9/30/2011 8:33 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Oh, I think that's quite lovely.

It brings me back to her thoughts on perfection, and what she would say is the perfect work of art. You know?

It seems to me that if you're religious, there's only one perfection, and it's not of this earth, and if you're not religious, the idea of perfection is invalid, because you have nothing to measure it against.


At 9/30/2011 9:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fuzz, you're right that memorizing and reciting don't make you a good poet or a good critic. But they'll help. I KNOW I wrote better after memorizing "The Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait" and reciting it many times in Dylan T.'s in hammy, actorish way. And that has to be good for your ear, and what's good for your ear will make you a better critic.

And John, you're right about the wide variety of healthy habits. You reminded me that all this memorizing and reciting went on in a more bibulous era. Thomas would intone some Hardy, and then he'd toss back another alcoholic insult to the brain. Healthier to memorize nothing and drink moderately--or not at all.


At 9/30/2011 8:40 PM, Blogger Jeannine said...

I'm also a huge fan of memorizing poetry. I've been memorizing it since I was ten. I tell students to do it. I tell people who've just started writing poetry to do it. I've also accidentally memorized a lot of stuff - passages of the Bible, dialogue from Star Wars, Futurama...well, it's a diverse group. But I think if you are a serious poetry critic, or want to be, you should be able to recite some damn poetry. It's like saying "I love art" and someone asking you to name a piece you like and you not being able to do it. If you read something out loud to yourself enough times, you will accidentally memorize it, I think. And if you love poetry, won't you be doing that?

PS Poetry is clearly a cyborg.

PSS There is a weird elitism to saying you write for your mechanic, or whatever. Maybe your Dad with the sixth grade education would be down with some Ashbery. My grandmother only graduated high school, and she reads poetry like a motherfucker. And gets it. So, you know, if you drag a bunch of high school kids to a college poetry reading, who cares who it is, it doesn't have to be some "easy and accessible" poet, any poet, they will probably love something about the language, the sound, the imagery, the passion - and I know because I used to drag my little brother and his friends to these things and guess what - they were really into it. My little brother really dug Louise Gluck's shoes, for instance. You never know what will keep someone's interest.

At 10/01/2011 8:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jeannine, you have a lot of good thoughts here, but I think John is probably right. Memorizing and reciting are good for poets, but so are a lot of other things. I play guitar and sing (though I have no talent for either), and no doubt that's been good for my writing in a way I'd be hard pressed to articulate; but I'd never say that all poets should take up an instrument. Taking a brisk walk or chopping wood are probably good things to do before you write. When I was MFAing I shot a lot of pool, and a workshopmate said, "Wow, I'll bet that's good for your writing." Maybe it was, I don't know. But even if it was, I would never say that all poets should take up pool.

I heard somewhere that Tom Wolfe used to work out with a punching bag next to his typewriter. Good idea.


At 10/01/2011 5:42 PM, Blogger Jeannine said...

Thanks Jimmy. I think all poets should also play pool, at least one musical instrument, and probably the punching bag is a good idea too :)
Well, at least it would get us away from "the Facebox" as my father calls it.

At 10/02/2011 10:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i remember hearing from an undergrad teacher that james wright had a photographic memory. she'd seen him read once & said that he recited all his poems from memory. he just sat there, smoked, & looked everyone in the eye while he recited whatever poems of his he wanted. always wished i had a photographic memory since hearing that.

the only poem i can for certain recite is 'in a station of the metro', not to mention a few choice lines from the movie 'weird science.'

& a poem is just that: a poem. no need to metaphorize anymore what a poem is/can be.


At 10/02/2011 12:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's worth mentioning that memorization and recitation go way back before Wright and the other moderns we've been mentioning--back to the Dark Ages, when Celtic bards were oral transmitters of unwritten history, back to Greek antiquity, when/where poets had to memorize whole epics. "Elaborately sounded forms" (Frank O'Hara's phrase, I think) are mnemonic and therefore almost indispensable to poets who have to memorize and recite. An actor playing Richard III has a lot of lines to recite; the sound patterns in "Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this son of York" make it easier for him to memorize his lines.

But the poetry scene is really different now. The world is really different now.


At 10/03/2011 8:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Elaborately sounded forms, thanks Jimmy, that's a good term for what I was trying to get at with regard to recitation. Certain forms lend themselves more easily to memorization, notably those writings that employ a certain cadence and rhyme (add a catchy musical melody to go along with the words and even your poorer memorizers will start to shine).

I was fibbing though when I said I could recite only a little Silverstein. I can actually quote a fair number of passages from modern poetry and get pretty close to verbatim several of my favorite shorter poems. So.

Still, I'm not convinced that not being able to recite a few lines from an Ashbery poem or a Stafford poem or (insert your contemporary poet's name here) is a sure sign of that particular poet's value or lack of value, which seems to me to be the idea the writer/teacher in question in the Hayes essay is aiming at.

Or maybe I'm missing her (his) point.

At 10/03/2011 8:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Forgot to sign my last post, which begins "Elaborately ...". Sorry.


At 10/03/2011 8:31 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

It all depends on your definition of "bullshit in the midst."

Especially when it comes from someone whose boots are wounding the sidewalk. I mean, sidewalks are there for the common good, you know?


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.


Post a Comment

<< Home