Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Writing/Righting the World

Through a link that Susan Rich posted on Facebook, I got to this article, which would seem to claim to tell us what is wrong with poetry today (today being August 2011, when the article was published).  Here's the opener:  "The truth about American poetry is that it is in very bad shape. The professional poetry establishment has taken care to mark serious criticism coming its way as sour grapes, but the quality of poetry being produced by American poets regularly awarded the highest prizes in the land and recognized as the equals of past masters is not meant to last this pathetic moment of self-absorption and lassitude."

But if you read this article, you may find yourself wondering if you've fallen through a hole in time.  I routinely thought, wait, is it 1982 in this article?  Most of the work that Anis Shivani dissects comes from many decades ago. 

He's most vituperative when discussing the work of Sharon Olds, and his criticisms won't be foreign to feminist scholars:  oh, the body fluids, oh, the pregnancies, oh, the body parts.  Icky, icky, icky!  He claims that Jorie Graham is incomprehensible and Louise Gluck mired in childhood.  He has a bit of praise for Philip Levine before launching into vitriol:  "Unlike Olds, Graham, and Gl├╝ck, Levine does possess some measure of genuine skill."  If you read the following paragraphs, you'll find out that Shivani thinks that all that skill was used up in the early poems.

Again, I wonder where are the younger poets?  I have no problems with discussing the work of poetry elders, but that's scarcely representative of poetry being published and discussed today.  And certainly I would have had less problems with this essay, had it not purported to tell us what was wrong with the poetry world of 2012; it's an essay that explores some of the problems of the poetry world of the late 1970's and 1980's, although I could write a compelling case that those poems were written in response to some of the problems of previous poetry worlds.  Sure, we got a lot of menstruation and childbirth poems, but to readers who had never seen those issues discussed in a poem before, it was thrilling before it got tiresome.

If your reading time is limited, don't waste it by reading this article.  Instead, go to this interview with Nikky Finney, a poet whom Anis Shivani might have included in his discussion of "today's poetry world."  He'd probably find reasons to hate her too, but I found much inspiration in this interview.  For those of you who teach and who wonder if you make a difference, read this interview:  the work you do as a teacher is vital and important!

Finney talks about her childhood and about her parents, who had good jobs, but who were willing to sacrifice if that would speed the pace of social justice and reform:  "I understood very early in my life how important it was to do your day job, whether a plumber or lawyer or a teacher, and also get ready for your other job, that of being willing to put your comfort and safety on the line. There were kind, smart, incredibly loving people all around me who refused to sleep until they did something to try and change some of the strictures that were present in our community. If I ever became a writer I promised myself I would never forget this."

She's a political writer, no doubt, but she also understands the difference between polemic and art:  "I am absolutely politically charged in my life, but I’m also trying to take those things that might be seen as rhetorical, as polemical, and send them through my body and my spirit, and my artistic net, so that when that particular idea comes out through the other side of me it has shape of something both beautiful and  impactful, and the high imaginative notes of something, hopefully, you have never seen or heard before."

She provides an interesting antidote to people like Shivani, who seem to want to do nothing but tear down canonical and non-canonical writers alike:  "I’m not writing to be included in the canon. I’m writing to save something precious. I’m writing to get my pencil dimensionally around my little idea and work it out. Waiting for somebody to invite me to belong to something or be included in something was never my idea of being a part of this thing amazing journey called life. I just want to continue being a creative thinker and doer. I want to keep saving things and making history more inclusive by way of my particular alphabets and word arrangements."

In short this interview with Finney reminded me of why I think poetry is important, why I think poetry can transform the world, why I still have hopes for art forms of all sorts.  She made me want to return to my real work of writing/righting the world.

And this interview makes me so grateful for the Internet.  In pre-Internet times, those of us living away from literary centers wouldn't have been likely to see this interview.  But now, thanks to the ease of distribution, we can.  And happily, we have bloggers like Saeed Jones to alert us to these interviews, the way he did in this post.

Of course, the reason that I know as much about what contemporary poets are doing as I do is also because of the Internet.  I wonder how many web-active poets Anis Shivani follows?  He'd have a window to a very different poetry world if he followed more of us.  Granted, he might not like us any more than he likes the poets of an earlier generation, but his essay wouldn't feel quite as dated.


Sandy Longhorn said...

I confess, I did not finish Shivani's article when I first came across it. What strikes me about his criticism of Olds and Gluck is the attack on content rather than craft. This is what riles the feminist in me. And also makes me question the role of the critic. How much of his/her criticism should be directed to the craft of the poem and how much to the topic?

Thanks for providing Finney!

Kristin said...

Yes, my feminist self was good and riled too. But Finney was a great antidote--glad you enjoyed!