Thursday, April 06, 2006

Sylvia Plath and Tuna Salad

There has been a dedicated campaign from the right and center of poetry to impact the modernist canon. The first goal is accessibility, as opposed to the "difficulties" of modernism; the second, I fear, is cultural change. The major players are Dana Gioia of the NEA, John Barr of The Poetry Foundation (with funding from Ruth Lilly), Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry, and Garrison Keillor of NPR. Here is a quotation from Keillor's introduction to his anthology, Good Poems:

"When you compare Bishop to, say, her friend and mentor Marianne Moore, the mentor pales severely. Marianne Moore was a dotty old aunt whose poems are quite replicable for anyone with a thesaurus. A nice lady, but definitely a plodder, and it would be cruel punishment to have to write a book about her. Her contemporary, Edna St. Vincent Millay, who played the glamorous broad and taxi dancer to Moore's bunhead librarian, wrote more that is still of interest, whereas Moore's reputation must be due to the fact that, in the republic of letters, there are many more Moores than Millays. From Millay it's a straight shot to Anne Sexton, a writer of profound exuberance and wit and a hot number, and her cohort, the beautiful horsekeeper, Maxine Kumin, two women who, forgive me, make St. Sylvia Plath look like a tuna salad."

This passage is as rich in sexist stereotypes as Where's Waldo? is in Waldo. Moore's "The Fish" is filled with sensual and linguistic detail. Sensual, as in "of the senses" not as in "glamorous broad." The poem begins:

The Fish

through black jade.
Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps
adjusting the ash-heaps;
opening and shutting itself like

injured fan.

Where's the difficulty? It's one fierce, attentive, sympathetic seeing after another. The fish are underwater, of course, in an aquarium. In their slow swimming, they seem to "wade "through decorative black jade placed by an aquarium designer. A crow-blue (nice!) mussel opens and shuts like an injured fan, the force of which adjusts the grey sand (poetic license: ash) at the bottom of the tank. The poem's eye is public. Its music is evident but has a secret--the lines of each stanza are measured as follows: first line, one syllable; second line, three; third line, nine; fourth line, six; fifth line, eight. Moore is, yes, something of a formalist, but an eccentric and inventive one. Moore's talent does not exclude that of Bishop. As their biographies reveal, Millay and Sexton were actively, almost frenetically sexual, therefore what, easy to understand as poets? The erotic comes in many forms including the sublimated, and eroticism is not, at any rate, a reasonable standard for a poem.

As for the more beautiful woman poet, Sylvia Plath or the "horsekeeper" Maxine Kumin (there's nothing like the odor of the stables to get your D. H. Lawrence up), we must judge for ourselves.


At 2:47 PM, Blogger Jaime Robles said...

Yow! Paul! I had the appalling experience the other day of listening to one of Keilor's poetry spots on NPR. It was sort of shocking to hear poetry read that had long been exorcised by the modernists--poems that were unabashedly sentimental, indulgent, high-minded, etc. What worked about Keilor's Prairie Home Companion was that he used all that cornball sentimentality as a means of satire; now he's taking it seriously. Valorizing rather than mocking the mawkish.

Has the desire to do away with the difficult in poetry had other less disturbing effects along the lines of "bad publicity is good publicity." It seems there has been a reawakening of interest in poetry among the mainstream. The Teen Slam Poetry Competition held in the SF Opera House, and my 17-year-old stepson is writing a poem a day in his journal.

So where is the "other" NPR poetry spot? Who do we call?

Yr fan, Jaime

At 6:05 PM, Blogger Eric said...

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At 6:10 PM, Blogger Eric said...

What is the cultural change the monied institutions are campaigning to achieve?

At 8:44 AM, Blogger Paul Hoover said...

To Gelsinger: It would be a conservative blunting of liberal influence, in poetry, in the universities (cf. David Horowitz's attack, and in the culture at large. That blunting has already been felt in journalism. Conservatives well remember the influence that poets like Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell had in the Vietnam protest. Poetry does matter, to answer Dana Gioia's question, when an influential poet votes one way or the other and makes that known.

At 8:44 AM, Blogger Paul Hoover said...

