I had the pleasure of hearing Jorie Graham read in Iowa City back in…1998 I believe. My favorite part was turning around mid-reading to witness Donald Justice fast asleep—two rows behind me. But, you know—he was an older gentleman by then, and I figured he’s allowed.
Truth be told—I enjoyed the reading. Graham’s words spoke to me on a different level than they did on the page. I suppose I was more easily caught up in the airy, ephemeralness of her speech than I was of her written language, which for me was then largely as it is now: intriguing, intelligent, layered, occasionally an imbroglio, not terribly pleasurable but enjoyable for its leaps in thought as well structure, for its difficulty. I'm not a lover of her work, but I was honestly taken by her reading of it. And, I would contend that despite my lack of pleasure with her poems in writing, not to be confused with a lack of appreciation, she is absolutely worth reading because of her style, influence, success, and longevity—not necessarily in that order.
I would say the same for Sharon Olds, Louise Glück, and Phil Levine—three poets I’ve enjoyed immensely. So, naturally, I felt annoyed when I read Anis Shivani’s recent article in the Huffington Post: “Philip Levine and Other Mediocrities: What it takes to ascend to the Poet Laureateship.” He claims these poets—including Graham—have let their poetries fall into severe tedium and disrepair with which, mind you, they have waddled among the muck of unwarranted success for decades, their prizes and reputations riding largely on poetry-guild nepotism, which Shivani discusses a bit in “Beautiful and Pointless: New York Times Poetry Critic Says Poetry Isn’t Relevant,” an earlier post of his in the Huffington.
Actually, a fair amount of his observations, stripped of their pejorative décor, are accurate. I agree with him that Olds writes of the body and birth, Graham of material in a thought-world, Glück of the personal and its various sensitive hats, and Levine of the humdrum working life he may or may not have lived. But that’s all subject matter, and I don’t see how someone can be against subject matter. Lack of craft, lack of tempered skill—yes. But content? I mean—so what if these poets choose to write about these things? When I’m dead and famous—preferably not in that order—people may complain that my poems are obsessed with fish and birds, but I hope they don’t consider them trash as a result. This is America, dammit. Isn’t everything fair game?
Ted Kooser, an ex-Laureate himself, has a few nice things to say about content in an interview he did with Grace Cavalieri on her stellar radio show Poet and The Poem. He mentions that one of his ambitions was to be able to write a poem about anything, anything, and so he recounts the brief backstory of his “The Washing of Hands,” a completely mundane and—in the context of the poem—domestic task. The piece is terrific. But the content is banal. I mean—a poem about a woman washing her hands? Oh, yawn. But it’s what happens inside the poem as a reading experience that really kicks. That’s the poetry, not the theme or whatever.
My point is that content and its extensions just don’t really matter that much. They’re beside the point. And this is the truth for so many aspects of life—isn’t life not about what we fill our time with but how we fill it—why should poetry be any different? I got into a similar argument a long time ago with Kathleen Peirce over a Bukowski poem, “The Apple,” which I claimed was about meaninglessness and, therefore, was itself meaningless, and that that was the most beautiful thing about it—that what the poet (and for me, the reader) walked away with was that he walked away with nothing.
This is the self-defeating portion of my argument, of course. Poems must mean something after all. I’m just saying that’s not the point. Poems should not be judged by subject matter or theme but by their artistic risks and successes. The wrong question is always asked: What does it mean? That’s the scourge of poetry’s disfavor in high schools around the world—god forbid it ever be asked of children in the lower grades! The question should be—is it artful? If we asked that, maybe our kids would actually learn something about poetry other than that they don’t care for it. I contend they would learn a great deal, in fact, by wondering about the answer to that question.
Unfortunately, like so much talk about poetry and so many of its critics—both for and against—Shivani more or less avoids such an inquiry other than by blanket statement, degrading the work of some terrific poets—if not the poets themselves. As early as his essay’s second paragraph, Shivani writes of Graham, Olds, Glück and Levine, “Their very project is to participate. . .in the annihilation of common decency at all levels.” Seriously. I mean—seriously? We once burned witches over similar claims. I hope we don’t start burning poets.