Poetry Wars

Mary Karr
Mary Karr

Poet and author Mary Karr really stirred the pot last week when she dropped a truth bomb on The New Yorker, and one of the most revered member of the poetry establishment.

On her Facebook page, Mary offered made her friends a hilarious offer:

“A thousand bux to anybody who can explain this dopey Ashbery twaddle. He makes no sense & gets raved about by all the literati. Wins every prize. Nice guy. Waste of time. Snap out of it @NewYorker ‪#‎theemperorhasnoclothes”

The poet she’s calling out is John Ashbery, who has indeed won every major American poetry honor, including the Pulitzer.

The poem Mary points to is “Dangerous Asylum,” published in The New Yorker’s January 18 edition.

The New Yorker's taste in poetry has been questioned
The New Yorker’s taste in poetry has been questioned.

Good for Mary! This poem is an example of the opaque word sausage that gives modern poetry a bad name. I don’t mind working a little bit to understand a poem.  But there needs to be a payoff, or I feel cheated. After reading “Dangerous Asylum,” my primary insight is that “well, that’s 3 minutes of my life that I will never get back.”

If the point is that life is absurd, we are all alone, and we will never be able to truly know one another, there are more beautiful, more elegant, more engaging, more efficient, and more effective ways to say it.

Mary’s Facebook post stimulated tons of comments.  They ranged from gratitude to her for calling bullshit, to expressions of envy of Ashbery’s success.

One commenter blamed the whole sorry situation on the privilege of “conservative men” with “old ideas.”  (Not sure that’s quite it.  I’m a pretty conservative man with old ideas, and I don’t care for the poem either.)

My favorite comment:  Cool kid poetry to inspire feelings of cluelessness.”

I do not know the poet’s heart.  Mary calls him a “nice guy,” but if his poetry is any indication (and by their works ye shall judge them), he’s saying “I’m smarter and more hip than you.  I’m a member of an exclusive inner circle you’ll never be a part of.”

If that’s really what’s going on here, I hate it.

Now, I prefer poems that make connections, that stir up courage and hope, that evoke fear and pity.

I understand there may even be a time and place for poems of alienation, despair and disgust.  At least they make me feel something interesting.

In the end, perhaps, the worst reaction a poem can get is not alienation, despair or disgust, but, rather, indifference.  If you are writing to make me feel clueless, insignificant, or inferior … I will stop wasting my time on you.

I strive to write poems that would touch my own heart.  You can see some examples on this blog.

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Bobby Ball

I love poetry. But I'm picky. No one pays me to read and write poems. It's more of a labor of love. I guess that puts me in good company. This is a project to discover why some poems strike you deep, deep down, while others leave you cold. I've got some ideas, and I'm eager to learn. I'll show you some of mine. Maybe we'll learn something new.

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