“Provocative” and “Upsetting”… Yet Somehow Safe for Bourgeois Consumption: Poetry Magazine
As editor of a literary magazine, I receive periodic mail from Poetry, asking for money despite its $100 million drug-financed foundation. Periodically, I stuff the envelope it sends not with money but with a broadside critical of poetry. To date, I have received no response. The poets involved with Poetry magazine, including its editor Christian Wiman, evidently live in safe-house cocoons. They generally have money and security and are often careerist academics.
In the most recent envelope sent by Poetry, an unbelievably nauseating hagiographic two-page essay by Adam Kirsch, “Poetry Magazine’s Rebirth,” was included. Kirsch notes regarding the magazine that “in its fabled early years helped to establish poetry as a serious
n art.” Allow me to replace “serious” with
bourgeois. Well, Kirsch does mention
“stolidly institutional.” Perhaps that
phrase is even more revolting than the term bourgeois in its implication of
being run by literary apparatchiks. It
certainly explains why the magazine’s editor and staff don’t seem to give a
damn about issues of literary ostracizing and censorship, unless of course a
famous poet is concerned. They don’t
give a damn that National Poetry Month ( America ) and Massachusetts Poetry Festival,
for example, refuse to even respond to my requests that the magazine I edit be
included on their lists of literary magazines.
They don’t give a damn that PEN Boston New England refuses to respond to my freedom-of-expression
grievances. They don’t give a damn that the
American Library Association’s “Library Bill of Rights”—specifically article II,
“Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of
view on current and historical issues.l”—is perhaps violated by public
libraries across the country. As an
example, Sturgis Library, the oldest public library in the country, subscribes
to Poetry, but refuses to even accept a free donation to the magazine I
edit, which presents poetry as highly dissident and thus at antipodes to the
highly bourgeois verse presented by the former.
Kirsch goes on to note regarding Poetry that “its age and prestige mean America’s best poets have always been glad to publish there” without questioning in the least what “best” might reply imply (e.g., well-connected, unthreatening to the established order, and academic). Sadly, the “literary fruits” stemming from the monetary load dropped upon Poetry by the famous drug company will simply serve to bolster and otherwise assure the iron-clad bourgeois grip on poetry. As a dissident poet, openly and highly critical of that grip, I was invited only once to read poetry despite my persistent contacting of places that periodically invite poets (e.g., libraries, writing centers, and colleges). That money will serve to make Poetry the prime literary gatekeeper in
And gatekeepers, as we all know, serve as censors, assuring bourgeois
propriety and good taste—just what poetry needs, n’est-ce pas? Yes, that money will indeed put Poetry
at the center of American poetry. America
Kirsch notes regarding the magazine that “it has become one of the most interesting literary periodicals of any kind published today.” But “interesting” is a highly subjective term, not objective. Kirsch bases his evaluation on quantity: from a circulation of
11,000 in 2003 to 27,000. Popularity thus equals “interesting” in his
mind. And that’s fine, but should that
factor be applied to poetry? One could
also wonder, though Kirsch doesn’t, how many of those copies are given away. Money certainly enables Poetry to
reign in regards to circulation.
Kirsch goes on to praise editor Wiman, comparing him to Joshua, though Jesus would probably have been even better. But, well, Wiman has 100 million dollars at his disposal. So, Jesus was out of the question. Thanks to Wiman, we’re informed, “Poetry has done what so few magazines of literary and political opinion ever dare: It has confronted its readers with new, potentially upsetting ideas.” Oh, my! Well, again, he doesn’t have to worry about losing subscribers. But what might constitute “upsetting”? Would this essay be upsetting… or rather too upsetting to publish?
Kirsch tells us that the origins of the new version of the old magazine can be found in Dana Gioia’s 1991 essay “Can Poetry Matter.” Gioia, however, was a poet bureaucrat in charge of the NEA, which is manned and womaned by cultural bureaucrats. Kirsch mentions that the key solution in that essay was to decloister poetry from the confines of academe and to “address and care about the common reader.” Now, that’s a good one. In fact, I wrote a satirical dialogue several years ago on the “common reader.” Somebody had criticized me for not writing for the “common reader.” So I’d asked who the common reader was? Would the common reader understand what I write here? How might I better address the uncommon reader? Should I use common vocabulary and common themes to attract the “common reader’? If so, what were those themes? The notion of a “common reader” is of course absurd. In fact, the “common reader” likely never reads poetry at all and would hardly think of lifting Poetry off of a library shelf. Perhaps he or she would pick up People magazine or the Boston Herald. The “common reader” idea was nothing but a transparent ploy to propagate a veneer that poetry was somehow not in the hands of elite bourgeois poets.
Because of Poetry and other such well-distributed literary magazines like Agni, New Letters, Ploughshares, and on and on, poetry would remain a filler item of the type published in The New Yorker, hardly, in Kirsch’s words, “the highest branch of literature.” The contradictions in Kirsh’s essay are egregious. For Poetry to suggest that the “entrenched institutions of the poetry world are stultifying” is in itself absurd, since Poetry represents one such entrenched institution. Why does Wiman on the one hand decry the professionalizaion of poetry while publishing so many professional poets? Where is the sense in that? Kirsch notes that the poetry in each issue of the magazine is generally of a “high standard” without mentioning what that means or rather implies. And again, one must emphasize safe for bourgeois consumption. Finally, Kirsch notes that Poetry is “intelligently
cative.” Hmm… provo