On her aptly titled ComPost blog, Harvard grad and erstwhile pundit/humorist Alexandra Petri uses Richard Blanco as a footstool (much as Marlowe‘s Tamburlaine did the Emperor of the Turks) and from that elevation declaims her negative opinion of American poetry. She says nothing specific about her footstool’s poem (why should she? he’s only a footstool…) and in fact cites absolutely nothing from any poem except one she claims to have heard at a poetry reading she “stumbled upon”; that poem, she assures us, “consisted of a list of names of Supreme Court justices.” This would not surprise me in the age of Conceptual Writing and Flarf (does Flarf still exist?), but I’d feel better if this self-described “member of the print media” (aka, apparently, a “journalist”) had named names.
ComPost Girl does not name names, of course, though she occasionally drops them. William Carlos Williams, she coos, although she misquotes him; “you do not get the news from poems” she says he said, when of course what he really wrote, in “Asphodel, that Greeny Flower,” was “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there”. (Are we surprised that “journalist” ComPost Girl can’t provide an accurate quote? We are not.) She drops Ezra Pound‘s name too, claiming he would “keel over” at the “precision” of images in movies—whatever that means. Evidently the fact that movies were being shown around the world from the mid-1890s on—nearly two decades before Pound kicked off the Imagist movement with “In a Station of the Metro“—causes no qualms for CG. But then coherence isn’t her strength. She invokes The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Gilgamesh as examples of “your people’s stories”: evidently anyone who isn’t either Greek or an ancient Sumerian need not bother reading them.
CG’s aesthetic dyspepsia seems to spring from her own thought experiment. “You can tell that a medium is still vital by posing the question: Can it change anything?” She means—well, what does she mean? By “change”? By “anything”? She doesn’t say, although she does mention poems that “changed something”: “Howl,” “Song of Myself,” “The Waste Land.” She doesn’t say what they changed, of course, because the fact is that these poems changed nothing but consciousness. They were influential in that they changed the consciousness of other artists—the way they thought about themselves and the world. Is that what CG means by “change”? Nobody knows.
Here I arrive at the core of my objection to CG’s fatuous post. Quite cannily she has leveraged her internship at WaPo to garner a bit of attention by wielding Blanco’s ceremonial poem to attack poetry as “institutionalized,” as no longer capable of “formal innovation,” as “a parroting of something that used to be radical.” These are pretty grand claims to serve up without the spice of evidence to make us sanguine about swallowing it. The strain of making claims without evidence leads CG to this rather hilarious faux-profundity: “Poetry, taken back to its roots, is just the process of making — and making you listen.” Wow. Harvard did well by ComPost Girl, don’t you think? She’ll have to do better than this if she ever hopes to replace Maureen Dowd, whose sneer she has mastered, but not her smarts.
While at this point I don’t want to defend Blanco’s poem, which I’ve heard only once and have yet to read, I do think it’s important to wrest the “what’s wrong with American poetry” discussion from the grip of pseudos like CG and “The Tweeting Playwright” Gwydion Suilebhan, whom CG quotes approvingly. Doing so will certainly involve offering up examples of good or even great contemporary poetry, explaining why it’s good or great and doing so without defaulting to the theory-of-the-month.
I know, I know—I’m advocating for “close reading,” which has been tainted by its association with New Criticism but remains the single best way to approximate the value of a poem. This fact annoys ComPost Girl. “[A poem] describes something very carefully, or it makes a sound we did not expect, and it has deep layers that we need to analyze. We analyze it. We analyze the heck out of it. How quaint, we think, that people express themselves in this way. Then we put it back in the drawer and go about our lives.” She does not realize it, of course, but this scenario passes judgement not on poetry but on the “we” of her little drama—a rhetorical fiction that stands for over-classroomed but undereducated, culture-weary, politically neutered wits like herself.
(Wow. That was fun. I think I see why CG does it!)