Notes on a Review by an Established-Order CriticPhilip Kennicott, critic for the Washington Post, manifests a certain “normal” inability to viscerally question and challenge. In his reportage of the “Poetic Likeness” exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, he notes “many famous poets” are not included without even wondering or caring why all non-famous poets are not included. Fame, he at least seems to recognize though half-heartedly, does not necessarily equal greatness (whatever that might be in the realm of poetry). But he seems incapable of realizing that not famous can mean not necessarily bad.
Kennicott notes “celebrity poet” Maya Angelou was not included in the exhibit, though she recited at Clinton’s 1993 inauguration. He doesn’t seem to grasp that poets invited by presidents clearly translates into poets innocuous to presidents. He, of course, does not wonder how innocuous seems to be a trait shared by many, if not most good or even great poets.
He notes the fellow who created the exhibit included with the photos or paintings texts that were “deliciously indulgent,” as if the writing were a Twinkie. And perhaps indeed that would sum up the bulk of bourgeois poets and poet critics. Kennicott includes a couple of lines from Gertrude Stein to back his Twinkie observation: “Very fine is my valentine./Very fine and very mine./Very mine is my valentine very mine and very fine.” Well, to be fair, at least he characterizes those lines as “typically infantile doggerel,” though mentions that the curator Ward had said, “If I submitted that to the New Yorker I wouldn’t have to wait for the return mail to know the response.” Apparently, Ward does not know the New Yorker, which would have probably eagerly published those lines, considering the fame element. Kennicott, of course, fails to challenge Ward with regards the bulk of New Yorker published poetry, which seems to be representative of typical bourgeois doggerel. Off limits: any poetry apt to question and challenge the poetry establishment and its academically cocooned fluffy icons.
“Spoken like a poet, which in fact Ward is,” remarks Kennicott, failing to add the qualifier bourgeois. “Publicity and poetry went hand in hand, albeit uncomfortably, throughout the period,” he notes, failing to underscore that such has evidently gotten worse today, where poets of renown have websites dedicated to themselves and more often than not totally devoid of unique thought and ideas. He also fails to underscore that the “self-mythologizing pioneered by Whitman” is no longer even necessary today, for an entire network of mythologizing machinery exists from the Academy of Academic (uh, American) Poets and Poetry Foundation to the Library of Congress. “Many of the names included are now fading into obscurity, even former poets laureate Howard Nemerov and Richard Wilbur,” notes Kennicott. Well, let us then rejoice!
Finally, Kennicott concludes regarding the exhibit: “’Poetic Likeness’ emphasizes something essential about poetry — that it is dynamic and ongoing, and that its fundamental appeal is to the part of our brain that likes fine distinctions.” As I tell my students, avoid using WE and OUR, for exceptions will always exist… thankfully. What “Poetic Likeness” sadly seems to emphasize and seeks to push is nothing but base celebrity in the hope of somehow keeping the mythology of the poet as inflated as possible. Wouldn’t it be far more interesting to create an exhibit that highlighted poets who actually stood up on their hind legs to speak rude truth against the bourgeois poetry machine that seeks to keep poetry as a coopted intellectual diversion, as opposed to a form of written combat against the corruption drowning the nation.