Friday, March 02, 2007

official verse culture

adam fieled's musings prompted me to dig this one out of my sent mail folder -- a letter to the editor of the new york times book review that i guess they are not going to print...

from tmorange
date Feb 14, 2007 12:40 PM
subject David Orr, "Frost on the Edge"

Dear Editors,

David Orr warns us ("Frost on the Edge," February 4) that when the poetry world is divided into opposing experimental and mainstream camps, we risk oversimplifying if not altogether ignoring a major American poet like Robert Frost. True enough; but Mr. Orr does not appear to realize that, like the majority of institutions and players in the field of poetry today, he stacks his deck in favor of the mainstream.

While conceding that Frost's reputation "seems to require periodic reputation-buffing essays from the [mainstream] likes of Randall Jarrell and Seamus Heaney," Orr aims his admonishment primarily at experimentalists. He muses that "had Frost's journals contained... a series of sympathetic and incisive observations about Gertrude Stein's 'Tender Buttons,' he possibly could be made to fit into the American experimental lineage."

Wishful thinking. Frost wrote his daughter Leslie in 1934 lamenting the "aspiration toward brevity and undersaying rather than oversaying [that] has led to the poetry of imitation implication insinuation and innuendo as an object in itself," continuing: "Hart Crane has gone to great lengths here....I suppose Gertrude Stein has come in confluently to encourage the intimators or innuendots. A little of her is fun, but
goes a long way." While not altogether dismissive, hardly the stuff of "sympathetic and incisive observations." Crane of course is another perfect example: a misunderstood experimentalist of his time now widely praised by poets of all stripes, yet recently savaged by William Logan in these very pages.

Usually, the institutions that overwhelmingly support mainstream poetry -- the major trade publishers, the elite print media, the public and private funding agencies, the trade associations, the university degree-granting programs and their faculty hiring committees -- are far more subtle in their disdain for the experimental, a disdain that is naturalized so as to deny both its aesthetic and its ideological underpinnings. Orr himself, unwittingly perhaps, is a party to this: when describing the opposing camps throughout his review, only the word "mainstream" appears in scare quotes, implying that somehow this word is inappropriate or does not apply. Naturally.

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