Shoot the Messenger
Casteen, John, The Virginia Quarterly Review
Dana Goodyear, David Orr, and the Stewards of Poetry
When Dana Goodyear's New Yorker piece on Poetry magazine and the Poetry Foundation appeared in March, many poets and readers felt a profound sense of gratitude to her. It came as a tremendous relief to find a writer as articulate and credible as Goodyear leveling the criticisms many of us have been developing privately for several years: that Ruth Lilly's gift to the magazine is being squandered by managers with little imagination and no apparent sense of purpose or history; that the current editorial regime has lessened the magazine by making uninspired choices for the front of the magazine (poems) and vindictive ones for the back (reviews); and that many talented writers, whether new to publishing or well established, may smell decay between Poetry's pages and choose as a result to send their best work elsewhere.
We expected a lively rebuke from the general direction of Poetry's Chicago offices-and were only partially disappointed. David Orr, writing for the New York Times Sunday Book Review, is an especially well chosen mouthpiece; he has helped define the magazine's critical direction under editor Christian Wiman, and his prose contributions to it are among the chief exemplars of what's demonstrably wrong with that direction. Poetry forgot the critic's role along about the time its editors fell in love with the sound of William Logan's voice, and in recent years most readers have found greater interest-albeit a tabloid, rubbernecking-after-a-car-crash interest-in its predictable prose than in its predictable verse. It has become the place for those who'd want to see Jeff Clark (the poet) compared to Kim Jong Il (the demagogue), who'd enjoy a public evisceration of Franz Wright in the Letters section, who'd find value in a review of Derek Walcott that condemns his body of work without discussing his poems, and so on.
Wiman's stable of writers-Orr, Dan Chiasson, and Peter Campion chief among them-generally are brilliant and intense prose stylists-thoughtful, erudite and well-read thinkers, and passionate writers of clear rhetoric. That is to say, they resemble Logan. Also, like Logan, with some commendable exceptions, their work tends toward the arrogant, masturbatory, spiteful, bombastic, and mean-spirited hatchet job. Moreover, it shares his tendency to ape the shallowest qualities of Randall Jarrell's writing, and ultimately to fail as criticism for the same reasons Jarrell and Logan fail. Poetry's reviews are very good at doing something literary magazines should not do: they tell readers exactly why they should dislike poetry and mistrust the intentions of poets.
Critics don't work for editors. It's not their job to sell magazines. They work for poetry, for their readers generally, and for their one perfect reader: the poet. The critic should approach the blank page with the humility appropriate to a task that will never be as noteworthy or necessary as its subject. …