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Shoot the Messenger: Dana Goodyear, David Orr, and the Stewards of Poetry
When Dana Goodyear’s New Yorker piece on Poetry magazine and the Poetry Foundation appeared in March, many poets and readers felt a profound sense of gratitude to her. It came as a tremendous relief to find a writer as articulate and credible as Goodyear leveling the criticisms many of us have been developing privately for several years: that Ruth Lilly’s gift to the magazine is being squandered by managers with little imagination and no apparent sense of purpose or history; that the current editorial regime has lessened the magazine by making uninspired choices for the front of the magazine (poems) and vindictive ones for the back (reviews); and that many talented writers, whether new to publishing or well established, may smell decay between Poetry’s pages and choose as a result to send their best work elsewhere.
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Poetry forgot the critic’s role along about the time its editors fell in love with the sound of William Logan’s voice, and in recent years most readers have found greater interest—albeit a tabloid, rubbernecking-after-a-car-crash interest—in its predictable prose than in its predictable verse. It has become the place for those who’d want to see Jeff Clark (the poet) compared to Kim Jong Il (the demagogue), who’d enjoy a public evisceration of Franz Wright in the Letters section, who’d find value in a review of Derek Walcott that condemns his body of work without discussing his poems, and so on.
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Wiman’s stable of writers—Orr, Dan Chiasson, and Peter Campion chief among them—generally are brilliant and intense prose stylists—thoughtful, erudite and well-read thinkers, and passionate writers of clear rhetoric. That is to say, they resemble Logan. Also, like Logan, with some commendable exceptions, their work tends toward the arrogant, masturbatory, spiteful, bombastic, and mean-spirited hatchet job.
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The pain a critic causes must be slight and illuminating. Hugh Kenner was a critic; Harold Bloom is a critic, and Helen Vendler, and probably James Longenbach. The writers in the back of Poetry are mere reviewers of books, mistaking their own pyrotechnically phrased opinions for the kind of enlightened utterance that reveals poetry to its readers and earns their good faith.
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It saddens even those of us who’ve long since lost confidence in Orr and his colleagues to see him stoop to the kind of ad hominem tactics that bring Goodyear personally into an argument that was supposed to be about the best stewardship of poetry. Orr’s need to point out that Goodyear is thirty years old doesn’t tell us she’s not gifted enough to have appeared in The New Yorker; it tells us that his apparent bias against comparatively young poets might well keep him from bringing his readers the next John Keats, who died at 25.
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Furthermore, some talented writers and readers will arrive at the conclusion that Poetry can no longer be considered English-language poetry’s gold standard, that its scope and reputation will be diminished for the imaginable future by a doctrinaire and wrong-headed editorial stance, and that their energies probably are best directed elsewhere. Those of us whose affections for the magazine predate the Lilly gift are deeply saddened by that prospect.