Sucks to be a Mushroom: in which we read David Orr’s essay on poetic greatness until our hangover goes away

In this weekend’s NYT books section, David Orr weighs in on the sweat-to-brow question of whether Poetic Greatness is suffering–or has already suffered–its Peak Oil moment.

In October, John Ashbery became the first poet to have an edition of his works released by the Library of America in his own lifetime. That honor says a number of things about the state of contemporary poetry — some good, some not so good — but perhaps the most important and disturbing question it raises is this: What will we do when Ashbery and his generation are gone? Because for the first time since the early 19th century, American poetry may be about to run out of greatness.

Yikes. I keep wanting to be annoyed with this essay, and when Orr is throwing out gems like “Poetry has justified itself historically by asserting that no matter how small its audience or dotty its practitioners, it remains the place one goes for the highest of High Art[,]” it’s really hard not to just smack myself in the forehead, except my head already hurts for some seriously non-poetry-related reasons, so I’m going to save all self-flagellation for the repentance session I have scheduled for later this afternoon.

Anyway, despite the basic dopiness of claiming that poetry must at all times seek to obtain capital-i Immortality, and at that only by first obtaining to the status of High Art (whatever that is), Orr actually has some real points to make, and I can’t stay quite as annoyed as I’d like to. For one thing, he busts out this Donald Hall quote from 1983, where Hall, writing in the Kenyon Review, accused “contemporary American poetry” of being “afflicted by modesty of ambition.” I’m with Hall on this one, and with Orr for being with Hall–the fact that a full generation later (Taylor, Justin: b. 1982) nothing much has changed actually lends a lot of credence to Orr’s basic–yet still irritating–claim that perhaps the Poetical Climate Change is in fact irreversible.

Of course, another way to consider this same issue would be to consider poetry’s ever-more-marginal role in the culture not as a loss but as a shift– perhaps even an evolutionary response of the species to its new environment. On the other other hand, I’m also given to wonder whether things were really any different, or if Orr is recalling days of yore that never really existed. When people quote Shelley that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” it seems to me they typically misplace the stress on “legislators,” at the expense of the word in the sentence doing the most work–“unacknowledged.” And why should we want to be legislators of anything, much less the whole world? That whole notion, beneath its immediate surface-charm, stinks something tedious and bureaucratic. You can keep it.

Now, with that complaint entered into the record, let me say that I actually do share Hall’s (and Orr’s) disdain for unambitious poetry. I’m just not sure I see the problem as one of the state of the art. I think at any given time most work of art in a given medium will be unambitious, or else ambitious in all the wrong ways for all the wrong reasons. And let me be the first to say that any right/wrong judgment or success/failure judgment is bound to be at bottom a personal, subjective one. Absolute periplum, and no apology.

My theory is that High Art is hardly ever so often born as it is made–grown into, and especially looked back upon. Robert Burns and Francois Villon come to mind straightaway as examples of popular poetry that ascended bodily into High Art and now there reside forever. Also, of course, Dickinson and Whitman, who were never “low art,” but were totally marginalized and/or unknown in their own lifetimes. Now, of course, they’re the only thing any of us knows or cares to know about 19th century American verse. (How much Longfellow, Whittier and Bryant do YOU read?)

Orr makes a similar point-

What, then, do we assume greatness looks like? There is no one true answer to that question, no neat test or rule, since our unconscious assumptions are by nature unsystematic and occasionally contradictory. Generally speaking, though, the style we have in mind tends to be grand, sober, sweeping — unapologetically authoritative and often overtly rhetorical. It’s less likely to involve words like “canary” and “sniffle” and “widget” and more likely to involve words like “nation” and “soul” and “language.” And the persona we associate with greatness is something, you know, exceptional — an aristocrat, a rebel, a statesman, an apostate, a mad-eyed genius who has drunk from the Fountain of Truth and tasted the Fruit of Knowledge and donned the Beret of. . . . Well, anyway, it’s somebody who takes himself very seriously and demands that we do so as well. Greatness implies scale, and a great poet is a big sensibility writing about big things in a big way.