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At 12:20 PM, Blogger Kirby Olson said...

I think the problem is that Garrison Keillor is not very well-informed at all. I'm not saying that he's stupid, but totally ignorant about poetry. And he's trying to be funny. He's very far to the left politically, at least. He says all the time on the radio that he hates W. So he is not a conservative at least in that sense.

I just think he's trying hard to be amusing here, but to anybody that knows anything about the poets in question, he's not. But his anthology is meant to appeal to the kind of cornballs who listen to his radio program. I just don't think he has any idea how this reads to people who really read poetry. Nor do I think he would actually care.

It comes off as almost violently creepy and like he has no idea what he's talking about. But I think only the latter part is the active ingredient, the former part is just him trying to be entertaining to people who have never read a poem before in their lives.

At 9:49 PM, Blogger Paul Hoover said...

Kirby is undoubtedly right about Garrison Keillor's politics. He wants to entertain a mass audience and why not? Poetry can be a form of entertainment, and in its compression and uses of irony it can resemble the joke as a form. With its pratfalls, disguises, quips, and daggers through the arras scenes, Don Juan is a novelistic comedy. Kenneth Koch could do formalist comedy with the best of them, especially in ottava rima. Billy Collins doesn't tell jokes but communicates broadly by creating a wistful and humorous empathy. Charles Simic's approach to humor is through the metaphysical. And so on. Humor communicates more visibly and audibly than any other literary mode except perhaps pornography, but let's not go into that. Nothing at all wrong with accessibility but rather using it as cover for conservative cultural change. I would add that the idea that opacity and difficulty have innate moral value is equally absurd. Another metaphysical comedian, Wallace Stevens, is far from incomprehensible. He sees and feels clearly and deeply, and sometimes that is done through humor.

At 9:43 AM, Blogger Kirby Olson said...

Paul, thanks for your response. I've read through a good part of Keillor's anthology. He tries to present accessibility as the major criterion of the poetry he likes: Billy Collins is therefore right up there in the anthology.

The stereotypes he martials in his exclusion of Marianne Moore: "bunhead librarian" and "dotty old aunt," are meant to recall the high school values in which the jocks and the cheerleaders were more valued than the nerds and the girls with big glasses. It's a freefall into high school values to listen to Garrison Keillor. I often feel he hasn't moved very far beyond that, and he appeals to the prejudices of his audience through those values without challenging them very deeply.

Sexton becomes a "hot number," and Kumin becomes a "beautiful horsekeeper."

He is aiming at a certain demographic that has never moved past these stereotypes and which he is martialling in order to change poetry from a rarefied and rather arcane thing smelling of the library and the university (he mocks both of them) into something "sexy" that even popular and successful people can do -- something that is more a matter of the vaudeville stage and the circus.

Keillor's audience is peculiar -- Lake Woebegone is not too far from Norman Rockwell's world, and his audience still understands the stereotypes of that small-town world (they are still prevalent in much of rural America) -- it's disturbing to me because Moore's obvious intelligence is not something that is respected in that world any more than it was in high school even among the NPR crowd.

The passage is remarkable for its extreme violence (when humor is thoughtlessly cruel it can and should be criticized -- I don't think that Kenneth Koch or even Billy Collins would write the kinds of lines that Keillor is putting forward here), but I don't think Keillor would have seen that violence in the least. It's a part of the oh shucks mentality that knocked down the poor kid lugging home all the books from the library as almost a matter of course -- and everybody in high school laughed at the poor kid -- because he's hardly even American to have such thick glasses or to be reading Hegel at 12, so hardly even human.

Keillor is just simply not an intellectual and this is part of his tremendous appeal, but his scapegoating of Marianne Moore really is reprehensible.

But to complicate the picture -- Marianne Moore was a lifelong Republican (she voted for Taft early on, and late in life she wore a Nixon campaign button). And Garrison Keillor has been a lifelong Democrat.

At 3:18 PM, Blogger michaelf said...

plath seems to have long had a commercial taint - but can you say 'the elizabeth bishop industry' oops ...

At 4:17 PM, Blogger Christopher Trottier said...

