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.
We expected a lively rebuke from the general direction of Poetry’s Chicago offices—and were only partially disappointed. David Orr, writing for the New York Times Sunday Book Review, is an especially well chosen mouthpiece; he has helped define the magazine’s critical direction under editor Christian Wiman, and his prose contributions to it are among the chief exemplars of what’s demonstrably wrong with that direction. 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.
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. Moreover, it shares his tendency to ape the shallowest qualities of Randall Jarrell’s writing, and ultimately to fail as criticism for the same reasons Jarrell and Logan fail. Poetry’s reviews are very good at doing something literary magazines should not do: they tell readers exactly why they should dislike poetry and mistrust the intentions of poets.
Critics don’t work for editors. It’s not their job to sell magazines. They work for poetry, for their readers generally, and for their one perfect reader: the poet. The critic should approach the blank page with the humility appropriate to a task that will never be as noteworthy or necessary as its subject. The critic should apply a spur—to move poetry along, I mean, in a good direction—not a bullwhip, and certainly not the maul one so often finds in Poetry. 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.
Orr’s NYTBR piece makes every misstep that characterizes impoverished argument. It impugns Goodyear while ignoring the substance of her article, it postures for the benefit of those in positions of wealth and power instead of advocating on behalf of an imperiled art, and it attacks Goodyear’s venue (The New Yorker) in order to escape any obligation to look critically at the house for which Poetry has become the organ. 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.
Orr’s latest outrage will surprise no one and will please only those whose general anti-intellectual bent predisposes them to take joy in seeing a talented writer keel-hauled by an establishment mercenary. So be it. Most people in the world of poetry are aware of the ongoing discourse about Poetry, its foundation, Goodyear’s article, and Orr’s rebuttal. Many will take a fresh look at Poetry itself, and will still find off-gassing there what Joshua Clover in 2002 called “a placid backwater where middlebrow elegies go to die.” 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.