Obviously, Bishop v. Lowell is coming next, and so it comes. Orr quotes David Wojahn, who said that Lowell was “probably the last American poet to aspire to Greatness in the old- fashioned, capital-G sense.” I just don’t know that that’s true. Changing Light at Sandover, anyone? Dream Songs? Age of Huts (Compleat)? Ben Lerner’s forthcoming book-length poem, Mean Free Path? How about everything Campbell McGrath has ever attempted, not least his forthcoming book-length poem about the Lewis & Clark expedition? Or this outsize, tiny bizarre thing that Tao Lin has taken to making out of his life? We can sit around all day and argue over which of these works–if any–obtain the Grail of their quest, but I think the fact of their (and their authors) aspiring toward greatness is more or less undeniable.

Okay, here’s a quote I like. Orr writes that

Bishop was a great poet, if we take “great” to mean something like “demonstrating the qualities that make poetry seem interesting and worthwhile to such a degree that subsequent practitioners of the art form have found her work a more useful resource than the work of most if not all of her peers.” But our assumptions about how greatness should look, like our assumptions about how people should look, are more subtle and stubborn than we realize.

Right and right, I think. Okay, so moving on– blah blah more Lowell, blah blah more Bishop, ambivalent William Logan cameo, blah blah…

Which brings us to the point I mentioned earlier about the structure of the poetry world. Greatness isn’t simply a matter of potentially confusing concepts; it’s also a practical question about who gets to decide what about whom.

Ooh, now we’re getting somewhere!

For most of the 20th century, the poetry world resembled a country club. One had to know the right people; one had to study with the right mentors. The system began to change after the G.I. Bill was introduced (making a university-level poetic education possible for more people), and that change accelerated in the 1970s, as creative writing programs began to flourish. In 1975, there were 80 such programs; by 1992, there were more than 500, and the accumulated weight of all these credentialed poets began to put increasing pressure on poetry’s old system of personal relationships and behind-the-scenes logrolling.

Peak blurb oil!

It’s more of a guild now than a country club. This change has brought with it certain virtues, like greater professionalism and courtesy. One could argue that it also made the poetry world more receptive to writers like Bishop, whose style is less hoity-toity than, say, Eliot’s. But the poetry world has also acquired new vices, most notably a tedious careerism that encourages poets to publish early and often… Consequently, it’s not hard to feel nostalgic for the way things used to be; or at least, the way we imagine they used to be. And this nostalgia often manifests as a preference for a particular kind of “greatness.”

Yes, yes, yes. But don’t get settled yet, because orr isn’t going to stick with this theme. Instead, click through to page 3 on your screen for a very rough transition into a bizarre quasi-nativist screed about the “peculiar development in American poetry that has more or less paralleled the growth of creative-writing programs: the lionization of poets from other countries, especially countries in which writers might have the opportunity to be, as it were, shot.” Orr rags on Robert Pinsky for claiming that Czeslaw Milosz’s “laughter had the counter-authority of human intelligence, triumphing over the petty-minded authority of a regime.” “That’s one hell of a chuckle,” writes Orr. And yeah, the sentiment’s pretty windy, but no more or less than the average poetry blurb, and since Pinsky seems to have been talking about the man and not the work, why not let it slide? You should hear what people say about each other at weddings–to say nothing of funerals. You’d think we were all demi-gods, &c.

Oh, but we may as well let Orr make his point, right?

The problem isn’t that Pinsky likes and admires Milosz; it’s that he can’t hear a Polish poet snortle without having fantasies about barricades and firing squads. He’s by no means alone in that. Many of us in the American poetry world have a habit of exalting foreign writers while turning them into cartoons. […] How else, really, to explain the reverse condescension that allows us to applaud pompous nonsense in the work of a Polish poet that would be rightly skewered if it came from an American? Milosz, for instance, wrote many fine poems, but he was also regularly congratulated for lines like: “What is poetry which does not save / Nations or people? / A connivance with official lies, / A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment, / Readings for sophomore girls.” Any sophomore girl worth her copy of “A Room of One’s Own” would kick him in the shins.

