Saturday, March 10, 2007

A Touchy Tribe

This goes back to the Dana Goodyear essay she published about the $$ of the Poetry Foundation.

Here's a partial response from David Orr who basically says that people in glass houses shouldn't throw rocks. He gives the New Yorker a little bit of that tough love that Goodyear gave the Poetry Foundation-- (For the full article published in the NY Times, go to link under "A Touchy Tribe." Here's a link to the original Goodyear article published in the New Yorker.)


From the NY Times 3/11/07 by David Orr (con't)

Indeed, The New Yorker now treats poetry almost exactly as Goodyear suggests the Poetry Foundation does — as a brand-enhancing commodity. Rather than actual discussions of poetry as an art, The New Yorker offers “profiles” of poets, which are distinguishable from profiles of, say, United States senators only in that the poets’ stories potentially include more references to bongs. That’s not to knock the authors of those profiles — often they’re a pleasure to read. They just have nothing to do with poetry.

And then there’s the question of the poems the magazine chooses to run. Granted, picking poems for a national publication is nearly impossible, and The New Yorker’s poetry editor, Alice Quinn, probably does it as well as anyone could. (Quinn is also liked personally, and rightly so, by many poets.) But there are two ways in which The New Yorker’s poem selection indicates the tension between reinforcing the “literariness” of the magazine’s brand and actually saying something interesting about poetry. First, The New Yorker tends to run bad poems by excellent poets. This occurs in part because the magazine has to take Big Names, but many Big Names don’t work in ways that are palatable to The New Yorker’s vast audience (in addition, many well-known poets don’t write what’s known in the poetry world as “the New Yorker poem” — basically an epiphany-centered lyric heavy on words like “water” and “light”). As a result, you get fine writers trying on a style that doesn’t suit them. The Irish poet Michael Longley writes powerful, earthy yet cerebral lines, but you wouldn’t know it from his New Yorker poem “For My Grandson”: “Did you hear the wind in the fluffy chimney?” Yes, the fluffy chimney.

The second issue with The New Yorker’s poem selection is trickier. This is what you might call “the home job”: the magazine’s widely noted fondness for the work of its own staffers and social associates. The most notorious examples were the three poems The New Yorker published by the Manhattan doyenne Brooke Astor in 1996-7 (one more than Robert Creeley managed in his whole life). Some representative lines: “I learned to take the good and bad / And smile whenever I felt sad.” Even more questionable, however, is the magazine’s preference for its own junior employees. In 2002, for instance, the poet who appeared most frequently in the magazine was the assistant to David Remnick, the editor — that assistant’s name, coincidentally, was Dana Goodyear. In fact, since 2000, Goodyear (who is 30) has appeared in the New Yorker more than Czeslaw Milosz, Jorie Graham, Derek Walcott, Wislawa Szymborska, Kay Ryan and every living American poet laureate except for W. S. Merwin. She’s already equaled Sylvia Plath’s total.

The problem with behavior like this is not that it violates some sacred duty of fairness (The New Yorker is a business, not a charity for whiny poets). The problem, to borrow a quotation from Goodyear’s article, is that this kind of thing “signals a lack of ambition and seriousness that may ultimately be fatal.” Poets may get frustrated with the Poetry Foundation; they may complain; they may disagree with certain projects. But the Poetry Foundation, however misguided or impolitic, hasn’t given up on poetry. The question is: Has The New Yorker?

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