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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Sara Teasdale
Sara Teasdale

Yesterday, in response to the post about love not always working out, I received a great recommendation from a friend.

I was introduced to poet Sara Teasdale. (Where had she been all my life?)

She was popular with the public and many critics, though others called her work “unsophisticated.  Which means she and I will get along just fine.

Though not considered a major poet, she was popular and good enough to win the first Columbia Prize for Poetry in 1918, would later become the Pulitzer Poetry Prize.

She had a troubles in love, dating poet Vachel Lindsay before marrying another man.  Years later, she divorced and rekindled her ill-fated love affair with Lindsay, who was married by this time, himself.

Things didn’t work out. Lindsay died by suicide in 1931. Teasdale took her own life two years later.

Her wonderful “tell-off” poem, “I Shall Not Care,” was rumored to have been a suicide note to the deceased Lindsay. But it was written years before. It is heart-breaking and wickedly good.

I Shall not Care

When I am dead and over me bright April
Shakes out her rain-drenched hair,
Tho’ you should lean above me broken-hearted,
I shall not care.

I shall have peace, as leafy trees are peaceful
When rain bends down the bough,
And I shall be more silent and cold-hearted
Than you are now.