One can drone on and on about what makes good poetry. My rule of thumb is this: if it keeps your attention, and you find it esthetically pleasing, then it is good. Talking about ideology just doesn't make sense to me.

At 4:22 PM, Blogger Paul Hoover said...

To michaelf: Elizabeth Bishop is an "industry" only in certain circles, but that support is influential--the Academy of American Poets, John Ashbery and that aspect of the New York School influence, such as David Lehman, that enjoys traditional form, and the New Formalists including Dana Gioia, who has written essays about being in her classes at Harvard. Her support on lines of gender will inevitably meet with consternation from those who are touchy on the subject of social class. I like her work for its easygoing charm and use of form--the longshoreman's hook that nearly catches Miss Breen's skirt--and most especially for "The Moose." But some of my students at a working class arts school in Chicago recognized in it relations in social class that made them uncomfortable. But this theme would take us back to the accessibility issue and the hoped-for democracy of the poem. It's not very democratic of course to favor only the very accessible poem. Lots of great poetry is runic, packed, and artfully ambiguous.

At 11:50 AM, Blogger Kirby Olson said...

The criterion of merit is now profoundly confused. Keillor implies that women poets should be sexy as the primary criterion of merit. That is seen as sexist, because we're all sure he wouldn't apply the same criterion to male poets.

But the criteria of merit is discombobulated by identity politics. If you have the right identity, you have merit.

Notions of intellectual reach, complexity, a poetry adequate to the large questions, musicality, etc., are rarely broached as they bring forth all the terms of the Lockean meritocracy that has been thrown over in order to push race, gender, class as the sole categories of merit.

If "intellectual reach" is reconfigured as the basic criterion of merit then Keillor and his women would lose out badly, and Marianne Moore would remain forever as a shining north star in the firmament.

At 3:17 PM, Blogger michaelf said...

i like bishop too - but when i keep seeing new poems - i get a feeling similar to seeing all the keith haring tshirts (now ramones tshirts) - that its a bit necrophilic. good if she makes people uncomfortable. she tends to be explicit about class, rather than pretend it doesnt exist. i think she probably was sexy, & i expect theres one or two of use that have a penchant for spinsters in big black hats .. using spinster as a retro term .. she can be read as an exile of the united states of homophobia .. is this valuable.. well yes i think it is - in poetic terms .. because the more complex our readings the more nuanced.. the less purchase redcutiveness has .. im sure keillor cd be made to be uncomfortable about embracing sexton if he cd get beyond the image ..

At 10:25 AM, Blogger Paul Hoover said...

Easy to get distracted by Keillor's stance on women and lose focus on the accessibilty agenda of The Poetry Foundation that funds his NPR show. I'm ready to allow almost anything when it comes to the openness of a poem; clarity is fine by me. But the call to exclude Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, and Gerard Manley Hopkins from the modernist canon reveals an ideological and finally political agenda that's insidious. Whose Prison House of Language is it going to be?

At 6:42 PM, Blogger nolapoet said...

Hey, GK has a rep of sorts among women writers, so I'd take his lit-crit with a grain of powdermilk.

At 4:02 PM, Blogger Kirby Olson said...

What do the Wiccans use to discuss their Pantheon?

There's also the term Rogue's Gallery.

At 3:20 PM, Blogger Mei Liu said...

"Ennui," a previously unpublished poem by the late Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Sylvia Plath, will appear November 1, 2006 in Blackbird: an online journal of literature and the arts ( Journey, a published poet and recent winner of the Wabash Prize from Sycamore Review, is the author of a forthcoming scholarly article on "Ennui."

Mei Liu (Intern, Blackbird: an online journal of literature and the arts,

At 9:34 PM, Blogger saintjerome said...

Keillor should stick to his folksy schtick.

He's so f*cking lazy, it hurts.

Even by his ridiculous sexist criteria, Plath's a winner--a notoriously "hot number."

How does this joker feel about Shakespeare?

At 9:36 PM, Blogger saintjerome said...

Keillor should stick to his folksy schtick.

He's so f*cking lazy, it hurts.

Even by his ridiculous sexist criteria, Plath's a winner--a notoriously "hot number."

How does he feel about Shakespeare?


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