Again, I think Orr’s onto something with this. That Milosz poem he quotes is awful–it’s naive, clunky, and yes, sexist. We’ve all witnessed the phenomenon of the fetishized foreign poet (*cough*Valzhyna Mort*cough*), whose reviews are all positive, and centered squarely on biography, with the work itself mentioned as an after-thought or else met only with decorous silence. But here’s the problem: he may be funny and he may be right, but I’m still not convinced that this particular sub-topic is relevant to Orr’s primary subject. As I’m so often forced to explain to my English 101 students: David, you would have done better to focus on the primary theme and push your analysis further, rather than bouncing from topic to topic. I’m looking for an original thesis and a compelling argument, not an exhaustive summary of the assigned reading.

Well, as my students know (they better), a strong conclusion may re-inforce or recap the points made in the essay, but it’s main job is to push the argument that final step forward, to introduce the new, great idea which is the result of all the hard work you did throughout the course of the paper. Not gild for the lily, but the keystone for the bridge. And Orr, I’m happy to report, nails it bigtime-

It may be starting to sound as if greatness isn’t all that great; that it’s simply another strategy for concealing predictable prejudices that poets should forswear on their path to becoming wise and tolerant 21st-century artists. That is, however, almost the opposite of the truth. … When we lose sight of greatness, we cease being hard on ourselves and on one another; we begin to think of real criticism as being “mean” rather than as evidence of poetry’s health; we stop assuming that poems should be interesting to other people and begin thinking of them as being obliged only to interest our friends — and finally, not even that. Perhaps most disturbing, we stop making demands on the few artists capable of practicing the art at its highest levels. Instead, we cling to the ground in those artists’ shadows — John Ashbery’s is enormous at this point — and talk about how rich the darkness is and how lovely it is to be a mushroom. This doesn’t help anyone.

He’s right–and this is a great way to bring it all back home. I dig Ashbery, but we’ve all been behaving for far too long as if poetry stopped when he stopped–a formulation that’s especially bizarre since Ashbery hasn’t stopped and doesn’t seem as if he means to anytime soon. It’s great that he’s got his Library of America edition–hell, it’s great that we’ve got it–but there’s still more on Heaven and Earth than’s dreamed of in his etc.

There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of Ashbery, which causes young poets to view his personal style as a genre or mode that’s free for the joining, because it’s fun and looks like it’s easy, while at the same time viewing his status as a sort of terminal point or high-water mark: ooh he wrote a book that won the awards trifecta; ooh he’s in his 80s and appearing on MtvU.

In the post-Peak Poetry Status world, we will seek status from alternative sources, such as geo-thermal and wind. The main difficulty with these status technologies lies in transmitting status from the site of production to the status grid.

What this looks like to me is a basic case of crossed wires. Take whatever you want from Ashbery–pleasure, lessons, tricks; his work is a vast treasure-house, after all–but understand that a poet’s personal style is always a terminal point. Making a genre out of Ashbery is a mistake, and it’s a mistake that’s been happening for a generation now, and it’s a mistake that only ever leads to one thing: watered-down, derivative pseudo-Ashbery. (The same goes for Tao Lin’s legion of ditto-heads, though smart money says that crew won’t get its hands on enough keys to enough academic buildings to ever cause anybody any real trouble.)

The best way to understand Ashbery is as the lion in the path–love him or lump him, there he is. But let’s assume that you are an admirer, that you understand the Ashbery-lion in the same way that Beckett understood Joyce, which was later the way Barthelme understood Beckett. A majestic, noble creation, beautiful to behold and terrifying in its power: you admire it, you get as close as you can to it, you want to see it, after all, and then you run in the other direction before it eats you the fuck up. Because that’s what greatness does if you let it–consumes you, defeats you, rips your head off and feasts on your insides. (How many times has a book you truly loved left you feeling melancholy, because you came away from it feeling like you’d never write anything as powerful? This is how I feel whenever I read Woolf’s The Waves.)

It’s not Ashbery’s style you want to aspire to–that’s been done, and now done and done–it’s his status. Why isn’t greatness possible? Are you saying you can’t wake up every day God gives you, and on that day do your absolute best to produce the best work you’re capable of producing? Are you saying you can’t write a book as good as Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror? You know what? Maybe you can’t. But there’s only one way to find out. The goal is not to sneak by the lion, or feed him enough meat that he lets you pass. Neither is it to sit down in the path at a safe distance and watch the lion as it goes about its business. The goal is to become the lion– let the next guy see you sitting there, and turn tail for fear of his life.

Greatness is hungry.
Greatness is hungry.